I first met Bashar al-Assad in his Damascus palace 10 years ago. In May 2003, I was part of a senior U.S. government team that went to Syria and told Assad to stop sending jihadists to Iraq to kill Americans; to stop supporting terrorist groups in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine; and to halt its development of weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. officials could not have been clearer as we dressed down the Syrian leader in his own home. Unfazed, he politely denied the veracity of all of our allegations and asked for evidence. So, some months later, another team of U.S. officials, including myself, traveled to Damascus and went one step further, showing him incontrovertible proof of the unacceptable behavior that, we warned, he needed to stop immediately. There was no ambiguity in our message — or so we thought.
But the message we thought we had conveyed to Assad was not the one he took away. Rather than feel frightened by our warning, Assad took comfort from the fact that U.S. officials went to the trouble of traveling to him to talk. From this, he deduced that his single overriding concern — physical survival — was no longer a worry: The United States wasn't going to topple him as it just had Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq.