Just nine years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad welcomed a dozen American journalists to his starkly opulent Damascus palace on a hilltop overlooking the ancient city. Black government SUVs sped us through the streets of the capital to a red-carpeted entrance into the soaring structure. He had an agenda to show himself as the enthusiastic new reformer.

"Definitely, we are going to change," said the then-39-year-old leader, apologizing for his English proficiency, but holding his own for 90 minutes with few interruptions for translation help.

At that time in 2004, the U.S. had backed economic sanctions against Syria, alleging it allowed fighters to cross its border with Iraq to battle Western forces. Assad denied all, chiding the U.S. as not one to complain about border issues given the porous border with Mexico, and pricking America's pro-democracy mantra, asking, "Is it the democracy of the Abu Ghraib prison?"

"We don't know how sanctions will affect us, but it's not going to stop reform in Syria," he asserted.

Of course, there were centuries of traditions and customs to overcome, he demurred. And he was quite clear the U.S. pro-democracy efforts in the region would not be the deciding factor. Rather the Syrian way forward would be self-directed.

"We have started a dialogue here," he said. "The road is still very long. We are still in the beginning and we haven't made great progress."

Those were the days when Assad, the unexpected heir to his father's brutal dictatorship, was preaching economic, social and political reform.

He spoke of a desire to increase job opportunities, improve living standards, expand trade and provide more access to information and knowledge. He called these the "headlines of change" he backed.

But his truth-telling skills were compromised even then. He flatly denied Syrian Army influence in Lebanese politics or sending arms to Lebanon. All well-documented lies, but delivered with aplomb.

More pertinent to today were charges then of advanced chemical weapons capability and a stockpile of the nerve gas sarin.

While denying all, he eerily proceeded to describe the toxicity of chemical agents. Even a drop in a glass could kill, he explained, pretending to put a drop in his glass. It was such a vivid demonstration that most of us on an International Reporting Project-sponsored trip took a look at the mystery juice we had been sipping and left the rest untouched.

Assad's progress agenda has fallen silent. The London-trained ophthalmologist married to a British-born former J.P. Morgan employee still operates brutal prisons and has killed more than 100,000 of his own people since peaceful protests first emerged in 2011.

Millions are now refugees inside and outside Syria, and Damascus is tense as Congress considers President Barack Obama's request to authorize a limited military strike in response to Assad's recent and repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians. Meanwhile, Assad continues a bit of a public relations campaign, hosting a select few journalists. The stylish, suited leader with an Instagram account attempts to present an image of calm in a nation wracked by civil war and growing numbers of al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists.

Early in his tenure, some experts suggested the young Assad might not be the military strongman of his father's ilk. Now he looks much like his father, part of a minority Shiite faction with no hope of surviving any future coalition political solution to unrest. More likely, he could face indictment for crimes against humanity.

Given Assad's history of lies, lives taken and sanctions survived, limited military action can't be counted on to drive him to change course. As Obama said early in the uprising, Assad needs to go. But how remains the difficult unknown.

Miriam Pepper is the editorial page editor of The Kansas City Star. Readers can email her at mpepper@kcstar.com.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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