When Bashar al-Assad became ruler of Syria by referendum after his father's death, he delivered an inaugural speech that shocked even his fiercest critics.
He pledged to establish democratic rule in Syria: "We must have our own democratic experience, which will result in strong democratic institutions that will resist all instability," the then 34-year-old Syrian ruler said in Damascus in July of 2000.
However, for reform-minded Syrians, the promise of Mr. al-Assad's rule has been hollow, with his regime using increasingly bloody tactics to suppress any hint of opposition.
Yesterday, after a speech in which he described protests against his government as a foreign conspiracy, analysts found no evidence of the shy, soft-spoken ophthalmologist who once promised greater liberty for his people.
Instead they saw his father, Hafez al-Assad, an iron-willed military man who ruled Syria for three decades.
"This is a speech his father might have given," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "He did talk about the people who had been killed and he said this was a bad thing … But then he laid down the law … The opposition says his mask is stripped away. He's not a reformer. He is his father."
Mr. al-Assad is an accidental President, chosen by his father to succeed him after his elder, more gregarious brother, Basil, died in a car crash in 1994. Bashar, an awkward, introverted medical student immersed in his studies in London, was swiftly returned to Damascus and thrust into the spotlight.
In a recent interview with Vogue magazine, published in February, Mr. al-Assad said he was drawn to eye surgery "because it's very precise, it's almost never an emergency and there's very little blood."
He had planned to open a medical practice. Instead, he joined the military and rose through the ranks to become a colonel. After Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000, Syria's parliament lowered the minimum required age for candidates to 34 from 40 to allow Bashar to become president.
Many Syrians saw Bashar's ascendancy as a departure from the harsh rule of his father. He cast himself as an advocate of modernization, pushing for more Internet access in Syria. He also led a domestic anti-corruption drive, and pushed for the opening of the economy.
He married Asma Akhras, the British-born daughter of a Syrian cardiologist and diplomat. Syrians considered her their Princess Diana. Together, the couple embodied the image of a secular, modern Syria.
As President, Bashar al-Assad attempted to introduce some reforms before backing off. He purged much of the "old guard" from power in Syria. Under his rule, the country has also become increasingly isolated from the West.
The Bush administration criticized his regime for its close relationship with Iran. Washington accused the Assad regime of destabilizing the region by sending jihadists to Iraq and also funnelling arms and weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Bush administration charged him with fomenting terror against Israel. Mr. al-Assad opposed the U.S. war in Iraq and imposed a term extension for then-Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, viewed as a Syrian puppet.
The move was seen as a power play in Lebanon and triggered Lebanese Prime Minister Rafkik Hariri's decision to step down and join the opposition.
Shortly after, Mr. Hariri was killed in a 2005 Beirut car-bomb attack. His assassination was blamed on Syria and fuelled large protests in Beirut that prompted Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after nearly three decades of occupation.
Mr. al-Assad has denied any involvement in Mr. Hariri's assassination, but the episode drew comparisons between him and the iron-fisted tactics of his father.
The Syrian ruler has argued that regional unrest and Western efforts to isolate the country have forced him to postpone his promised reforms. It was an argument that he echoed, in his speech yesterday.
"He basically said the choice is not between me and democracy, which is what the West believes. The choice is between me and civil war," Mr. Landis said. "I think that Bashar al-Assad has won this round. Because the nation is frightened of civil war."
Editor's Note: An earlier online version and the original newspaper version of this article incorrectly stated that former Lebanese prime minister Rafkik Hariri was killed in a 2003 Beirut car-bomb attack. The date has been corrected to 2005 in this online version.