(Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, 45, gave his first speech on Wednesday since anti-government protesters took to the streets nearly two weeks ago.
Here are some key facts about Assad:
— The world welcomed the British-trained eye doctor in 2000 as a potential pioneer of reform in autocratic Syria.
— The soft-spoken Assad took office after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who brooked no dissent and refused to bend in the Arab-Israeli conflict for 30 years.
— Assad did appoint a cabinet at the end of 2001 packed with Western-trained technocrats in economic portfolios charged with developing a modern financial system to draw in foreign investors.
— The most visible result was legislation to ease financial restrictions and establish private banks.
— In 2003, Assad reshuffled the cabinet citing disappointment with the pace of reform. He made more changes in 2004.
— In 2007 Assad won a referendum that gave him a second seven-year term as president. The poll was considered by opponents, critics and the United States to be a sham.
— He has said he is willing to resume peace talks with Israel, insisting on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights occupied in 1967, while continuing to position Syria as a self-declared champion of Arab resistance to the Jewish state.
— Under Assad, Syria has been Iran’s closest Arab ally, a major force in Lebanon, and a supporter of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.
— The Baath Party, which seized power nearly 50 years ago, has governed under emergency laws and banned all opposition. Other grievances against authorities include the dominance of Assad’s minority Alawites over the Sunni Muslim majority, corruption, economic hardship and a rising cost of living.
— On Tuesday, Assad mobilized thousands of Syrian supporters in rallies across the country and also accepted the resignation of his government to try to deflect the challenge to his rule.
— Since 2005, when Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus after the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, Assad has engineered a rapprochement with the West but maintained a hard line against criticism at home.
— The United States resumed full diplomatic relations with Syria last January. However, tensions have grown again over neighboring Lebanon, where Damascus ally Hezbollah has gained the upper hand in a political crisis.
— Assad has always said that Damascus had no role in the blast which killed Hariri, but was forced to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005 under global and Lebanese pressure.
— Hezbollah-backed Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati is trying to form a government after the Shi’ite group and its allies toppled Saad al-Hariri over his refusal to cut links with a U.N.-backed court investigating the killing of his father.
— Assad has called for a national unity government in Lebanon, saying that “if you have one side taking over the other side, this means a conflict” which may lead to civil war.
— Assad has said Lebanon’s government should reject any tribunal indictment. The tribunal issued a secret indictment in January 2011 which is likely to accuse Hezbollah members of involvement in the killing. Hezbollah has denied any role and says Mikati’s new government must end funding and withdraw Lebanese judges from the court.
* LIFE DETAILS: — Bashar al-Assad, born in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in September 1965, studied medicine at the University of Damascus and graduated as a general practitioner in 1988.
— He then trained to become an ophthalmologist at a Damascus military hospital and in 1992 moved to London to continue his studies.
— In 1994 his older brother, Basil, who had been designated his father’s heir apparent, was killed in a car crash, and Bashar returned to Syria to take his brother’s place.
Writing by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit