Reformer or autocrat? As President Assad of Syria battles to remain in power, Simon Cox examines how a doctor trained in London with a British wife became an Arab head of state.
Bashar al-Assad of Syria is facing a serious challenge to his rule in the form of widespread political protest across the country. Simon Cox examines how instead of training to be an eye doctor in London he was thrust into the role of leader of an Arab state in the of a political storm. Had his brother not died, Bashar would almost certainly have been destined for a quiet life outside politics and far from the spotlight.
He came to power in 2000 on a wave of hope for political and economic reform. Under his leadership, the country underwent a degree of relaxation, with hundreds of political prisoners being released and a few tentative steps towards easing media restrictions.
But the pace of change has slowed - if not reversed - and President Assad has made clear his priority is economic rather than political reform. The Syrian leader's vocal opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq prompted US anger, but it was popular in Syria and in the region. His administration has also come under fire for its alleged support for Palestinian militants and insurgents in Iraq. For Syria's security services and army, the ruling Baath Party and the massive state bureaucracies, Mr Assad represents stability and continuity after the 30-year rule of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Some observers believe an old guard with entrenched interests may be holding back the young leader. Others say Mr Assad is firmly in the driving seat. So how much do we know about the real character of the man - is he reformer or autocrat?
Presenter: Simon Cox
Producer: Ian Muir-Cochrane.