For 13 years, President Bashar al-Assad has governed Syria. For 2½ of those years he's faced repeated calls from many inside and outside the country for his resignation.
Now, al-Assad's regime is thought by many Western governments to have used chemical weapons against its own people, prompting talk of international military intervention.
But Syria's president shows no sign of stepping back from the brink of confrontation. So who is al-Assad and what might he do next?
When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez Assad in 2000, there was the promise of a modern and more democratic Syria.
In his inauguration speech, al-Assad indicated he would be a very different kind of leader to his father. "I shall try my very best to lead our country towards a future that fulfills the hopes and legitimate ambitions of our people," he said.
And for a while that promise was kept. His official website says he has built free-trade zones, licensed more private newspapers and private universities, and fought government waste and corruption. He has also worked on social and economic reform.
But many say al-Assad's promises have largely not been delivered. Human Rights Watch called his first 10 years as president "the wasted decade," with a media that remained controlled by the state, a monitored and censored Internet and prisons still filled with dissidents.
Back in 2011, al-Assad drew criticism from around the globe as he met popular protests and unrest with force. Since then, the conflict has escalated into a brutal civil war and the rebels have at times threatened government strongholds in Damascus.
Through it all, al-Assad and his government have consistently said that its forces are targeting armed terrorists funded by outside agitators. And the president has shown no sign that he will accede to demands that he stand down and quit the country.
In November last year, he told Russia Today TV: "I am Syrian. I was made in Syria and to live and die in Syria."
Over time, his public appearances have become rare events. But an Instagram account set up on July 24 offers an alternative vision of the president's life -- one that is all about feeding the hungry, science Olympiads and widespread support for al-Assad and his wife, Asma. The closest it comes to reflecting the ongoing war are pictures of the president meeting "with the armed forces who are fighting the terrorist groups."
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describes al-Assad as "a master of deception" -- and his manipulation of the media is one part of that.
"I think that the regime -- the package of Bashar and his wife Asma, it's very seductive. And it draws you -- how could someone who seems so reasonable command such a horrific regime?" said Tabler.
And if the threat of Western military intervention in Syria is borne out, al-Assad's response may not be an obvious one, he said.
"He's going to think about, 'How am I going to react to these strikes?' Now what we can see from past strikes by the Israelis is that actually Bashar does very, very little in terms of a direct response. But over time, he might carry out other kinds of attacks on American assets."
'Victim of cruelty'
Two former regime insiders -- now its opponents -- told CNN of their time with the younger al-Assad. Former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam said Bashar was often the victim of his elder brother's cruelty. "His brother Basil bullied him as a child. His father never gave him as much attention as Basil," Khaddam said.
Al-Assad's uncle Rifaat, who left Syria in 1984 after being involved in a failed coup, also recalled the future president.
"He is very different than his father. Hafez was a leader, the head of the entire regime, while Bashar was never that close to being one and never fell within that framework. He is being perceived as the leader but he follows what the regime decides on his behalf."
Al-Assad himself said reform faltered because of unrest in neighboring states -- Lebanon and Iraq.
But Khaddam, who was vice president under both Bashar and his father, says the younger al-Assad is both brutal and indecisive.
"Bashar's problem is that he listens to everything but denies and forgets quickly. You discuss an issue with him in the morning and another person comes along and changes his mind.
"Politically, Bashar does not have a consistent ideology; he changes his opinion according to his interests and that of the regime."
And the regime is a family affair. Al-Assad's younger brother Maher commands an elite division of the army, and is accused of widespread human rights abuses. His cousin Rami Makhlouf is the richest man in Syria.
The Assads belong to Syria's Alawite minority, who according to the president's uncle Rifaat, are driven by fears they could be overwhelmed. "There is no doubt that the Alawites are a minority who are in fear of the outcome and they are driven by that fear factor," he said.