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Patrick Seale obituary: Writer who established himself as a Middle East expert and noted authority on the history of Syria

He was criticised in later years by Syrian activists who believed him to be an apologist for Assad

Patrick Seale was a veteran journalist and author on Middle Eastern affairs as well as one of the world’s leading historians on Syria. An accomplished reporter, writer and literary agent, he was best known for his authoritative biography of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. Published in 1988, the book is considered the definitive work on Assad, the father of Syria’s current leader, and to this day serves as a reference for foreign journalists covering Syria.

Seale wrote several other books, including Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire in 1992, about one of the world’s most notorious militants. His final book, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad El-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (2010), told the story of a turbulent region through the life of a Lebanese politician.

Born in Belfast, the son of the Arabist Morris Seale, he spent his early years in Syria, where his father was a Christian missionary. He later moved to England, where he studied at Balliol and St Antony’s College, Oxford, specialising in Middle Eastern history. He went on to become a foreign correspondent for Reuters, and later for The Observer.

In later years he was a regular freelance contributor to various newspapers. His work was also syndicated by Agence Global, which allowed his columns to appear in major outlets around the world.

Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, described him as a “wise, curious, mischievous lion of Levant history. Patrick Seale knew the Middle East inside out. But his wisdom was that he also knew how much he didn’t know, and was furiously curious.”

In recent years, Seale’s perceived closeness to the Syrian leadership earned him some criticism from opposition activists who deemed him an “apologist” for Assad. As Syria’s protests gave way to civil war after a brutal military crackdown, Seale continued to call for a negotiated settlement out of the destructive conflict. “Neither President Bashar Assad nor his enemies can hope to win an outright victory. By continuing to fight, they are simply exhausting themselves and ruining their country,” Seale wrote in April 2013.

Seale was diagnosed with brain cancer last summer. At the age of 83 he decided to risk an operation to try to remove the tumour, but it returned.

Patrick Abram Seale, journalist and author: born Belfast 7 May 1930; married 1971 Lamorna Heath (died 1978; one daughter, one son), secondly Rana Kabbani (separated; one daughter, one son); died London 11 April 2014.