Dr. David Lesch has published over 16 books with a particular focus on Syria, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Middle East and the current regional issues. He talks about how he became to befriend the leader of Syria and worked to counsel restraint in the Middle East. He has been sought after by many NGO’s to help broker peace and he joins us to discuss it all.
Justin Hill: Hello and Bienvenido, San Antonio. Welcome to the Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On the Alamo hour, you’ll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We’re glad that you’re here.
Today’s guest is Dr. David Lesch. Dr. Lesch is a San Antonio local, former professional athlete. I think Harvard PhD, right?
David Lesch: Harvard PhD.
Justin: I want to say Yale just to mess with you. He’s a Middle East expert. He’s a professor at Trinity. He’s one of my good friends. We have him on here today to talk about a few things which the plan was always to have you on to talk about Middle East but now we get to talk about the international effect of this. I still want to talk Middle East, I still want to talk Syria, but first, thank you for being here.
David: Pleasure to be here.
Justin: I’ve started with everybody the same way. I want to just go through some general information. First, important to me, do you have any pets?
David: No. I used to have two, one good one, one bad one.
Justin: What were they?
David: Dogs. [laughs]
Justin: All right. Why not now?
David: Because I’ve been there. I’ve done that. We have actually good furniture now. We don’t want to get these things bitten or feed on or anything else.
Justin: This is exactly what I expect your response to be. I know what your favorite restaurant is right now. That one’s marked off the list. What’s your–
David: What do you know about that restaurant?
Justin: That it has good food.
David: There’s one other thing. [laughs]
Justin: I don’t know right now.
David: That’s okay. You just need to look at the menu next time. Yes.
Justin: Oh, they have a to go?
David: Yes, yes.
Justin: I forgot. I will let you do that. Dr. Lesch has a–
David: Oh, no, no. It’s not for me. It’s for you to mention it so I look humble.
Justin: A dish named after him-
David: A dish named after me-
Justin: -at J-Prime.
David: -at J-Prime.
Justin: I can’t imagine what [crosstalk]
David: It’s called the Lesch Lobster or Lesch [unintelligible 00:02:00]
David: It’s a dish I found at a restaurant in Toronto. I brought it to the manager there. He loved it and he honored me, because I spent a lot of money there, [chuckles] to name the dish after me.
Justin: Very manly dish.
David: It is a very manly dish, especially when you dip it.
Justin: Other than J-Prime, what’s your favorite place to eat in town?
David: J-Prime. [laughs] Did you mention J-Prime?
Justin: Do you ever eat like the locals eat? Maybe a taqueria or a burger joint?
David: What are those? I don’t know.
Justin: Yes, okay.
David: Perry’s maybe, The Perry’s–
Downtown maybe Bohanan’s.
Justin: Okay. This is going about where you should go. I asked everybody this. I’m going to because I think everybody’s got this- if you come to San Antonio, you have to do this one thing. What is your hidden gem in San Antonio that you told visitors they’ve got to go see?
David: Oh, J-Prime.
It’s going nowhere. You regret having me on. Now, hidden gem? It used to be the Liberty Bar when it was at its other location. Before I brought anybody anywhere from out of town it used to be on where the Pearl is now, that house that’s leaning over and warped and everything. It was a fantastic place, and now it’s on the Southside. That used to be the unique experience. Other than that right now, it’s just, I don’t know, there’s something called the Alamo? Is that something that people go to?
Justin: Yesterday’s guest said, “The Esquire bar.”
David: The Esquire bar. Oh, maybe the 1919 bar, which is pretty good, the Southtown. I love these old iconic places bar.
Justin: Liberty Bar is in Southtown now, not Southside.
David: Did I say Southside?
Justin: You did. You do live in Stone Oak [crosstalk]
David: Do you need a passport to get down there?
Justin: You probably do.
David: Yes, I probably do. Okay.
Justin: All right. This is going great. Next, what are you involved with outside of work? Usually, we’re asking, are you involved with any nonprofits?
David: I’m involved in a number of them. A number of conflict resolution, NGOs, international NGOs. One that I’m very proud of in which I’m very much engaged currently, is an organization called Cure Violence-
-based in Washington, DC. You see, you should never do this with a friend.
Justin: I don’t even know what’s funny now.
David: You should never do this with a friend.
Justin: Okay, let’s keep it going
David: Yes, based in Washington, DC. What it does–
Justin: This is part of the shutdown coming.
David: This is what you need to edit out.
Justin: Cabin fever [crosstalk]
David: Exactly. Now, Cure Violence, it was rated by whoever rates these things, the number one conflict resolution or violence prevention NGO in the world, and it’s number nine overall. What it is? It’s apropos to what’s going on in the world today.
Justin: This isn’t getting edited out. This is [crosstalk]
David: You know what? We need levity in this world today.
Justin: We do.
David: [laughs] Never ever do– The audience, if you can see this, he’s making faces at me.
David: Anyway, going back to Cure Violence. It’s a world-renowned epidemiologist, who used to work on Ebola and HIV in Africa, he wants to bring a health solution to violence. In other words, treat violence as an epidemic. How do we deal with epidemics? We contain it, we find vaccines, antibodies, things of this nature. He developed this model for interrupting violence at the local level in prisons, to gang violence in cities, to curtail violence. Finally, where I become involved, more specifically to violence in terms of war. Particularly, right now, we have operations in Syria.
What the organization does is it trains local community leaders in the areas where there’s a lot of violence. They train them as interrupters in order to enact compromise, in order to talk to various people that may be on the verge of conflict, to try to get them down from that perch. It’s worked beautifully.
Justin: A scientific approach to ending violence.
David: A scientific approach to ending or curtailing violence and murders and so forth. In a number of cities in which they are involved have gone down precipitously by 40% to 60%.
Justin: Internationally or more of an American-based [crosstalk]
David: It started American and domestic in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Baltimore. It’s been very, very successful. They don’t go to the whole city. Usually, they start out in, obviously, the various neighborhoods where there’s a high incidence of crime. Then, from there, they started to go internationally. They go into Central and South America and deal with cartel situations where there’s a high incidence of violence. Of course, as I just said, they have expanded into the Middle East. They’re in the Gaza Strip. They are in Iraq in a certain degree in the last year. We’ve been going into Syria, into government-controlled, as well as opposition-controlled areas, to train people.
In a situation such as Syria, where eight years of civil war, the war will end- and in effect, in some ways, it has ended. As one of my colleagues, one of the top conflict resolution specialists in the world, said to me one time, he said, “When the war ends, that’s when the conflict begins.” You have all of these animosities, you have all of these vengeful attitudes, all of these things you have to deal with. You have the fractioning of society, economic dislocation, all of these things, all of these triggers for potential violence. We come in or Cure Violence comes in and identifies those triggers and help prevent them from being pulled, and if they are pulled, prevent it from getting worse.
In fact, recently, we may try to get them into San Antonio, into some areas. I have been in discussion with the city to do that. Obviously, with what’s going on right now, it’s in abeyance for the time being, but at some point, we may bring them into San Antonio.
Justin: We had a big spike in violence there for a while, violent crime.
David: Yes, particularly. Yes.
Justin: Is that the impetus in getting them involved here?
David: Yes, exactly. The key in all these things is funding, will the funding come from the city, will it come from the state, how much is needed, and so forth and so on. We’re just in beginning discussions with that right now.
Justin: Do you have any hobbies outside of what I know about and come on, be careful here. I know you play tennis.
David: Play tennis.
Justin: You were a Major League Baseball pitcher at one point.
David: Professional baseball but I never made the major leagues. I was the number one draft pick of the Dodgers and it was in the minor leagues for a few years until a rotator cuff injury ended my- what, otherwise, would have been an illustrious career in the major leagues. I’m sure–
Justin: You were a professional baseball player.
David: I was a professional baseball player. In fact, I used to be lots of things. I was many, many things.
Justin: I’ve heard you tell people that.
David: I know. Yes, currently, I play tennis not as much as I used to because I’ve– I’m a young guy as you know but my knees are quite old because of all the wear and tear that professional athletes go under.
Justin: Yes, being an international diplomat is very tough on the body.
David: Well, you walk a lot. Seriously, you walk back and forth, you shuttle diplomacy. [crosstalk]
Justin: With working, I could see you being a crochet guy.
David: I have a dream to play Cristofori’s Dream on the piano, as well as Moonlighter, Midnight Sonata by Beethoven. It’s Moonlight, whatever. Those are my two– Before the arthritis in the fingers set in, I used to play–
Justin: Can you play the piano?
David: I can play some piano.
David: Do you want me to– Do you have a portable piano here?
David: Too bad. The listeners [crosstalk]
Justin: For our listeners, he’s pantomiming the piano right now.
David: [laughs] I’m putting myself in great jeopardy by saying I can do that.
Justin: How many languages do you speak?
Justin: Shut up. [laughs]
David: I can say yes in– I speak Arabic, of course, French, Spanish somewhat, and a little bit of English. I’m trying to get better at English.
Justin: This is one I need you to be real honest on. Whenever I was a younger man, I had a mullet. What was the terrible trend you followed when you were young?
David: Good heavens.
Justin: I’m sure there’s a good one for you.
David: Well, it’s called the 1970s. That was the terrible trend.
David: No, no. I was in a fried long hair and I was in the disco. I had–
David: Gross? Dude.
Justin: [laughs] It’s the worst confession.
David: Thanks. The last time I come on your show.
Justin: I think hair metal would be better if you could tell me that.
David: [laughs] I had a John Travolta outfit from Saturday Night Fever.
Justin: Big ABBA fan?
David: No. No, no. I was more of Led Zeppelin and that sort of thing, but also, I like disco because you went clubbing. That’s what you do.
Justin: Fair enough. Disco, another time. What year did you move to San Antonio?
Justin: You lived here straight ever since?
David: Yes. [chuckles] Are you asking my orientation? [laughs]
Justin: There’s something behind me at this point. Since you’re on the Northside–
David: I just want to let you know that after we’re done and if you air all of those and when it airs, if you air this, about 25 organizations are going to come after you for this and sue you for everything. All the–
Justin: I don’t think they will.
David: The thing is in this type of situation we need less PC and more levity.
Justin: I agree.
David: Everyone, loosen up a little bit and if we laugh a little bit and joke.
Justin: We’re a bit going to be stuck at home for at least two weeks.
David: Believe me, audience, Justin and I are being on our very best behavior.
Justin: I’m always on my best behavior.
David: Yes, right. [chuckles]
Justin: I was going to ask you what’s your favorite Fiesta event but you’re a Northsider. Do you even go to any Fiesta? If you say just on the Southside–
David: Is that on the Southside? [laughs]
Justin: Yes, for you it is. For you it is.
David: Of course, when we moved here, we went to all the events once. I went to NIOSA one time and I had at least five beers spilled on me.
Justin: Do you go to taste of the Northside now? It’s right down the street from here.
David: It went for a couple of years. I don’t do any of that stuff right now. It’s not just because of coronavirus. I’m not into crowds.
Justin: I don’t either.
David: Last thing I want to ask you, which you should have some sort of insight to, what is something about Syrian people you think our listeners should know? We get a bad taste in our mouth about everything Middle East because of the media but what is one of those small Americana-type things about those people?
Justin: They’re just people. They’re just like us. What they most want is to live in safety with their families, for their kids to grow up safely and have an opportunity to live their lives and have families themselves. One of my courses I teach at Trinity University is called the history of modern Syria. One of the films I show, and whoever filmed it, I don’t know how they got this access, it was during the, I guess, about 2006 or 2007. It was filmed before the civil war, during Bashar al-Asad’s time in power. All they did was film kids at two different schools and interview them about their lives. These are high school students.
I show it to my college students and they’re amazed. It’s like, “Wow, they’re just like us.” They play video games. They think about the guys and the gals and how to get together around the parents and stuff like that and all the same things that they think of. That’s the biggest thing and that’s why I’m such an advocate of study abroad and foreign travel for students just to break some of the stereotypes they may have that– There are unique customs and unique histories that we need to pay attention to and different parts of the world but bottom line, they’re really just people just like us. To know how warm they are, the Arab peoples- and peoples, generally, in the Middle East are just so warm and giving.
Of course, we usually just hear about them through the filter of war and terrorism and these types of things and so we make these generalized comments, which is at the root of prejudice. So many times I go to cocktail parties and people find out what I do and somebody who’s learned person, they’ll say, “What’s wrong with them?” It’s like, “There’s nothing wrong with them. There’s something wrong with a few of them just like there’s something wrong with a few of us,” including you.
David: I was not pointing at you. I was pointing at the person, who-
Justin: It’s okay. I can take it.
David: -a fictitious person who was asking me, but you too actually. That’s what I try to convey to students. If they come out of my classes, remembering the events and all that stuff, that’s fine, and the people and places, but the historical forces at work and the knowledge that– They’ve been through a lot, as we have. Every countries has their moments of conflict and civil strife and so forth. The Middle East, and we have to remember, the United States, it took 100 years to gain some semblance of stability. We’re still dealing with a lot of problems. We had our own devastating civil war and yet we were isolated from everybody.
People in the Middle East are at the epicenter of it all. Two-thirds the world’s oil supplies are located there. It’s at a crossroads of civilization, a crossroads of trade. The Holy Land is there. There’s so much attention there. Geostrategically, it’s quite important.
Justin: With boundaries that were made up [crosstalk]
David: Made up artificially by the Europeans for the most part after World War I. One of the problems is a lack of identity in the Middle East because of, in many cases, these artificial boundaries. What are you? Are you an Egyptian? Are you a Syrian? Are you as Sunni? Are you a Shiite? Are you a Christian? Are you a Kurdish? Are you Armenian? Are you Arab? There are these multiple identities. What happens is when there’s a breakdown in the state, people tend to identify with their sub-national identities. In some cases, even this country, it’s starting to do a little bit of that, and that’s problematic.
They just haven’t had the time or the breathing space to develop a stable political, economic, socioeconomic, cultural institutions that can breed stability well into the future. Europe [laughs] went through all sorts of stuff for two centuries. Most of these countries are very very young in the Middle East. They’re still working through a lot of their problems. They’re still going through the growing pains of development, especially with all of these interested parties from the outside poking their hands in and manipulating things every now and then are just enough. The Arab Spring can be seen as part of that. It’s a story that, obviously, is still ongoing. It’s maybe not even halfway through in terms of reaching a level of stability and economic well-being that people elsewhere in the world enjoy.
That’s just part of history and part of life over there. They’ll get to it. They are very proud people. They are very entrepreneurial people, and wonderful people overall.
Justin: At the heart of it, people are people.
David: People are people.
Justin: One of the eye-opening moments in my life, which everybody has those but I read an article by a psychologist and she was doing trauma treatment for, I don’t know if it was the Forgotten Women, the Boko Haram thing, but it was a large group of women who had been kidnapped and treated terribly over a long amount of time, the worst of the worst people could go through. She was trying to provide therapy and doing a study how people overcome trauma.
Her deal, at the end of the day, was all they wanted to talk about was boys. She said, “Really, at the end of it, people even who’d gone through the worst trauma, they’re just people who want to live a normal life.” It was always very eye-opening to me that was her take on it.
David: A lot of people go through these national traumas. One of the things with regard to a civil war such as that which has occurred and is occurring in Syria is that it’s not just the physical reconstruction of the country, it’s the mental and emotional reconstruction of the country. This is one of the things I’m working on with various groups, is trying to develop what are called these reconciliation panels, which were applied in South Africa and Northern Island to a great effect, just bringing these people together, people that otherwise want to kill each other through vengeance in the aftermath of the civil war and bringing them together to air their grievances, to air their shared suffering.
That’s one of the things that people start to understand suffering from the other side. They can relate to them in a better way than they would have otherwise by just seeing them as this enemy.
Justin: I want to go down that path, but let’s start at some point. You went to Harvard and got your PhD in Middle East studies.
Justin: Then there’s somewhere along the line, you befriended Bashar al-Asad.
David: It was over eHarmony.
Justin: I doubt that would probably be his choice.
David: I wanted a Middle Eastern authoritarian leader. I was looking for a female, but there’s not that many around. Golda Meir’s no longer there, and so all these–
Justin: I feel like you’re going to have a hard time ever seeing him again at this point.
David: Probably, and so all these came up and Bashar was there, and we started- we became BFFs.
Justin: You sent a flirt and the next thing you know–
David: [laughs] The next thing you know I’m visiting him in Syria. In all seriousness, I’d been going to Syria for some time. My first time there was 1989. I’ve been there some 35, 40 times and oftentimes stayed there for months at a time. Because I’m an academic, I established a very good network amongst academics in Syria, University of Damascus, Aleppo University, places like that, the Al-Baath University in Homs. When Bashar al-Asad came to power after his father died in 2000, he brought a lot of academics into the government, which maybe is the sign of the apocalypse, [chuckles] but a lot of people had hope for him. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of people had hope because he didn’t bring in apparatchiks, he didn’t bring in–
David: Yes, or nepotism or something. He brought in a lot of people who were good at what they do, at least on the surface, and many of them not even members of the Ba’ath party. Well, he brought in several of my friends into the cabinet. One friend, in particular, one of my dear friends who became minister of higher education. It’s through him in 2002, Bashar came to power in 2000, that I contacted him and said, “You know, Bashar has had a very different type of path toward the “Middle East authoritarian leader”, the president of Syria,” because as you probably know, but many of our listeners may not know, is he was a licensed ophthalmologist and pursuing a career in Opthalmology, when in 1994, his older brother, who was being groomed to take over for his father, died in a car accident.
Bashar al-Asad was in London at the time, at the Western Eye Hospital, getting essentially board-certified in Opthalmology. They brought him back and then slowly integrated him into the ruling apparatus. Till by the time his father died in 2000, he was ready to take over.
Justin: Somewhat reluctantly, though.
David: Somewhat reluctantly, and somewhat without a lot of power in the beginning, because there was a lot of this so-called Old guard under his father that were there that looked at him as a last-second replacement type of thing. He didn’t have legitimacy at first. He gained it. He worked hard for it over the next six years, and I saw him grow in that. I started seeing him, interviewing him for a book, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria, published by Yale University Press. It came out in 2005. I first started seeing him for that.
That’s when I asked my friend, I asked him, “I want to do a biography on him within the context of modern Syria,” because he has such a unique background, other than like the Saddam Husseins or Muammar Gaddafis, or even his father, Hafez al-Asad, which is why many people hoped he would be different. Two years after, almost to the day that I made my inquiry, in 2004, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, who was a good friend of mine, who was an academic, not a member of the Ba’ath party, he called me up and he said, “David, it’s on.” By that time, I’d basically forgotten about this, I said, “What’s on?” “Because now the president wants to see you to help with his book.” I went and I saw him.
The first time that I saw him, after the pleasantries were exchanged, I explained what I want to do. I said two things. One, “I’m not an apologist for Syria. I’m going to criticize you in this book.” He goes, “That’s fine. I understand that, because I’ve read the other stuff that you’ve done, and my father always thought you were fair, and I think you’re fair, even though you do criticize us.” Then the second thing l said was, “You know the biggest mistake you made, Mr. President, when you came to power?” He goes, “What?” I go, “When you made it known that you liked Phil Collins’ music.”
He just laughed. He had a weird look, and he’s, “So this is the guy we’re inviting here? He’s talking to me of Phil Collins,” but he understood what I meant in that he created these expectations in the West that since he went to Opthalmology school in London, he was known to be a computer nerd, he liked the music of the West and the gadgets and toys of the West, that he would be a pro-Western–
Justin: Phil Collins or Phil Collins Genesis?
David: Phil Collins, both.
David: Yes. I liked Genesis better.
Justin: Also, a big San Antonio connection there.
David: Yes, the Alamo. Yes. Kind of weird there, though.
Justin: But he’s off. He gave it away, yes.
David: Yes, he’s donating all the stuff. Anyway, that’s created this image in the West that was just untenable. It really was unattainable because people in the West forgot that even though he spent a couple of years in London, he spent the rest of his life in Syria. He was a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was a child of the superpower cold war. He was a child of the tumult in Lebanon. Then, most of all, he was a child of Hafez al-Asad. These were the primary influences on his life, and the things that provided the context and prism from which he saw the world.
Justin: I guess my question is, what is the West? The West can have an image, that’s fine, but what is their take on it? Is it, “This would be an ally for us. We will be able to get a foothold,” or what is the next take on why that matters to the West?
David: Sorry, could you repeat that? I was opening my tie, coat–
Justin: It’s all good. There’s a San Antonio specials and we’re supporting local right now.
David: Very good, excellent. Could you repeat that? I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening to you, again.
Justin: When you said that there was this belief that he has come to power, and he has connections with the West was going to be good for the West, what did that mean diplomatically? Did people think he would be an ally for Western forces or what?
David: Yes. Well, they thought that he would continue to pursue peace with Israel as his father began to do towards the end of his life. That he might reduce Iran’s presence and Hizbullah’s presence in Syria. All of these things he was willing to do, and he himself engaged in secret talks with the Israelis. I had talks with him on several occasions about reducing the Iranian footprint in Hizbullah, and these were things he was willing to consider for a price. “You get me the Golan Heights,” which is the epicenter of an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. Israel took the Golan Heights in the ’67 war. That’s become the be-all and end-all for Syrian foreign policy, at that time, was to get the Golan Heights back. He’s not going to do all these things for free. He’s transactional in his own way, but he was willing to consider all these things.
I think, especially after 9/11, he was on the wrong side of the fence. In terms of the Bush administration, said basically, “You have to be on our side of the fence.” In other words, “We’re not going to give you anything to get rid of your connection with Hizbullah. You have to get rid of Hizbullah before we give you anything.” He’s saying, “No, that’s not how it works. That’s not how my traditional relationship with the United States has been under myself or my father,” in the sense that they were able to play both sides of the fence. They were able to cooperate with the United States on occasion, such as in the 1990-1991 Gulf Crisis and war, when Syria sent troops on the side of the US–
Justin: Is it just because everybody hated Saddam Hussein?
David: Well, partly.
Justin: I mean, it was crazy how everybody came to [crosstalk]
David: That was partly it, but people don’t do these things unless it’s for their own specific interest. For Syria, at the time, it was the end of the cold war. The Soviet Union was falling apart. They weren’t going to get much economic and military support from the Soviet Union in the future. “We need to start amending our relations with the West or mending our relations with the West.” What better way to do this? “This just provided us with an opportunity to do that, so we’ll send a few hundred troops.” They didn’t fight or anything, but it’s symbolic. It re-oriented Syria in a not a pro-Western position, but in a position where it could cooperate more with the West, and again, with Israel.
Justin: A good start.
David: A good start, yes.
Justin: Because this is my podcast, I’ll do whatever I want. I want to ask you a question. In the ’67 war, Israel also took the Suez Canal and then–
David: No, it took the Sinai Peninsula, and by taking the Sinai Peninsula, it closed the Suez Canal. It didn’t take the Suez Canal, but because they were on one side–
Justin: They controlled it?
David: They didn’t control it. They were on one side, the Egyptians were on the other, but it was closed. In effect, Israel controlled it by closing it.
Justin: That was a big negotiation point. They gave that back to Egypt, and Egypt had to agree–
David: In the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, Israel agreed to a phased withdrawal of the Sinai Peninsula, which was very important to Egypt because they could reopen the Suez Canal, which is, with their tolls, is a very important economic benefit to Egypt. The oil fields in Egypt, they’re not an insignificant oil producer, are a stride, the Sinai Peninsula on or just off-shore. Israel had those for a while, and just a peace with Israel would allow Egypt to redirect government funds toward the military, toward the economy, which they direly needed.
Justin: Was there any similar negotiations with Syria for the Golan Heights at that point?
David: Not at that point. I mean, not in 1979. This started for real after the Gulf crisis and war, and that’s what Syria kind of got from this.
Justin: In the meantime, it was just a stalemate?
David: Pretty much. There were some negotiations in terms of a disengagement agreement following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war that Kissinger engaged in, his famous shuttle diplomacy between Asad and the United States and Israel. That was mostly just disengagement. It wasn’t about the return of the Golan Heights.
Justin: Okay. You’ve met Asad now, you’re working on your book in 2005. How’s your relationship with Asad now?
David: It’s been through a number of things. When the civil war broke out in 2011, or when the uprising broke out in March 2011, we were actually in touch, and I had some recommendations for him on what to do. I wrote a letter to him through an intermediary. I never knew he read it until I went to Syria during the war and talked to some of his associates, and he said, “Oh, yes. He read the letter. In fact, it was a primary item of discussion at a cabinet-level meeting.” That made me feel good and bad, but that they were willing to discuss some of the concessions I recommended he make to ward off civil war. Now concessions among who– I mean from the government, from him.
Justin: [inaudible 00:30:12]
David: From him, particularly term limits, set a term limit and set a real election UN supervised and move on. In the retrospect I don’t know if that would’ve worked, it couldn’t have done worse. [chuckles]
Justin: Because there’s was just a popular uprising at this point or?
David: It was a popular uprising that turned into a full-fledged civil war, especially when outside powers became involved through [unintelligible 00:30:33].
Justin: I should know, I didn’t know if these were travel issues or–
David: No. These were economic issues. [crosstalk]
Justin: It was there [inaudible 00:30:12].
David: Exactly, it was socio-economic. In fact, that’s one of the things the Arab Spring was slow to get to Syria because of the history of what the Syrian government does to those who protest. The Syrian people having seen what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Yemen before them with governments falling the barrier fear was broken, both the opposition and the government when I was interviewing them during the civil war agreed that without the Arab Spring, this wouldn’t have happened.
What people didn’t know and what people wrongly assumed is that Bashar al-Assad would fall easily and that’s not the case. I was saying at the time that you need to talk to Bashar al-Assad because he’s going to be there for a while. He’s not going to fall. It’s not going to be very easy. His outside support, i.e. Russian, Iran want him to stay in power much more than the United States, Saudi Arabia, Europe want him to fall.
They were willing to commit, many more resources and they did. In fact, that’s what Barack Obama basically said to the National Security Council meeting, and a good friend of mine was in that meeting where they were saying, “We need to support the opposition. We need to assert ourselves more.” Basically, Obama said, “Can any of you tell me and if we do that the Russians and the Iranians won’t do more.” Because it’s more important to them, Syria is much more important to them than it is to us.
Plus, the Obama administration was negotiating with Iran for the nuclear deal at the time so they didn’t really want to do much in Syria that might upset Iran and scuttle the secret negotiations toward the nuclear deal, which was the signature foreign policy at least for Obama at the time.
Justin: How did it go from, he was considering your, I assume very diplomatic, reasonable approach to getting out of this problem to barrel bombs dropped over cities?
David: Necessity, expediency. [crosstalk]
Justin: In a corner?
David: Yes. It was an existential fight. He sucked the Alawites about 10%, 13% of the population, it’s a schism of 12 or Shiite Islam. They worked very hard. They worked for centuries and centuries the downtrodden, the repressed without any opportunity for upward social mobility in Syria. A strange set of circumstances occurred in the 20th century they were well-placed in the military. They finally came to power in the early ‘60s. They’re going to do everything they can to keep power and especially when the opposition became much more jihadist, who was almost a religious ruling to kill Alawites if not Shiites, in general.
I had some opposition jihadist who I interviewed in Northern Syria during the civil war and they were saying, “We hate to confront Alawite battalions. Because we know they’ll fight to the death because they know we’re going to kill them all. Whereas, others Sunni’s and some other, non-Alawite opposition militias or groups they’ll surrender.” These guys will fight to death because they never going to fall.
Justin: How would they know they were Alawite?
David: They just know. They know who makes up, this type of things are known– [crosstalk]
Justin: Certain battalions?
David: Certain battalions that come from certain cities where certain insignia and stuff like that they know these things or suspect these things. Plus, when they see that they’re fighting to the death, these guys must be Alawite.
Justin: Sure. I don’t want to be dumb American and saying, “What is Russia and Iran main reason to ally with Syria other than oil?” What is the connection there?
David: It’s not oil. In fact, it’s with Iran it’s maintaining its influence in the Heartland in the Middle East because Syria is the conduit to Hezbollah, the Party of God in Lebanon, which extends Iranian influence all the way to the Israeli border. In addition, it gives Iran some strategic depth. For Russia it’s an avenue through which to recreate its influence in the Middle East, which had lost after the breakup of the Soviet Union and they’ve done that and they’ve shown that they’ve been a reliable ally.
They’ve expanded their Naval base, in Tartus in Syria and built air base just outside of Latakia in North-Western Syria. They’re entrenched now in Syria and through that they’ve become the primary arbiter of political power in Syria in terms of a political settlement. Because of that, they’ve become a diplomatic force in the Middle East, which they weren’t before this time.
Justin: Hezbollah originate in Syria?
David: No, it’s Lebanese. In alliance between Iran, Hezbollah and Syria has allowed both Iran and Syria to extend their influence in Lebanon, which is very important for Syria for strategic reasons, for economic reasons, et cetera. Getting back, we start all this because you asked me what does Assad think of our relationship now, it’s mending because at the beginning of the civil war, I got into, I wrote him this letter and everything, but I was pretty critical of his actions.
I wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times really criticizing his first speech that he made to the nation on March 30th, 2011. I call it a pathetic, and suggested some of these moves that obviously he did not adopt. Then a book I wrote it was published in 2013 by Yale University Press again, it was called The Fall of the House of Assad. It was supposed to have a question mark at the end.
They don’t like question marks, so they took it off, but that obviously that name didn’t– [crosstalk] In fact, they told me, I heard from people who met with Assad that he was very upset about that. I said, “Did he read it?” Because if you read it, I paint out these scenarios at the end and I say, “The most likely scenario is Assad surviving and so you’re going to have to deal with him and negotiate with him.” If he read it, he probably like it more than he would otherwise.
It’s mending now because of the situation series, they were in economic dire straits. I tried to tell them that “I have access in Washington, in Brussels, in Moscow, in London and these places because I criticize you”. If I was an apologist, they wouldn’t take me in, but I don’t go over, I don’t go overboard. I’m not calling for the continued overthrow the regime. I recognize the realities you won, you’re staying in power. We have to deal with you. Whether you like it or not we have to deal with you, so that’s my message.
You have to deal with that if you want to really have access through people to the powers that be in Washington and the UN and elsewhere. The extent of his disappointment, I guess I’ll just say in me it was I guess about two, three years ago, I was in London I was meeting an associate who meets with him often. He had arranged a meeting between myself and Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, who was a very powerful in Syria.
Really great guy. I met him years ago. He’s a world-renowned cardiologist who’s lived in London for decades, great guy. All three meet for dinner and we arrived and my contact arrived and he said, “The doctor is not going to be able to make it.” I go, “Why?” He got a call from Damascus to not have dinner with you. I guess so Damascus was at [unintelligible 00:38:04] the intelligence. No, it was, you know who, the boss and so that told me it was very personal.
It also told me that I think he thought our relationship was much more than what I thought it was. I considered him a friend. I liked him. I think he thinks he’s doing everything he’s doing for the wellbeing of the country, no matter how warped other people may think that is from his prison, from his vantage point. He thinks he saved the country and saved a way of life from the jihadist. There’s some a kernel of truth to that but it’s improved of late and I’m hoping that it will continue to improve.
Justin: What is your continued involvement because I know probably once we became friends, you were doing diplomatic work for the UN. Are you doing anything anymore in the international diplomacy in the world?
David: Yes. I’m working with the UN, working with Washington. I work a lot with the Carter Center in Atlanta and through them involved in a number of initiatives and all of it is dealing with some aspect of conflict resolution, political settlement, governance issues, political reform, stuff like that.
Justin: Are you still writing?
Justin: What are you writing now?
David: Right now I’m working on a book for Oxford University Press tentatively called The History of the Middle East From the Prophet Muhammad to the Present so short span of time. It’s only 1,400 years or so, [crosstalk] 70 volume set. No, it’s not going to be that long. It’s going to be one that is accessible to the general reader, probably about 300, 350 pages long so not that bad.
Justin: When I get an invite to your book–
David: Publication and party, sure, if you don’t make fun of me, like you did last time.
Justin: It was something out of a movie, honestly. I was not expecting that.
Justin: You opened a book and you started reading. I think you literally said, “Recently at a cocktail party.” I thought I was in a movie. I thought I was seeing a caricature of a moment in life, but it was a real moment in life.
David: It was a real moment in life. I don’t know whether take that in a positive or negative way but–
Justin: If it’s coming from me.
David: It’s a negative way, yes, sure.
Justin: The next thing I want to talk to you about a little a bit–
David: I think you left right after that, when I went to–
Justin: I stayed long enough to say hello to you.
David: Well, you stayed long enough to get some food and drink and free [inaudible 00:40:36].
Justin: I didn’t eat any of that food.
David: It was really good food.
Justin: I was going to have to walk up to the front to get the food.
Justin: I was staying in the back.
Justin: The next thing I want to talk to you about is, you have some experience and decades of experience, really, and I guess, regional stability issues and regional instability issues. How do you see what’s become a global pandemic of this coronavirus? How do you see it affecting regional stability in the Middle East, or not at all?
Do you think this is going to have ripple effects into the peace process or lack thereof? Set it back, set it forward? People are talking about here, one of the great effects might be this, at least slight drop in partisan war. Do you see any changes in the Middle East or regional stability or with us?
David: We hope so. Crises like this can go one or two directions. It could lead toward more unity, or it could split people apart based on what’s happened. I’ve seen both so far in the United States. I think what this is doing internationally is basically putting everything on hold. Everyone’s focusing on this and not focusing on a number of other things.
Which if it’s war that you’re focusing on it’s a good thing that that’s on hold. If it’s a peace process you’re focusing on and you were on the precipice of attaining it, and all of a sudden it’s on hold then that’s not a good thing. I think it depends on the specific situation, where you are. We hope all sing Kumbaya after this and that’ll bring the world together.
On the other hand, a lot of people are going to be saying, “This is one of the primary effects of globalization.” It could very well lead to a more isolationist period, where people are not traveling as much or don’t want to integrate as much with other cultures because this is what can happen.
I think that’s obviously from my point of view the wrong conclusion, but I think a lot of people are going to react in that fashion, I hope not. We see this already with people calling this the China virus and so forth, which is unfortunate. Much like we call it the Spanish flu back in 1918.
Justin: That started in Kansas.
David: We find scapegoats and everyone is to blame other than us and that happens all over the world. If that’s the case, then this could be problematic toward international relations, international diplomacy but I’m a glass half-full person. I have to be, because I focus on the Middle East. If I was a half-empty type person, I would have killed myself a long time ago.
I tend to look at the better parts of humanity. I believe in an international humanism that most people are good. As we’ve talked about earlier, people are just people. The bottom line is that they want to live safely and be able to get bread and food and put their children to bed without bombs going off and under a shelter, and put them in school and stuff like that.
I hope that overwhelming groundswell can outlast and overwhelm the divisive political tendencies of leaderships around the world. Yes, globalization in many ways is at the root of the rapidity of the transfer of this virus, but globalization will help solve the issue too. That’s what I hope in the end when this is resolved, people will take a snapshot of that rather than take a snapshot of what caused it.
Justin: Is that happening? Is there a diplomatic group effort right now to fix this? Because you heard early on that we were rejecting help from other countries and other countries were rejecting our asks for science. Are you hearing or seeing or have any understanding as to whether or not those barriers are coming down and people are starting to take this serious?
David: I used to be a top-down type person, I still am to a certain degree in terms of effecting real change in the world, the leaderships basically. I’ve come to realize in a practical way, that it’s more bottom-up and that takes longer but it’s more sustainable, I think. That’s one of the reasons why as you know, I’ve gotten involved in local politics much more so than I have in the past.
In the past, I didn’t even know when the mayoral election was, but now I’m heavily involved and back certain people. I hold these brainstorming sessions for certain politicians and to help them come up with some good ideas, and so forth. I think it’s at this local level, where you can get this cross-cultural, cross-political, interdisciplinary type of cooperation in order to get things done.
Again, if you have good leadership, I think we have good leadership in San Antonio right now in order to affect this. Then you piece these little things together. These responses in cities, and towns, and states. It will from the bottom-up eventually, it will compel or obligate the leaders to go along rather than the other way around. Especially at this current time because I think leadership from Washington is lacking. Leadership from a lot of areas in the world is lacking in response to this.
Justin: In situations like this, or is it going to be those NGOs that are the bottom-up processing and fomenting the space?
David: Absolutely. God bless all of them. These are the guys and gals that put themselves out on the front lines constantly. As I said, I was in Syria during the war and bombs going off and all this stuff because I thought was the right thing to do, to try to find ways to work-conflict resolution.
I do that episodically. You have thousands and thousands of these people doing this on a daily basis, putting their lives at risk. They are the Sentinels and we need to recognize that. I think in a way we’re going to see that. We’re going to see tremendous sacrifice and tremendous energy and focus in dealing with this problem. It will be resolved and we’re going to beat this disease, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just a matter of when.
Justin: At what cost.
David: And at what cost. Hopefully at the end of the day, we can we can recognize all of these efforts from the small to the big that get this done. We see that this crosses all sorts of boundaries that we have erected or have preconceived notions of, that is my hope. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It could go in the opposite direction easily, but that is my hope, because that’s the only way we’re going to deal with this in a cooperative, globally, harmonious way into the future.
That goes from the local level, to the national level, to the international level. I think we have it in us. I really do believe we have it in us. I just wish we had better leadership at the national level, at the international level to get this done. If it doesn’t come from that direction, let’s do it from the bottom-up. It’ll get done one way or another.
Justin: First, I want to talk to you a little bit about San Antonio, since you touched on it, but I also want to point out how smart I am because I actually wrote down how this affects isolationism from a global perspective, and you touched on it. I just wanted to brag about how– [crosstalk]
David: No. I think you wrote that down after I talked about it.
David: I saw you scribbling.
Justin: In typing?
David: I’m not going to give you credit.
Justin: In typing?
David: Yes, I don’t see that. I didn’t put my glasses on.
Justin: All I could think of is, I think of the not my backyard guys. You just can’t do that anymore because this virus started in industrial China that people think is somebody else’s backyard and well, now it is in our backyard. It ends that fallacy of we’re all separate.
Justin: Talk to me about your involvement with San Antonio. I know you’ve been involved with a mayor’s office from a perspective of we should be aiming international city. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’ve discussed with him our ability to pivot and be more involved from a larger perspective. What do you think San Antonio’s future is, in terms of being less of a– We’re a regional city in Texas. How do we become a more globally significant city?
David: I think it’s a mindset. This is one of the subjects I’ve discussed with the mayor, particularly in some of these brainstorming sessions we have. He has a very much internationalist point of view and very much wants to increase or enlarge the international footprint in San Antonio. You talked to one San Antonio and then they’ll say, “Yes, definitely we want more foreign investment in here. We want more foreign companies coming in and from all over the world and so forth.”
Then you talk to another one that will say, “I like it the way it is. I like having this big city but small town atmosphere. We don’t really want to change that.” That’s one of the attractions to me. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I love it here. Do we want it to become Houston? I think you just captured the push and pull San Antonio. [crosstalk]
Justin: I mean that is San Antonio.
David: Yes, exactly.
Justin: We’re on the precipice of the next big thing and holding back because we like what we got.
David: Exactly, and so I think it’s an attitude. I think growing the international footprint is inevitable. It has to be. That’s just the way things are going. We don’t necessarily have to lose a lot of the local flavor and intimacy that we enjoy. There are cities that I have successfully bridge those two things, and I think we can do that successfully with good leadership.
I mean, one of the things that a lot of people point to, one of the things I’ve been discussing with people here in town is, of course, air travel to San Antonio and increasing the number of direct flights to not only cities in the US but to Europe.
Justin: It’s a big problem here.
David: It’s a huge problem and unfortunately, we’re losing that to Austin and so forth. I think we missed a huge opportunity. When I first moved here, there were serious discussions about building a regional airport I35 like a Dallas Fort Worth type of airport between Austin and San Antonio. If we started then it may actually be done by now and it would be a behemoth. Absolutely, it’d be a hub for some major airlines and have international flights all over the place. Instead, we have two regional ones.
We have Austin because it’s the state capital, because of the technological sector and the money that is there, the research university, they’re getting the lion’s share of international flights. Although they’re not a hub for anybody, either, but they’re getting the lion’s share of international flights.
This is difficult and also just the transportation issue, the question of poverty in the city, education. Education is really at the core, the foundation, improving education at all levels in the city. I mean, Trinity is, of course, it’s world-class, one of the premier institutions, but it’s a small private liberal arts college it’s not going to be a UT that helps lift and provide the foundation for the growth of the city that has to be UTSA. I think it’s doing some things in that regard.
Justin: Do you think cybersecurity is going to be I mean, it already is our thing, but do you think it’s going to be what opening borders?
David: I mean, everyone has to find their value-added. Everyone has to find their comparative advantage. It seems that with the military presence here, we have an NSA office here and data point. One of my very, very good friends is a guy that I mentioned his name David Monroe, who invented the camera phone and he worked in data point. He works in all areas, not necessarily cybersecurity but yes, that too.
We have the brainpower here. We need the political will. We need education from the ground up, that can feed into the economic system here, which I don’t think has been done as well. We’re beginning to get there moving some of these elements from UTSA and Texas and into downtown, focusing on certain areas that create value-added to what we want to do as a city.
Justin: Do you think there’s a roadblock in the way in the city or more just we need to focus and get moving in the right direction?
David: I mean, one of the biggest roadblocks is parochialism. From the school level to the political level. One of the things I was working on, not with the mayor, but we apprised him of it. I put together my own little blue-ribbon group of– sorry, did you get the invitation?
Justin: No, it must have been lost in the mail.
David: You’re in the Red Ribbon.
Justin: I mean, I’ve seen who you’ve chose over me. I felt [inaudible 00:54:15].
David: [crosstalk] Really, but they were willing to pay for dinner. [laughs]
Justin: That probably the requirement.
David: These are community leaders, business leaders, academics. We were talking about governance in San Antonio. One of the things that we were recommending is that you have a strong mayor council type of governance system, which would require a referendum. You can only do one of these things every two years or so [inaudible 00:54:45].
Justin: Because we’re unique about city structure.
David: We’re a council-manager form of government, which most big cities are strong mayor council form of government, where the mayor has more power.
Justin: It’s kind of us and Phoenix.
David: Yes, exactly. Charlotte, I think is one or something like that. There’s a history behind that, particularly in the southwest.
Justin: I assume that’s not a good history.
David: Especially with water and racism.
Justin: Yes. That’s the water.
David: Yes. [laughs] I think we need to go in that direction. Hopefully, the mayor’s will be a strong mayor council situation, political system, they’ll be vetted much more than they are so today. They’ll have the powers if we elect a good one, to do the things necessary to lift this city in the right direction and toward further into the 21st century particularly in terms of transportation, education, dealing with poverty and equity and all of these things.
Justin: I should have asked you this. What do you think is the one thing San Antonio is lacking that they really need to step up on? I guess yesterday said we really need better transportation.
David: That was the top of my head, transportation. That goes from air travel to city local traffic and via and all that sort of stuff. I think we’ve really dropped the ball. We’ve really dropped the ball.
The mayor is trying to rectify that by getting more money toward this new transportation plan. He has to redirect more money toward this transportation plan he has. I just think we really dropped the ball along ago on this. Because of the parochial nature of the city, because of the council-manager form of government, which, again, is something of a– it doesn’t prohibit but it makes it much more difficult to call together the political capital and political critical mass to move something forward.
Justin: He’s got to be less responsive to the electorate.
David: It is.
Justin: I mean, you’re on salary, you’re not getting voted out.
David: Exactly. That would be my number one thing off the top of my head.
Justin: All right, we’ve almost gone an hour so I’m about to wrap up. David, I’ve asked you this before and you always give me some dumb response. I’m going to ask you. Some people really want to know what is a good primer on the Middle East? I told you what I read and you made fun of me for it.
David: What did you read?
Justin: Friedman’s first book?
David: Oh God. That was really stupid. [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:57:20].
Justin: The first book was good.
David: You have no idea what he’s doing.
Justin: It was good.
David: No, it isn’t.
Justin: I was 19. [crosstalk]
David: There are stupid things [unintelligible 00:57:27], I was reading it 19.
Justin: What is the good starters? Obviously, your book History Since Mohammad is not even out yet. Even if it was out, come on.
David: It’s not going to be too erudite. It’s in big letters. I have pictures, so you’ll be able to use audio version.
Justin: Do you read your own audio versions?
David: No, I do not.
Justin: Can I do one?
David: Sure, you have a good radio voice. You’re not getting money for it.
Justin: What’s a good prime?
David: You’re getting as much money for that as I am getting for this appearance.
Justin: Fair enough.
David: Fair enough. [laughs]
Justin: Two bears.
David: Two bears. That’s all right.
Justin: What is a good primer for people who want to know more about the Middle East and cut through the crap that we see on the news about this long-storied conflict?
David: There are a couple of books, one by James Gelvin, who’s a good friend of mine, we were at Harvard together. He wrote a book on The Modern Middle East. I think that’s really good. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, I’m going to be immodest and just say, my own book, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History by Oxford University Press. It goes over the whole history going back to the 1700s of the precursors of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the present. The second edition just came out and that’s the book from which I read about the cocktail party. That was for the audience who were really good [inaudible 00:58:48].
Justin: Can’t wait. [laughs]
David: Yes, you can’t wait. Then books on Islam, I would go to John Esposito, who used to be head of the Christian Muslim Center at Georgetown University. He’s written a number of books for the general audience on Islam and Islamism and Islamic fundamentalists and things like that. He’s very balanced and very knowledgeable.
Justin: Okay, but one from our very own San Antonio, David Lesch.
David: At least, do you want me to go over the others?
Justin: Well, you’ve got about 15 books listed on your-
David: Actually, I have 16. Thank you.
Justin: -on your Trinity page?
David: I don’t know. Is that my Trinity?
Justin: I think your Trinity page says 15 so you might want to update that.
David: I’m going to update that.
Justin: All right, David, thank you for joining us.
David: Thank you, brother.
Justin: Thank you for being our friend. Next time I want to get you on. There’s going to be a conflict over there at some point in the next nine months that we’ll have you back on to talk about specifically. Because really I like this stuff I think it’s nerdy and heady.
David: In that sense, I hope you do not have me on which means there won’t be a conflict but I’m always here.
Justin: [laughs] Okay, that does it for this episode. I’m ending with my wish list the people I want on it still continues to be Coach Pop, Robert Revard and Jackie Earle Haley. If you know him help us. Join us next episode. I don’t know who it’s going to be but it’s going to be somebody good. Thanks.
Recording: Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Alamo Hour. You are what make the city so great. We hope you join us next week. In the meantime, subscribe to our podcast. Check us out on Facebook @facebook.com/alamohour or our website, alamohour.com. Until next time, Viva San Antonio.
[01:00:41] [END OF AUDIO]