Twenty-four years ago, U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a stirring speech in Berlin on the cusp of the end of the cold war. At the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall, long the symbol of the Iron Curtain caste by communism, President Reagan beseeched the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down this wall." Not that Gorbachev needed any prodding because he had already realized the inevitability of the collapse of the Soviet system. But with international encouragement and tangible support, Gorbachev engaged in the process of glasnost and perestroika, an opening up and restructuring of the Soviet Union. He was one of those singular leaders who first recognized and then seized the moment, and his legacy in engendering transformational change is safe and secure in the history books, even though the change he wrought eventually meant his own fall from power from the democratic processes he launched.
With perhaps less drama-and less gravitas-President Barack Obama, in his speech on May 19 laying out his vision of US policy at another potential turning point in history, in effect has asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to do the same thing. Commenting on countries that have experienced some level of an Arab spring in the region, when he came to Syria he said that Assad now has a choice: He can "lead the transition [toward democracy] or get out of the way."
Importantly, Obama did not declare Assad an illegitimate ruler that must go, as the United States has done with dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Perhaps it is unwarranted, but realizing the limits of what the United States can do and the fact that real change must emerge from within, he has given him one last chance. Many feel Assad have already forfeited any wiggle room out of his situation because of the violence he has unleashed-or been unable to curtail-on his people.
Will Assad tear down the wall of the police state in Syria? Will he, as Gorbachev did, realize the inevitability of change? Will he seize the moment? Will he commit himself to overseeing the transition to the future, or will he continue his current-and ultimately unsuccessful-attempts at maintaining the past?
People will scoff at my inclusion of Assad in the same breath with a Gorbachev. But I know him pretty well. I have been with him when he laid out his vision of a modernizing Syria finding a niche in the international marketplace. I have heard his detailed thoughts on reforming the educational system so Syrians could develop the necessary skills-set to compete at a global level. I have listened to what seemed to be his sincere desire to improve the lot of ordinary Syrians. He told me of his difficulty with math in elementary school, and when I visited with the teacher who gave him a poor grade, I was struck by the fact that he felt free to do so and that Assad's parents took steps similar to what all parents do to help their children eliminate distractions and improve their grades. He and I related as parents when he kiddingly bemoaned his children singing with him over and over and over the songs "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "We are the World" for their school plays. And I was with him in a very touching moment when he shared with me his inner hopes and dreams for his children and his commitment to do what he could to make them come true.
What I just wrote humanizes Assad. There are many who will detest this because it flies in the face of the convenient labeling of him as a tyrant and unrepentant killer who has neither the ability nor the interest in transitioning Syria toward democracy. To them, he has descended into the category of a Qaddafi. I know better. He is neither eccentric nor a bloodthirsty killer. But somewhere along the road he lost his way. The arrogance of power tends to do that, which is why even the most powerful country on earth has term limits for its presidents. Either he convinced himself or was convinced by others that what he is doing now in terms of violently putting down protests and not meeting the demands for change are both necessary and correct. They are not. Based on his escape act from the pressure and isolation imposed on Syria during the Bush years, he most likely believes he can do so once again. He won't.
Assad's initial strategic vision for an internationally respected and integrated Syria has been consumed by a Syrian paradigm of political survival. He desperately needs to break out of this stifling, anachronistic box and embrace a transformational role in his country. It will be difficult, with powerful pockets of resistance to any significant changes to the status quo potentially arrayed against him. Is he willing to boldly take them on? Can he be Gorbachev-like? Is he the father who did everything he could to ensure his children's future? Because if he is not all of these things, he will once again be faced with two possibilities: He will either be violently overthrown or be president of a country that has become the North Korea of the Middle East. I doubt this is what he really wants.
David W. Lesch is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University. He has published numerous books on the Middle East, including: The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History (Oxford University Press, 2008); The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (Yale University Press, 2005); The Middle East and the United States: History, Politics and Ideology (Westview Press, 2011, 5th ed); and 1979: The Year That Shaped the Modern Middle East (Westview Press, 2001).
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