Twice I’ve been in meetings with former or future heads of state, but unlike Bill Clinton (before) and Richard Nixon (after), the only time I’ve spoken with someone who actually held office was with Bashar al-Assad, in Syria six years ago. I was with a Christian peace group, and Assad was trying to alleviate his isolation. He came across as the opposite of a prototypical strong man, tall and thin and somewhat geeky, intelligent and articulate.

It was rumored then that much tougher men were the real forces of the regime. Bashar had inherited the Syrian presidency from his father, and with it the rather heavy obligations attached to the fact of his father having brutally extinguished an Islamist insurgency in 1982. From the very beginning then, Bashar was in a rule-or-die situation. If he had any inclination — which seemed quite plausible — to allow free elections and lose them, others from his ruling group would have made sure he understood that giving up power and going back to practicing ophthalmology in London was not, for him and his family, actually an option.

The Damascus I saw seemed inching its way towards a kind of Arab cosmopolitanism. Our group surely spent an inordinate amount of our time with representatives of Syria’s large Christian community, and the ruling Alawites. One knew there might be a volcano underneath, but how long it would remain dormant was anyone’s guess.

Now the volcano has blown. The Times reports that American diplomats are scrambling desperately to assure that al-Qaeda is not the prime beneficiary of the regime’s collapse, a difficult task because al-Qaeda formations have been the most effective anti-regime fighters. They have the best arms, supplied by the wealthy Arab gulf states, who are supposed to be our closest allies in Middle East. I’m not sure of Israel’s role, but Israeli right-wingers have naturally welcomed the destruction of a state allied to Iran. There does not appear to be any obviously good solution: the best analysis I have seen is here, from a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, but closer cooperation with Russia doesn’t really seem in the cards.

When asked by us about the democracy six years ago, Bashar al-Assad told us that the Syrian people were not yet ready — but that hopefully, with more exposure to education and the Internet, they would one day not give their votes to Islamic fundamentalism. Had Assad’s regime been taken out of the penalty box then, had his regime been given access to Western business and cultural contacts — would that have headed off the current explosion? I doubt it, but the outcome could not have been worse. In any case, six years ago Damascus seemed an out of the way capital full of promise, a place where a young American might learn Arabic or write a novel or start a business. Clearly the future doesn’t portend anything like that.