SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The civil war in Syria continues to spill across the border into Turkey. Another mortar fired from Syria hit Turkey today. The Turks returned fire. This followed shelling earlier this week that killed five Turkish civilians. Now, inside Syria, opposition activists report that there is renewed government attacks on Homs, Aleppo and according to the New York Times, a Damascus suburb that's near the presidential palace. The man at the center of this deadly and long-running conflict is Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. He is the subject of a new book by David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University. Now, Mr. Lesch met Assad several times and wrote a book in 2005 called "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria." But his new book, "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad," takes a different view. David Lesch traces Assad's progression from the early days of his presidency and explains why at first some considered him the hope of Syria.
DAVID LESCH: He had a different pedigree than many other typical Middle Eastern dictators. He was not, at least at first, being groomed for the presidency. He was a licensed ophthalmologist and he spent 18 months in London. And so, he was from a different mold than most Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders. And so, people had this hope that being younger - only 35 when he came to power - and being from a different background that therefore he might incrementally change the authoritarian system he inherited.
SIMON: So, what is he like in person, at least based on the considerable amount of time you've spent with him?
LESCH: Well, I was impressed with his fairly unpretentious demeanor. He was very gracious and welcoming. He was even self-deprecating at first - not the commanding figure that one would expect of the dictator of Syria. Unfortunately, I saw him change over the years and becoming much more power comfortable with power. And so I think he really started to believe in the press and the propaganda that naturally surrounds an authoritarian leader in an authoritarian system. They construct this alternate reality, particularly in 2007, surrounding the referendum or re-election of Bashar to another seven-year term. And at that moment, I said to myself he's now going to be a president for life. He has assimilated into the authoritarian environment.
SIMON: You write in this book - I'm going to quote carefully - "I do not see him," meaning Bashar al-Assad, "as either eccentric or as a bloodthirsty killer along the lines of Moammar Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein." Then you go on to see people who do see him this way don't know him and they, quote, "base their position on the evidence of continued repressed and repeatedly delayed reform." I mean, isn't that experience a truer ground than your hopes?
LESCH: It could be. But I think it's more so looking at the person and how he sees the world. From my point of view, you didn't get this impression that he was this, you know, evil, eccentric killer. But he certainly grew into the position, and I think that's part of it, where he believed now you had to make tough choices in order to stay in power, simply because he believed that the well-being of the country necessitated him staying in power. And so I think there is a difference in just being someone who's a brutal thug, such as Saddam Hussein, and someone who's, unfortunately, ending up with the same results but from a different motivation, and someone who thinks they are actually doing what's best for the country. You know, he actually believes he is saving the country, that he is protecting a country against, you know, these pernicious outside forces of which he's spoken constantly since the beginning. But it's such a warped view of reality that it really, in the end of the day, makes no difference whether it's a Saddam Hussein there or a Moammar Gadhafi or a Bashar al-Assad.
SIMON: I mean, I was going to point out the obvious, that for the people of Homs I'm not sure there's any difference.
LESCH: No, no, there's not, and which is one of the saddest things about this, because, you know, many people in Syria did think favorably of him, or at least were willing to give him a chance or, you know, didn't hate him as some people hated Saddam or Moammar Gadhafi. There were certainly those who did that, who had that animosity toward him and the regime. And, again, a lot of it was toward the system and the regime, not necessarily personally against him. And he mortgaged all that. Instead of leveraging that at the beginning and being a courageous leader, a transformation leader that many of us hoped he would be in the beginning in the uprising and using that popularity and using the populous to outflank perhaps some of the military security apparatus, he, I think, settled into engaging into policies that were very typically Syrian. You know, it was a convulsive push-button response to uprising, and he gave into that.
SIMON: David W. Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. His new book, "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad." Professor, thanks very much.
LESCH: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.