Bashar Assad, a 38 year old ex-medical student, took over from his father, Haffez, in 2000. His older brother Basil was supposed to be the heir, but Basil died in an auto accident in 1994 and Bashar got pulled of medical school in Britain for a crash course in "how to be a dictator." When Bashar took over at age 34, he initially talked of reform and cleaning up the endemic corruption and turgid economy. He soon changed his tune as he realized his father had surrounded himself with a bunch of thieves and cutthroats. These guys ran the police state, and expected to be paid. Or else. So Bashar is a dictator who can dictate a lot, but can't touch any of the private empires his father's cronies have set up. It's all about money. To make matters worse, Bashar and his helpers all belong to religious minorities. Bashar himself is an Alawite Moslem, a sect that is considered heretical by more mainstream Sunnis and Shias. Another allied group are Syrian Druze Moslems, also long persecuted for heresy. About ten percent of the Syrian population are Christian, and they have also thrown in with the Assad clan. The other 76 percent of Syrians are Sunnis who are not all that happy about the way 24 percent of the population is living large at their expensive. Sounds like Iraq? It is very similar, except that the Assad's have only invaded one neighbor (Lebanon) in the last thirty years, and that invasion succeeded. The Assad's have also been careful to sincerely suck up to America as needed. But this time, the U.S. wants more than sweet words and some intel on what Syrian based terrorists are up to these days. Now American threats of sanctions if Syria does not stop renting its territory, and protection, to terrorist groups like Hezbollah, carries a lot more weight.
The Assad's are a smoother versions of the Husseins. But for both, the game is the same; power and money.
The hundreds of foreigners captured in Iraq are young fanatics taken in by the radical Islam that is alive and well in Iran. The Baath party that runs Syria was glad to get these guys out of Syria. Remember that the Baath party of Syria is basically the same, at least in function, as the former Baath party of Iraq. Nationalist, socialist and a pretty efficient police state, the Syrians are, if anything, more corrupt than their Iraqi cousins. Technically, the Baath party should be on the hit list of the Iranian clergy. But as a practical matter, the Iranian cleric have become uneasy allies with the Syrian Baath party so they could, together, support terrorist attacks against Israel. This is done out of Lebanon, a country occupied by 35,000 Syrian soldiers for nearly thirty years. In addition to protecting Iranian supported Hezbollah terrorist camps, the Syrian soldiers also look after a thriving drug and smuggling business. Running a police state is expensive, and Syria only brings in $4-5 billion a year. The drugs and smuggling bring in another billion or so, plus "gifts" from Iran and, until recently, a billion a year from Saddam Hussein. A lot of Saddam's henchmen showing up in Syria probably made private deals with Syrian big shots ahead of time.