David W. Lesch: The Syrian President I Know

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David W. Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University, is the author of “The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria.”]

WHERE has President Bashar al-Assad of Syria been this past week?

Thousands of Syrians across the country have staged demonstrations against the government, and dozens of protesters have been reported killed by security forces. The cabinet was dismissed on Tuesday, although that’s a meaningless gesture unless it’s followed by real reform. Through it all Mr. Assad has remained so quiet that rumors were rampant that he had been overthrown. But while Syrians are desperate for leadership, it’s not yet clear what sort of leader Mr. Assad is going to be.

Will he be like his father, Hafez al-Assad, who during three decades in power gave the security forces virtually a free hand to maintain order and sanctioned the brutal repression of a violent Islamist uprising in the early 1980s? Or will he see this as an opportunity to take Syria in a new direction, fulfilling the promise ascribed to him when he assumed the presidency upon his father’s death in 2000?...

In 2004 and 2005, while writing a book on him, I had long interviews with Mr. Assad; after the book was published, I continued to meet with him as an unofficial liaison between Syria and the United States when relations between the two countries deteriorated. In that time I saw Mr. Assad evolve into a confident and battle-tested president....

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