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Syria: How an American scholar made friends and influenced a leader

San Antonio professor David Lesch, who led yearly trips to Syria for students learning Arabic, struck up a friendship with President Bashar Assad. 'He values my opinions and ideas,' he says.

April 14, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

PARIS — David Lesch remembers how, as the first-round winter draft pick for the Dodgers in 1980, he was singled out by Tommy Lasorda to throw against all-stars Ron Cey, Reggie Smith, Davey Lopes and Bill Russell on his very first day of spring training.

His initial pitch to Cey sailed over his head. Cey got up from the dirt and shot him an angry glance. But Lesch calmed down and pitched the rest of the practice without a hitch.

"Having gone through that, probably nothing else will ever intimidate me," he says.

That lesson came in handy nearly a quarter-century later when Lesch, now a respected Middle East scholar, walked into an interview with Bashar Assad, the president of Syria.

He was nervous and, yes, just a little bit intimidated. Here was the man who U.S. officials alleged was helping insurgents in Iraq and militants in Lebanon, the man who sat atop an extensive and powerful state security apparatus in one of the world's most tightly controlled nations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, April 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Syria's president: Tuesday's Column One, about a former baseball player who wrote a book about Syrian President Bashar Assad, said that scholar David Lesch teaches at Trinity College in San Antonio. Lesch teaches at Trinity University.

But Lesch was quickly put at ease. Assad was ready for him on time, even opening the door to the modest conference room himself and welcoming the scholar in.

Two years earlier, in 2002, Lesch had submitted a formal request to interview Assad for a book. It was a shot in the dark. Most Arab rulers prefer to issue vague pronouncements via official media channels, and are rarely willing to subject themselves to the scrutiny of an interview.

Which made it all the more surprising when Lesch got a call from Syria's ambassador to the U.S.

"He said, 'David, it's on.' "

And thus began an extraordinary five-year acquaintance between Lesch, the Dodgers farm team pitcher who had found his way into academia, and Assad, the ophthalmologist and accidental heir to the Syrian presidency.

From the start, the two found they had a lot in common. For one thing, fate had drastically altered the course of each man's life.

Lesch's baseball dreams were cut short by a shoulder injury, a rotator cuff that wouldn't heal. As his fastball faltered from 95 mph to the low 80s, the Dodgers cut him loose and he contemplated other life possibilities.

He went back to college, where a couple of inspiring professors saw promise inside his battered brawn. He went on to Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in Middle Eastern history, eventually landing a teaching post at Trinity College in San Antonio. The baritone-voiced former jock eased into the life of a university academic, trading baseball cleats for loafers and sports jerseys for tweed jackets.

During summer breaks, Lesch flew with students to the Syrian city of Aleppo, where they would tour ancient souks, Roman ruins and study Arabic. He befriended an official in the ruling Baath Party who ran the University of Aleppo and eventually became his entree to the Syrian leadership.

Bashar, though the son of President Hafez Assad, wasn't much involved in politics until later in life. He trained as an eye doctor, and was becoming a well-regarded surgeon.

He learned English and French and spent time in London, cruising around in a BMW 318i, which he treasured as he settled in to a relatively ordinary upper-middle-class life.

Tragedy struck in 1994, when his elder brother Basil, chief of their father's security and heir apparent, died in a car wreck outside Damascus. Bashar, then 28, was summoned back from Britain, ushered into military school and prepared to succeed his father, who died in 2000.

"Bashar's story reminds me very much of that of Michael Corleone in the 'Godfather' movies," Lesch wrote in his 2005 book, "The New Lion of Damascus," chronicling the younger Assad's rise.

"Michael was the one son who had seemingly shunned the family business, setting out a course for himself that was much different than that of his siblings, particularly his own elder brother, Sonny. Only after Sonny was killed and his father was in ill health did he feel compelled to engage in the family business."

In the time since Lesch made his interview request, the U.S. had invaded Iraq, a move Syria opposed, and triumphant neoconservatives in Washington were putting pressure on an increasingly isolated Damascus. In 2004, Americans slapped Syria with harsh economic sanctions and the following year withdrew the U.S. ambassador to protest Damascus' alleged role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the popular former prime minister of neighboring Lebanon.

Lesch flew repeatedly to Syria for interviews in 2004 and 2005. Typically he was received at the presidential building or at Assad's modest apartment, where he or his British-born wife, Asma, a former financial analyst, would personally welcome guests.

"He is very low-key, he is a very amiable, very humble individual, not intimidating at all," Lesch says.

Lesch hammered away at the tough political questions dividing the U.S. and Syria. Would Syria ever cut its ties to Iran, its main strategic partner in the Middle East?

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