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.

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.

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.

And that's what's hard to understand from the West. In Syria it's a totally different conceptual paradigm of the nature of threat. They have a totally different worldview. I'm not saying that it's correct or accurate, but you have to understand it in order to understand the actions of the regime.

You talk a bit about the Syrian situation becoming a proxy for international tensions over Iran. How and why is Syria specifically becoming this proxy, and who right now is seeing it this way?

It's the way that Iran, its allies, as well as the West see it right now. Same with Israel. Syria is a very strategic location, right on the borders of Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq. Because of its strong relationship with Iran, it was almost inevitable that this would become something of a proxy conflict between Syria and its allies Iran and Hizbollah against the West and its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar (who are taking the lead in the Arab League as well because they too see that if the regime falls it will be a weakening of Iran in the heartland of the Middle East on the border with Israel). Israel has been prudently quiet over the situation in Syria.

Iran will be severely hurt with the loss of its Syrian ally if, in fact, what comes into power in Syria is anti-Tehran, which is not a guarantee, by the way. Iran as well as Hizbollah have made contact with opposition elements in order to hedge their bets a little bit. Hamas has taken a stance against the Syrian regime, which has backed them for a very long time.

So there are many players here in a complex game. The fact that Syria is so geo-strategically located and has played such a prominent role in the Arab-Israeli arena makes this much more than an internal civil war.

Is that part of what makes the range of options for international players different in Syria than it was in Libya?

Absolutely. Libya was a fairly self-contained uprising. There was very little fear of it spreading or causing trouble elsewhere. There was no proxy war being fought. The only thing of that kind the U.S. had to worry about was maybe Russian resistance, but Russia abstained in the UN Security Council resolution.

Syria is a whole different story because of its geostrategic nature, because it has traditionally been at the forefront of the anti-Israeli coalition in the Arab world, and because it has such a close relationship with Iran and Russia.

Let's talk a little bit about what the West loses from not intervening. You quoted Robert Fisk in Beirut talking about the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring "destroying the U.S.'s remaining credit in that region." What are the risks of not supporting the insurgent elements in the Arab Spring?

Frankly, I think the Obama administration has been fairly prudent in not intervening in Syria. It's a difficult situation that they deal with country by country. Unfortunately, from the perspective of those in the region, the U.S. is seen as acting on its strategic interests alone rather than taking a strong stance in support of democratic elements region-wide. The U.S. supported Egyptian and Tunisian rebels yet supported the government in Bahrain, as well as Saudi attempts to send troops in there to quash the rebellion. And then of course we hesitate with regard to Syria. And rightly so: Syria is not Libya, and is much more of a challenge militarily and in every other way. But the people in the region itself, fighting and dying on the streets, don't see it that way.

I think what might happen is that certainly if the regime falls and those who are fighting and dying in Syria itself take over and are able to carve out some kind of national unity in the aftermath, they won't necessarily be pro-U.S. or pro-West. Many of the Syrians fighting the regime are just as anti-West and anti-Israeli as the regime itself.

Is al-Qaeda a concern here? At the time the book went to print, at least, you seemed to think that the group's presence, if any, in Syria was quite small.

I think it's still that way. You haven't heard much of that since there was a spate of activity in the early part of the spring. I think if anything, if and when Assad falls, it's in the aftermath of that that al-Qaeda elements might be more influential instead of right now. This is mostly homegrown. There are elements in there, some people from Iraq. There are apparently some Libyans who have gone in. I don't think, from everything I've heard, they're a very influential factor, even though the uprising is mostly Sunni and there are many conservative Sunnis fighting against the regime: It doesn't seem to have a religious coloring right now. It increasingly seems more sectarian, but not necessarily radical Islamist.

The recent slough of defections from the Assad regime, almost all of them have been Sunni. So it gives the appearance of a more sectarian coloring to the uprising and conflict than previously.

That's something that you mention that originally gave Assad a lot of power: his saying he was the one standing between Syria and sectarian violence.

Absolutely: The Syrian regime under Bashar and his father has consistently put forth this Faustian or Hobbesian bargain of "we will provide stability in a very unstable neighborhood in return for your support and subservience." And most Syrians bought into this, because all they had to do was look across the borders into Lebanon and Iraq to see how sectarian-based countries can implode and fall apart. So they were willing to give the Assads, both father and son, a lot of rope in terms of the security state to maintain that stability. For Assad, the Alawites [a minority Shiite sect], it was in their interest, obviously, to have as secular a state as possible.

You also argue that Assad really had tried to institute more radical reform, but encountered internal opposition. Do you think that he could have done more? Or are you suggesting that he was in some ways a victim of the Syrian system left by his father?

I don't want to portray him as a victim because he's the president and he's responsible for everything that he's done. But I think he tried to enact reform. I think the so-called Damascus Spring that occurred just after he came to power in July 2000, where there was unprecedented political opening and political dissent tolerated, was more along the lines of what he wanted to do. But as I describe in the book, I think the security chiefs came to him and said, basically, "this is not how we do things," and there was a crackdown over what I call the Damascus Winter within 8 to 10 months of that. So I think he learned from that that any serious political reform wasn't just going to happen anytime soon.

So then he concentrated on administrative reform and economic and monetary reform. There were some important advances: educational reform in particular with the founding of private universities, and of course he allowed for private banks in Syria for the first time, and a Syrian stock exchange. Now, a lot of those tended to enrich the upper classes already tied into the regime, so that led to an even more skewed distribution of wealth in the country, which was a problem. But I think there were some not insignificant reforms in that area -- just only in that area.

He wrote off more dramatic political reform and then I think he just stopped thinking about it especially as he began to believe in the propaganda of the well-being of the country being synonymous with his own well-being. He started to believe that Syria could only work under the system that was in place. I think I quote Peter Harling [of the International Crisis Group], and I agree with him, that the Syrian regimes have a very low opinion of the people in Syria, that it's a sick country, that it constantly needs tending by a regime that takes care of it. And I think once he bought into that notion that any serious political reform along the democratic model, or more pluralism, went out the window until it was way too late.

In your book, you attempt to contextualize the Syrian government's response to the protest by writing, "The Syrian government's crackdown is a push-button, convulsive reaction to domestic threat. It is business as usual. It is not that Assad does not control the security forces; but this is the way Syria has worked under the Assads. They reach into their historical pocket and pull out what worked for them in the past." What does that mean, exactly? Who's responsible, here?

Once they got wind of the breadth of the opposition, I think there was just this natural convulsive response that Assad just went with. And I've seen this up close and personal in Syria on a number of occasions. As I said in the book, when I got interrogated at the airport one time before the Arab Spring I gently told Assad, "Mr. President, you have to rein these forces in or they will come back to haunt you."

He knows that these guys -- the security forces -- perhaps have more power and leeway than they ought to, but in his mind it's a necessary evil in a dangerous neighborhood. Yet that hubris from the security state is what caused the problems to begin with in March when they roughly handled the schoolchildren. [In March 2011, security forces in the city of Daraa tortured and killed children of families believed to be sympathetic to the then-peaceful protesters, returning their mutilated bodies as a warning.] That's just the way they do it. There's no thought. There's domestic unrest? You stamp it out. They didn't realize, really, the changed circumstances of the Arab Spring. They acted in the old way when the new circumstances produced by the Arab Spring dictated a totally different response.

How much did you sense Assad knew about these security forces' day-day-activities, what they were up to?

I don't think he's aware of their day-to-day activities, specific things: he wasn't aware that they were stopping me at the airport, interrogating me, and that I was on their blacklist, and I was going to see him. So that was certainly a telling sign that, as a civilian Syrian government official told me, that the left hand often doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Bashar tolerated it. He knew it was happening. He could have reined it in, I think, if he'd wanted to, but in the end he wasn't willing to do that, and that was part of what will lead to his undoing.

So does he know just how bad it is in Syria right now?

I think so. I hope so. I think he knows how bad it is. His interpretation of it may be different. He thinks he's protecting the state, and that there are unwitting elements in Syria who are being used by pernicious outside forces.