The Baath Party remains in control of the parliament, and is constitutionally the "leading party" of the state. Until he became President, Bashar al-Assad was not greatly involved in Syrian politics; his only political role was as head of the Syrian Computer Society, which was mainly in charge of introducing the Internet to Syria in 2001.
Al-Assad was confirmed as President by an unopposed referendum in 2001. He was expected to bring a more liberal approach to the leadership than his father. In an interview he stated that he saw democracy in Syria as 'a tool to a better life' but then argued that it would take time for democracy to come about and that it could not be rushed . At best, politically and economically, Syria life has changed only slightly since 2000. Immediately after he took office a reform movement made cautious advances during the so-called Damascus Spring, and al-Assad seemed to accept this, shutting down the Mezze prison and releasing hundreds of political prisoners. The Damascus Spring, however, ground to an abrupt halt as security crackdowns commenced again within the year.
Although al-Assad rules with a softer touch than his father, political freedoms are still extremely curtailed. He resembles his father in many ways but is more subtle in reducing opposition. In an interview conducted with the ABC News he stated: "We don't have such [things as] political prisoners," yet The New York Times reported the arrest of 30 political prisoners in Syria as recently as December 2007 .
Economic liberalization in Syria has been limited with industry still heavily state-controlled. Changes to the Syrian economy have included the introduction of private banking and the encouragement of foreign involvement, most notably in the oil sector. The need for a diversification of the economy has been pressed for by some as it has been predicted that Syria will change from exporting to having to import oil by 2015. The reliance upon oil is reflected by manufacturing exports representing only 3.1 per cent of Syria’s GDP . These issues are especially relevant as Syria’s population is predicted to more than double to over 34 million by 2050 . There have been mild economic sanctions (the Syria Accountability Act) applied by the United States which further complicate the situation. Of major importance are the negotiations for a free trade association agreement with the European Union.
Al-Assad has failed to drastically modernize or liberalize the Syrian public sector. According to Acram al-Bouni, a Syrian journalist, he has used the reliance of a vast amount of the population, al-Bouni estimates 50%, upon employment by the state as a means to maintain power. With a large number of people on the state payroll it is less likely resistance movements will form as income from their employment is, “the only thing they have…They fear change” .
Despite gaining re-election in 2007, al-Assad’s position has been considered by some to have been weakened by the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon following the ‘Cedar Revolution’ in 2005. There has also been pressure from the US concerning claims that Syria is linked to ‘terrorist’ networks - an argument fact that can only be exacerbated by official Syrian condemnation of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah military leader in Damascus on February 12th 2008. The Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majeed stated that, "Syria, which condemns this cowardly terrorist act, expresses condolences to the martyr family and to the Lebanese people” .
Assad still holds a vast amount of power within Syria and no significant political changes seem forthcoming in the immediate future. Jouejati argues that economic reforms have the potential to lead to political reforms. How the President deals with the expected financial crisis as oil revenues decrease could be key to maintaining his position of power.
Assad opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite a long-standing animosity between the Syrian and Iraqi governments, a decision that reflected the will of the majority of his people in his country. Assad used Syria's seat in one of rotating positions on the United Nations Security Council to try and prevent the invasion of Iraq The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the accusation of Syrian involvement, and support for anti-Israeli groups, helped precipitate a crisis in relations with the United States.
Assad was criticized for Syria's presence in Lebanon (which ended in 2005), and the US put Syria under sanctions partly because of this. He threatened many members of the Lebanese parliament in order to enforce the illegal accession of the pro-Syrian General Émile Lahoud to the Lebanese presidency in 1998.
In the Arab world, Assad has mended relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. But relations with many Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia, have been deteriorating. This is in part due to Assad's continued intervention in Lebanon, and in part due to his alliance with Iran.
Around the time of the 2008 South Ossetia war, Assad made an official visit to Russia. In an interview with the Russian TV channel Вести, he asserted that one cannot separate the events in the Caucasus from the US presence in Iraq, which he condemned as a "...direct threat to [Syria's] security...".
Assad has repeatedly condemned the Hariri assassination. He strongly denies any Syrian involvement and has promised to extradite or punish anyone found guilty of participating in the conspiracy to kill Hariri. Assad has refused to be questioned himself or for other high-ranking Syrian officials to be questioned by the special UN prosecutor in connection to Hariri's murder. In summation, the Hariri affair has proved the most pressing crisis for the Syrian government in decades, possibly since Hafez al-Assad seized power.
The Assad family are members of the minority Alawite sect, and members of that group have been prominent in the governmental hierarchy and army since 1963 when the Baath Party first came to power. Their origins are to be found in the Latakia region of north-west Syria. Bashar's family is originally from Qardaha, just east of Latakia. "Al Assad (or Asad)" means "the lion" in Arabic.
Officially a Republic, Syria is under Emergency Law since 1963 and governed by the Baath Party; the head of state since 1970 has been a member of the Assad family.
Family connections are presently an important part of Syrian politics. Several close family members of Hafez al-Assad have held positions within the government since his rise to power. Most of the al-Assad and Makhlouf families have also grown tremendously wealthy, and parts of that fortune have reached their Alawite tribe in Qardaha and its surroundings.
The following is a list of some of Bashar's most prominent relatives:
Assad is married to Asma (Emma) Assad, nee Akhras, a Syrian Sunni Muslim from Acton (west London) whom he met in the United Kingdom, where she was born and raised. They married in December 2000. On December 3, 2001, they became the parents of their first-born child, named Hafez after his late grandfather. Zein was born on November 5, 2003, and Karim on December 16, 2004.