The world welcomed him as a potential pioneer of reform in autocratic Syria.
But, more than a decade after Bashar al-Assad took office, those hopes have largely been dashed.
Following a short-lived “Damascus Spring” in which Bashar briefly tolerated political debates criticising the regime, he cracked down on opponents.
It was 2000 when the softly-spoken British-trained eye doctor succeeded his hardline father Hafez, known for his intolerance of dissent.
Diplomats say resistance from the late al-Assad’s “old guard” has slowed the political liberalisation promised by his son.
Their Baath Party seized power in Syria nearly 50 years ago. Since 1963, emergency laws have been used to stifle opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to a pervasive security apparatus.
A leading Baath Party member, high-ranking military man then defence minister, al-Assad senior led a peaceful coup in 1970. He become Syria’s president the following year. Over the next three decades, he ruled with an iron fist and refused to bend in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
To perpetuate his dynasty, Hafez al-Assad had groomed his son Basil for power. But when Basil died in a car crash in 1994, a younger son, Bashar, was forced to return to Damascus from London where he had been studying.
He and his wife, a glamourous former investment banker, give every impression of modernity in a Syria that in many ways has stood still.
In 2007, Bashar won a referendum, giving him a second seven-year term. The poll was seen as a sham by opponents, critics and the United States.
Grievances against the authorities in the Syria he presides are many. They include corruption, the dominance of Assad’s minority Alawites over the Sunni Muslim majority, economic hardship and a rising cost of living.