Bashar Assad

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Australia's SBS news channel

Bashar Assad is the current president of Syria as well as the Regional Secretary of the country's Ba'ath Party.

The son of late Syrian president Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad was chosen by his father as successor only after the untimely death of his older brother, Bassel. At the time, Bashar Assad was completing his ophthalmology training in London, and his father was worried that his son's lack of experience in state affairs would eventually spell the end of the Ba'ath party's 30-year reign in Syria.

Bashar, who is also a colonel in the Syrian military, assumed into the role of president in June 2000. One of his first acts as president was to release dozens of political prisoners from Syrian jails, a move that many hoped would be only the first in a series of actions that would lead Syria closer to reform and perhaps toward better relations with the West. A year later, however, Syrian security forces resumed a crackdown on political dissent inside the country.

Regarding his views on Israel, immediately upon entering office Assad stated his support for a Hezbollah presence on Israel's border with Lebanon, repeated his calls for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and expressed his support for the Palestinian use of violence against Israel.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Assad regime was accused by the United States of allowing Jihadist fighters to enter Iraq through Syria. Assad also ignored repeated calls by Washington to end support for Hezbollah, and prevent Palestinian terror groups from operating on Syrian territory. All this, combined with his alliance with Iran, signaled swiftly deteriorating Syrian-U.S. relations.

The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, for which Syria was largely blamed, was the final straw that prompted Washington to pull its ambassador from Damascus.

Assad denied that Syria had been involved in the assassination, but a wave of Lebanese hostility sparked by the assassination of the much-loved former leader added to pressure on Syria to pull its troops from Lebanon after almost 30 years.

Despite the removal of troops, however, the Assad regime continues to play a role in Lebanese affairs, primarily through the continued support for Hezbollah, which Israel alleges is receiving arms from Damascus. Following the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, Assad hailed the Shi'ite group's “victory” and condemned other Arab leaders for not supporting the militant organization against Israel.

Despite initial predictions that the politically inexperienced Assad would struggle to maintain a grip on power, the opposite appears to be true. Nonetheless, some pundits have speculated that Assad is merely a figurehead for the Ba'ath regime, and that Syrian policies are actually formed by others.

Bashar Assad is married to Asma Assad, a British-born Sunni Muslim from London, where the two met and she was raised. They have three children, the oldest named for his grandfather, Hafez.