CAIRO, Egypt – For Arab, European and U.S. officials trying to pressure Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, a key mystery is how much control Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) actually has over his country.
Lately, Assad himself seems determined to convince the world he calls few of the shots.
While his supporters insist Assad is in full control, many foreign governments and outside experts believe a small circle of aides who previously advised his late father, President Hafez Assad (search), still cling to positions of power that may tie Assad's hands.
Even members of the 39-year-old Assad's own family, including a younger brother who heads a military commando unit based in Damascus, the capital, may hold considerable and opposing sway, those familiar with Syria (search) say.
And the military's role in the country's affairs is still strong.
"Is Bashar totally in power? That is a difficult question to answer, but there certainly are centers of power around him, including some within the family," said Patrick Seale, a British expert on Syria who has written extensively about Hafez Assad.
The issue was thrown into stark relief in recent days, in part because Bashar Assad seemed at pains to paint himself as having limited power.
According to Saudi officials, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah told Assad last week during a meeting in Riyadh that he must immediately withdraw Syria's 14,000 soldiers in Lebanon (search).
"Not everything is up to me alone," Assad's replied, according to the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
In a Time interview published this week, Assad again hinted he was not responsible for some of Syria's policies. Told he had done the impossible by bringing the United States and France together in unity against him, Assad answered with a laugh: "It's not me, actually."
Asked why he had jailed human rights activist Kamal Labwani, Assad answered, "I don't do everything in this country." Labwani was released in September after three years in prison.
On at least two recent occasions, Syria's government has retracted or corrected statements made by Assad.
Assad said in the Time interview, for example, that Syria planned a full pullout from Lebanon within months. His government later corrected him, saying he meant Syria would comply with a 1989 agreement that provided for the redeployment of Syrian troops to eastern Lebanon and for negotiations later to decide on a total withdrawal.
Many of the rumors making the rounds in Damascus these days point to hardcore nationalists or intelligence officers as interfering with some of the reforms introduced by Assad, such as the wider use of English in schools.
Like almost every other Arab nation, Syria's military is the most powerful institution and the country's presidents are expected to come from its ranks.
Assad, who once pursued a career as a London eye doctor, was an outsider. But he was given a military rank when his father began to groom him for succession after his brother Basil, the first choice, died in a car wreck in 1994. Bashar was promoted to general within hours of his father's death in June 2000.
Among those thought to hold considerable power in Syria are Assad's younger brother, Maher, a career army officer who heads a commando unit in Damascus -- a position that gives him significant leverage in Syrian politics.
Another powerful figure is believed to be Ghazi Kanaan, the veteran chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon who is now the interior minister, a Cabinet post that puts him in charge of internal security.
Assad's business tycoon uncle, Mohammed Makhlouf, is believed to have a big say in economic policies.
Those who were close to the late president and who remain in official positions include First Vice president Abdul-Halim Khadam and two leaders of the ruling Baath Party, Abdullah al-Ahmar and Suleiman Qaddah.
The president also doesn't have the trappings of power his father did: There aren't thousands of his pictures plastered around the capital and he is not on the front page of Syria's state-run newspapers every day.
But Assad's supporters insist he is in charge. Political analyst Imad Fawzi Shueibi says talk of the president being weak or sharing power with members of the "old guard" is groundless.
"He is the only power in Syria, but he's no dictator," Shueibi said. "He wants everyone around him to be an important part of the state machinery and that's why some think he's weak."