To Know a Tyrant: Inside Bashar al-Assad's Transformation From 'Reformer' to Killer


A historian with deep experience in Syria and with Assad himself discusses the dictator's trajectory since taking office in 2000.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attends a 2008 conference in India. (AP)

How did Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist who assumed his father's office in 2000 claiming to seek genuine political reform, come to preside over a conflict that has killed over 20,000 of his own people, according to some estimates? David Lesch, a professor of Middle East History at Trinity University, was once relatively optimistic about Assad's regime. He wasn't alone: right up until the regime began cracking down on protesters last year, a faction of Western observers thought the hereditary dictator might take Syria in a new direction.

Assad didn't turn out to be a reformer, as Lesch freely acknowledges. His meetings with Assad and access to leading government officials provided the historian with a unique look at the motivations and processes of the Syrian regime. Now, Lesch is using the insights gleaned from his interviews with Assad to explain his growing use of violence and Syria's descent into civil war. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, the product of this effort, hits bookshelves today. The following is a conversation with Lesch about his book, and how he came to change his mind about Bashar al-Assad.

You knew Assad better than most other Westerners in a position to write about him, and you feel that early on, Syrians' and Westerners' hope in him was not unfounded: He seemed to actually want reform. Where was the tipping point for Assad? At what point do you recall thinking something had changed?

He started to become a more typical authoritarian Syrian leader particularly after surviving the onslaught against him and Syria after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic al-Hariri in February 2005 [over which the U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria]. He adopted a bunker mentality against the rest of the world because he really believed they were out to get him. And most of the rest of the world was out to get him. So I think I saw it from that point on.

Top Syrian officials "readily believe that Monica Lewinsky was an Israeli mole."

I remember thinking when I saw him in February 2006 he was much more confident in power, almost cocky, especially in terms of his view of the United States -- as if the U.S., the Bush Administration at the time, had taken its best shot against him and failed. And then I saw him again in July 2006 during the Israel-Hizbollah conflict and even more so then he seemed to be much more confident and strong-willed in power, riding the coattails of Hizbollah. And I really saw it in a much more personal way in June 2007 during the referendum that he won -- with no one else running, of course -- that granted him another seven-year presidential term.

He had eschewed the personality cult for the most part up until that point. He took down the posters and pictures that had been draped on everybody's car mirrors and on the windows of cars and that sort of thing during his father's reign. He really didn't want the same sort of personality cult: He fashioned himself as a man of the people. He and his wife would go out and meet with people without bodyguards and that sort of stuff and it became a sort of urban legend. But 2007 when I visited I saw all the pomp and circumstance characteristic of a personality cult return to Syria. Not necessarily all of Assad's own doing. But the difference was that he really absorbed it.

As I write in the book, it was his Sally Field moment, like when she accepted her second Oscar. "They really love me!" he said. And I guess he was due some of that. He had an aquifer of support in Syria that was not insignificant. But I remember thinking to myself at that very moment that this was a different person -- that he was going to be president for life.

This was someone who no longer was the reluctant leader. He had fully embraced the power and trappings of his position. He was always very nice and gregarious in many ways but I could see some definite changes in him. I guess that happens with many authoritarian leaders no matter how well-intentioned they are at the beginning. After all the sycophants and supporters around him who praise him and think he's a prophet, it's almost human nature: You start to believe that propaganda.

So when he ordered the crackdown in March 2011, seen against this personal evolution, it wasn't shocking to me.

You also talk about how you think there was a big difference between Assad and Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. What is that difference?

Well, I never met Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, but I know people who have met all three. And they agree with me: Bashar was different. He seemed relatively normal, whereas when you meet with Saddam or Qaddafi, you almost immediately sense that there's something off with them. But with Bashar you never got that sense. That tells me that the arrogance of power can affect anyone, no matter how well-intentioned or relatively normal in the beginning.

Even to this day, I don't think he's at the level of a Saddam Hussein -- that sort of innate brutality. I really believe Bashar believes he's doing the right thing: Saving the country and his supporters.

That brings us to your argument that, when Bashar and his supporters blame the uprising on a Western conspiracy, it's not cynical: They actually believe that, you say.

Yes: anyone who's spent time in Syria with top officials can tell you they readily believe in conspiracy theory. They readily believe that Monica Lewinsky was an Israeli mole. I've had top people, bright people, educated in the West say that. You can't argue with them. They are convinced. This is not just in Syria, but in many other areas of the world that have experienced imperialism for decades, where there has been a good deal of conspiracy. It's a kind of paranoia bred by coups attempted from the outside.

My first book was about the Eisenhower Administration's attempt to foment a coup in 1957 against a Syrian regime that was deemed to be too pro-Soviet. So it's a natural segue for them to believe that these things are inspired by the outside. Then they take actions which make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Right now, countries from the outside are supporting the insurgency, which fits the administration's narrative in this vicious circle that's developed.

"The left hand often doesn't know what the right hand is doing."

I really do think Bashar was shocked in the beginning at the level of unrest. The government was fairly complacent about this, if you look at the interviews he gave and some of the op-eds in Damascus magazines, the mouthpieces of the regime. The government supported the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt. And Bashar thought the dividing line was being anti-Israeli/anti-American or pro-Israel/pro-American and he was mistaken. That wasn't the dividing line. It was socioeconomic distress and political repression. They didn't realize that until too late. Because he thought he was popular in the country I think he was shocked, and figured there had to be outside conspiracy, because otherwise people wouldn't rise up.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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