al-Assad was born in rural Syria as part of the minority Alawite community. He was the first member of his family to attend High School and finished top of his class. Because his family had no money to send him to university al-Assad went to the Syrian Military Academy and received a free higher education. He joined in 1951 and was assigned to the Air Force division. Showing real aptitude Assad was send to the Soviet Union to receive advanced training.
Like many of Syria's young officers al-Assad was politically active. At age 16 he had joined the Ba'ath Party and as he rose through the ranks of the military bcame an important figure. al-Assad opposed the creation of the United Arab Republic and despite being stationed in Cairo worked with other officers to end the union between Syria and Egypt.
The union collapsed in 1961.In the chaos that followed the dissolution the Ba'athists seized power and al-Assad was appointed head of the airforce. The state was officially ruled by Amin al-Hafiz a Sunni Muslim, but it was run by a coterie of young Alawites.
In 1966 these Alawites lanched a violent coup. al-Assad became Minister of Defence, and the true ruler of the country. After being discredited by the failure of the Syrian military in the Six Days War in 1967 al-Assad overthrew the civilian government and became rule of Syria in 1970.
al-Assad ruled Syria through the power of the army. He did achieve some popularity because of his moderate reforms and the vast increase in Syria's military power, but was always mistrusted by the population for his secularism and his Alawite roots.