Expectations Were High When Bashar Al-Assad Came To Power

Melissa Block speaks with David W. Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University and the author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria for a profile about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to shift our focus now from Washington to Damascus and the man at the center of the crisis, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. He came to power in 2000, succeeding his father, who ruled Syria with an iron hand for 30 years. David Lesch interviewed Assad for his book, "The New Lion of Damascus," and he joins me now from San Antonio where he's a professor at Trinity University. Professor Lesch, welcome to the program.

DAVID LESCH: Pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: If we look back to when he came to power, is it fair to call Bashar al-Assad an accidental president? He wasn't the designated successor to his father.

LESCH: I think so. Of course, he was studying advance ophthalmology in London, when his brother Bassel, older brother died in 1994 in a car accident. And Bashar was summoned back to Syrian and, you know, for six years, he was elevated in the state apparatus very, very quickly in something of a race against time that his father orchestrated so that he could have a base of power before he died because he was in ill health. And I think that was barely achieved.

BLOCK: Well, when Bashar al-Assad did succeed his father, what were the expectations, both from the Syrian people and from the international community?

LESCH: Well, it's interesting. The first time I met with Bashar in 2004, I mentioned to him that one of the biggest mistakes he made, you know, half jokingly, when he came to power in 2000, is that he let it be known that he liked Phil Collins music, the British rocker. And he asked me why and I said because it fed into this emerging profile in the West at that time that he was this pro-Western modernizing reformer.

And therefore, the expectations were very high, in my opinion way too high, particularly in the West. And therefore, the disappointment got much greater when these benchmarks that were kind of artificially set for him and for Syria were not met. And people, I think, outside of Syria, and many inside Syria, expected a great amount of change. But Syria's almost immune to dramatic change.

You know, he inherited a dilapidated, you know, broken down, stagnant system and he ran up against the, you know, the establishment, so to speak - an entrenched system. And he found out what many leaders find out when they come to power is that they just can't affect as much change as they originally intended.

BLOCK: As you think back, Professor Lesch, on the time that you spent interviewing Bashar al-Assad, up to 2009, do you think you got a false impression of this man and what he would be capable of?

LESCH: No, not at all. I think I read him fairly correctly in the beginning as someone who at first, when he came to power, wanted to institute change. And the Damascus - so-called Damascus Spring of early 2000 or mid-2000 after he took power, that lasted for about six to eight months, which brought unprecedented freedoms to Syria, was an indication I think where he wanted to go.

And so, I think, you know, for many of us inside and outside Syria were hoping that Bashar al-Assad would change the authoritarian system. And what I think ended up happening is the authoritarian system changed him. And I saw this on an incremental basis as time went on and when I met him, that I think he really started to believe the sycophants that normally surround an authoritarian leader that praise him out a daily basis. And I think it's human nature that after a while you start to believe that praise.

And I think after surviving these major challenges to his regime after putting, you know, his people in power and becoming more comfortable with power, that he really started to develop a sense of triumphalism that he could survive anything; that it was his destiny to rule Syria and bring Syria into the limelight, you know, regionally and even internationally.

BLOCK: Professor Lesch, I mentioned the title of your first book on Syria, "The New Lion of Damascus." The title of your second book tells a very different story. It's "Syria, the Fall of the House of Assad." Is it clear to you that that is, in fact, what we're looking at here, the inevitable fall of the Assad regime?

LESCH: I think ultimately, yes. You know, they will never have, in my mind, the power or certainly the legitimacy that they once enjoyed. And that's really what I mean as I describe in the preface by "The Fall of the House of Assad," not necessarily in a literal sense. I think from the very beginning, when I wrote that book, that I knew it would take a long time.

And it's proving to even be longer than that for most people's original assessment of the situation, that the regime in fact will stay in power for a while in a truncated, you know, state. You know, as one reporter said, a little Syria.

But I think the Syrian regime may take a long-term approach to this. I mean, they see this as a 10, 15-year battle from the beginning; that they will outlast their opposition, that the attentions of the international community will go elsewhere, and that eventually they'll be able to regain lost territory. I don't think that's necessarily going to be the case, but I think that the regime will survive in some sense for a time but it will never be what it once was.

BLOCK: David Lesch is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio. Professor Lesch, thanks for talking with us.

LESCH: It's been my pleasure.

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