Bashar al-Assad 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.
Assad's opposition to the Iraq war was popular in the region
As a result, Damascus has come under increasing international pressure.
It has been under fire for its continued presence in Lebanon and for its alleged support for Palestinian militants and insurgents in Iraq.
Tensions escalated after the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut - many critics have blamed Syria for his death.
The uneasy relationship between the US and Syria has led many to believe Syria could be the next target for the Bush administration.
Under intense international pressure, Syria has said it will redeploy 14,000 of its troops and intelligence officers in Lebanon, and will leave the country before a general election in May.
But the move falls short of the immediate withdrawal called for in United Nations resolution 1559. Critics say Mr Assad does not understand the extent of international disapproval.
Mr Assad has tried to insulate himself against the building pressure.
Syria's continued presence in Lebanon is an irritant for the US
He has sought to improve relations with Egypt and Turkey, and floated the idea of talks with the Israel on the occupied Golan Heights.
While the Syrian leader's vocal opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq prompted US anger, it was popular in Syria and in the region.
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.
Stepping into the spotlight
Bashar al-Assad's life was changed dramatically in 1994 by the death of his older brother Basil in a car crash. Basil was being groomed for the highest office.
Had his brother not died, Bashar would almost certainly have been destined for a quiet life outside politics and far from the spotlight.
Between 1988 and 1992 he studied ophthalmology at the Tishrin military hospital in Damascus, before going to London for further studies as an eye doctor.
Analysts say the Syrian old guard may be holding the president back
After the death of his brother, Mr Assad was hastily recalled from London.
He entered the military academy at Homs, north of Damascus, and rose through the ranks to become a colonel in January 1999.
In the last years of his father's life, Mr Assad emerged as an advocate of modernisation and the internet. He was also put in charge of a domestic anti-corruption drive.
Flirting with reforms
Since coming to power in June 2000, President Assad has released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed the first independent newspapers for more than three decades to begin publishing.
For a while, the authorities also allowed a group of intellectuals pressing for democratic reforms to hold public political meetings.
These meetings were later largely closed down or refused licences, and the independence of the press is limited.
Hafez al-Assad was in power for 30 years and still casts a long shadow
Dissidents have continued to face arrest and harassment, and human rights groups say there are approximately 800 political prisoners in Syrian jails.
But in another symbol of openness, two internet cafes have opened in Damascus.
However, these are government-run and the authorities still control what sites Syrians can access.
President Assad has made clear his priority is economic rather than political reform, in a country that has a great deal in common with the dictatorships of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Syria's once-closed economy is creaking slowly open. There are plans for private banks for the first time in decades.
However, many Syrians still complain of rampant corruption, and the much-trumpeted official anti-corruption drive has met resistance in the government bureaucracies.
Some observers believe an old guard with entrenched interests may be holding back the young leader.
But Syrian politics is still played out very much behind the scenes, and it is hard to see what is actually going on.
Other observers say Mr Assad is firmly in the driving seat, but that he is moving slowly in order to keep powerful institutions behind him and to try to ensure stability.