The savage Lion of Damascus
SYRIA: VINCENT DURACreviews Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad By David W Lesch Yale University Press, 275pp. £18.99
IN MARCH 2011, a small group of schoolchildren in the Syrian town of Deraa, inspired by events in neighbouring Egypt, wrote “Down with the Regime” on the walls of their school. The response of the authorities was predictable, if disproportionate. The children were arrested and, according to many reports, sent to Damascus to be interrogated and tortured.
What was not predictable was what followed. First, hundreds, then thousands, of protesters gathered in downtown Deraa. The security forces, attempting to disperse the crowds, opened fire, killing four people. The next day, the crowd of protesters had swollen to 20,000 and the Syrian revolt had begun. In the intervening months, disturbances spread throughout Syria with atrocities being committed on all sides. Thus far, more than 20,000 lives have been lost in what is, by far, the bloodiest episode of the Arab Awakening.
The man who is seen by much of international opinion as bearing responsibility for the violence is Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power more than a decade ago, on the death of his father, Hafiz, the long-time Syrian strongman. But it wasn’t always expected to be like this. When he assumed office, in June 2000, Assad, the London-based ophthalmologist turned politician, together with his British-born wife, Asma, was seen by many as a reforming spirit with the potential to transform the stagnant economic and political life of a country that had joined the elite club of international pariahs, and restore it if not to the friendship of the West then at least to respectability and prosperity.
David Lesch was one of those who saw such potential in Assad. In his first book, The New Lion of Damascus, Lesch, an American academic and Syrian specialist, drew extensively on the remarkable level of access to the Syrian president that he had secured. He met Assad on several occasions, and at length, in 2004 and 2005, and produced what was described as a nuanced, if favourable, picture of the new Syrian leader, even if some saw it as too sympathetic to its subject.
His new book, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, also draws on his personal acquaintance with Assad. But now the focus is on how Assad made the transition from “bearer of hope to reactionary tyrant” and on what the future might hold for a Syria that seems destined for civil war for some time to come. This is a fluent, well-organised piece of work that offers clear insight into the workings of the Syrian regime, even if, at times, Lesch comes close to overplaying the extent of his personal engagement with Assad and his inner circle.