BEIRUT (Reuters) - His opponents paint him as a butcher, dripping with the blood of thousands killed in a crackdown aimed at maintaining his family’s four-decade rule over Syria.
But President Bashar al-Assad, who has stemmed what many saw as an unstoppable tide of popular protest, says he is fighting to save his country from foreign-backed “terrorists” bent on destroying a proud Arab nation.
Facing international pressure over reported massacres and calls for urgent action to stop Syria sliding into all-out civil war, an unflinching Assad told parliament on Sunday he would “continue firmly confronting terrorism”.
“No rational human being likes blood,” the 46-year-old president, who trained as an eye doctor, said during a rare public appearance in which he compared himself to a medic performing a life-saving operation.
“But when a surgeon... cuts a wound, the wound bleeds,” he said. “Do we say to him, ‘Your hands are covered in blood?’ Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”
The mildly spoken Assad, who inherited power when his father died in 2000 after three decades of rule, is an unlikely figure in the gallery of Middle East autocrats - showing few public signs of the ruthlessness, charisma, or menace which others relied on to suppress dissent.
Thrust into the spotlight when his elder brother died in a car crash in 1994, one of his few public positions before he became president was head of the Syrian computer society.
During speeches, delivered in an undramatic, low-key manner, Assad often appears awkward. His monotone addresses lack the podium thumps and rabble rousing of some Middle East demagogues.
But 15 months into a rebellion which has become the bloodiest and most intractable of the uprisings which swept the region, Assad has proved more durable than four other Arab leaders toppled by people power or armed revolt.
“If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near,” he told parliament this week.
Assad’s upbeat assessment is challenged by international mediator Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and a host of world leaders who have warned that the spectre of full-blown civil war - and regional conflict - is looming ever larger.
But neither the spiralling violence and collapsing economy nor growing international isolation have significantly shaken Assad’s power base, centred around his Alawite clan, multiple intelligence services and the army.
Leaked emails published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper in March, which showed him joking with his wife about his own “rubbish” political reforms and downloading songs from iTunes while his army shelled the city of Homs, may have outraged his opponents but also highlighted a relaxed confidence.
A Lebanese politician who visited Damascus in January said the president was dining out in one of the capital’s smart restaurants while rebels were battling security forces in suburbs barely 5 km (three miles) away.
Throughout the crisis, Assad’s message rarely has strayed from the central theme that he will crush any armed opposition and deliver reforms on his own terms and his own pace.
Opponents say that reforms enacted so far, including an end to emergency rule, granting nationality to thousands of stateless Kurds and constitutional changes which ostensibly loosened the control of the ruling Baath Party, are empty gestures undermined by the continued killings and detentions.
The revised constitution even reintroduced a clause requiring the president to be at least 40 years old - a stipulation hastily amended in 2000 to allow the 34-year-old Bashar to take office.
Once in power, he held out the prospect of reforming one of the Arab world’s most tightly controlled states and oversaw a short-lived move towards political freedoms before his “Damascus Spring” faded amid a wave of repression and arrests.
Assad also strengthened his father’s strategic alliance with Iran and supported militant Islamist groups including the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah.
He ended nearly three decades of Syrian military presence in neighbouring Lebanon under international pressure following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.
But the collapse last year of Beirut’s pro-Western government, led by Hariri’s son, was the latest sign that Assad had clawed back influence in Lebanon.
Although he backs anti-Israel militants, he also pursued indirect peace talks with Israel and, despite continued Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, ensured the front line usually remained quiet.
At home he started liberalising the economy, easing decades of central control and allowing limited foreign investment. But while those around him, including his cousin Rami Makhlouf, acquired great wealth, ordinary Syrians saw few benefits.
He also maintained the grip on power held by his family and Alawite sect in the mainly Sunni Muslim state.
And Assad’s nepotistic structuring of state security has carried him through the latest threat to his family rule - his brother Maher commands the Republican Guard while brother-in-law Assef Shawkat is deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces.
Editing by Michael Roddy