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How to befriend a Syrian president

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.

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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.

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.

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“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.

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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?

“Every chance he gets, when we used to talk about Syria and Iran, he indicated that it’s an alliance of convenience,” Lesch says. He recalls Assad saying, “ ‘I have no other friends. I can’t be choosy about friends.’ ”

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Would Syria cut a deal with Israel before the Palestinian question has been settled?

“He doesn’t think they need to be in lock-step,” he says. “If the Syrian-Israeli track goes faster, that’s OK. But he doesn’t want to be out all by himself” making peace with Israel while it is perceived as hostile throughout much of the Middle East.

But Lesch acknowledges that he avoided pressing Assad on certain issues, including Syria’s human rights record. Though he details the accusations about the treatment of dissidents in his book and speaks with some political opponents, he chose not to push those buttons with the president. Assad also brushed aside his requests to interview Syrian security officials, the feared mukhabarat, and Lesch didn’t push for it.

“To me, it would do damage to this access, which will be far worse than bringing it up,” he says.

But he bats away suggestions by some in the conservative media that he’s being used as a pawn of the Syrian government. A review in the now-defunct New York Sun accused him of portraying Assad as “a tender soul in a quiet fight against entrenched forces, when all evidence suggests that Mr. Assad is as entrenched as anyone else in his country.”

“I enjoy my access, and I think there are certain red lines,” he says. “I think I have learned these red lines.”

The hourlong chats began stretching into two- and three-hour marathons. The two started becoming friends.

Even after the book was published, Lesch continued to visit Assad. In the summer of 2006, he even brought his now ex-wife, Suzanne, and teenage son, Michael.

The 16-year-old told the Assads he dreamed of making films. The president lent him his Sony camcorder. “I told Bashar, ‘You are very brave giving that to a teenager,’ ” Lesch jokes.

They continued to e-mail each other, and Lesch visited Assad as recently as October.

He learned that Assad was a “computer nerd” and a photography nut who works out frequently and loves water sports. Both men also are partial to a certain type of rock music.

“He loves Electric Light Orchestra,” Lesch says. “That’s his favorite Western band . . . and I like them, too.”

During his trips, Lesch also became familiar with the insanity of the Syrian system. Even though the president is his friend, Lesch at one point was blacklisted from entering Syria because of another project he was working on to bring tourists to the Middle East. Someone in the mukhabarat didn’t like the name of the project.

Lesch changed the name, and in any case, the project fell by the wayside. But he was still stopped at the Damascus airport and told he wasn’t allowed in the country. He was held in a small, unmarked room near the passport counters where a security official began interrogating him.

“I sat on a real low chair, and he was on a real high chair,” he recalls.

The interrogator finally reached Assad’s secretary on the phone.

“Literally, his mouth went wide open, and then he was all apologetic to me,” he says. “The left hand of the mukhabarat didn’t know that I was the same guy that’s meeting with the president. It’s a bureaucratic thing. Once you are on the blacklist, it’s very difficult to get off.”

U.S. officials also caught wind of Lesch’s unlikely relationship with Assad. They began asking him to the State Department and other government agencies to brief policymakers, perhaps three or four times a year.

“It’s a different voice than what they usually hear, and they are usually very receptive,” he says. “They are very open-minded most of the time. It’s just when that information went to the top, went to their bosses, it usually got spit right back out at them, unfortunately.”

Lesch likes to tell the story of the time he was with Assad in 2006 soon after President Bush had criticized Syria in what was meant to be a private conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But the microphone at the G-8 summit in July was on, and the whole world heard Bush summon his British counterpart with a hearty “Yo, Blair,” and proceed to tell him that he blamed Damascus for the ongoing Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon. “You see, the . . . thing is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.”

“So I asked Bashar, ‘What do you think about it?’ ” Lesch says in an interview in Paris, where he was attending a conference. He says he braced for a tongue-lashing against America and its president. “But he responded: ‘I love it. I love that he said that. It makes me feel great, because at least he is thinking about Syria. He is thinking about us.’ ”

The exchange, Lesch says, showed both Assad’s thick skin and the insecurities that plague Syria, which is now being cautiously courted by the U.S. and the West as a possible linchpin for peace in the Middle East.

It told him a lot about the goals of Syria, a low-key nation of 23 million led by a low-key man who wants to be a major player in the Middle East.

“Despite all the isolation -- this was at the height of the isolation of the U.S. against Syria -- he was making the U.S. think about them. That’s what they want,” Lesch says. “They want to be taken seriously.”

Lesch and Assad plan to meet again this summer, but he wonders whether the relationship will continue if the U.S.-Syria ties improve over the coming months and Assad finds more influential Americans to speak with.

“He values my opinions and ideas, and it continues unabated for the time being,” he says. “If the meetings are discontinued, then I imagine we each served each other’s purposes for the five or six years when circumstances dictated it.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Beirut Bureau chief Daragahi was recently on assignment in Paris.


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