The Syrian Arab Republic
President: Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad would probably have been working as an optician had his brother not died in a car accident in 1994.
President Bashar al-Assad with his wife AsmaThe death of Basil - groomed to succeed his father, President Hafez al-Assad - catapulted the younger brother into politics, and into the presidency after his father died in June 2000.
During his six-year political apprenticeship, Bashar al-Assad completed his military training, met Arab and other leaders and got to know the movers and shakers in Syrian politics.
On taking office he ushered in a brief period of openness and cautious reform. Political prisoners were released and restrictions on the media were eased. Political debate was tolerated and open calls for freedom of expression and political pluralism were made.
But the pace of change alarmed the establishment - the army, the Baath party and the Alawite minority. Fearing instability and perceiving a threat to their influence, they acted not only to slow it down, but to revert to the old ways.
A referendum in 2007 endorsed Bashar al-Assad as president for a second seven-year term. He was the only candidate.
Cracks in the tightly controlled political edifice began to appear in early 2011, in the wake of the "Arab Spring" wave of popular dissent that swept across North Africa and the Middle East.
Following successful uprisings against authoritarian rule in Egypt and Tunisia, demonstrations that would only months earlier have seemed unthinkable were held in Damascus and several other cities, leading to bloody repression by the security forces.
President Assad appeared to make some concessions to the demonstrators in April 2011, by lifting of the state of emergency of nearly 50 years and sacking the government. He angered many by accusing protesters of acting on behalf of Israel.
Bashar al-Assad was born in 1965, the third of President Hafez al-Assad's children. He studied in Damascus and London. Shy and private, he was brought up outside the political spotlight, seemingly destined for a quiet life.
President Bashar al-Assad with his wife Asma