Bashar al-Assad has been president of Syria since 2000. His father Hafez al-Assad ruled from 1970 to 2000.
The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. But the Assad family and the military establishment are Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Syria has borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. After the First World War Britain and France divided up the region under the Sykes-Picot agreement. France had control of Syria for 25 years until 1945.
There is no democracy in Syria. People lived under emergency law from 1963 until 2011, when a popular revolution for democracy and freedom arose as part of the Arab revolutions.
Assad responded with violent repression. The popular revolt became overwhelmed in a military conflict to beat Assad. This involved many groups, some supported by the West or the Gulf regimes.
Isis now portrays the revolt as a Sunni rebellion against Shias and the West.
More than 250,000 people have been killed. Syria had a population of 23 million before the war. More than four million have fled as refugees and almost eight million are displaced within Syria.