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.
As Lesch makes clear, the uprising in Syria took the regime by surprise. Syria was thought to be different. When the Arab Awakening of 2011 swept across the region, the first casualties were those regimes that were most closely tied to the US, ruled over by gerontocratic leaderships that had spent decades unchallenged in power. Unlike Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak or Yemen’s Saleh, not only was Assad’s Syria at the forefront of “resistance” to the US and Israel, through its support of Hamas and Hizbullah, but Assad himself was in his mid-40s and therefore, at least as far as regime supporters saw it, more in touch with Arab youth and their discontents. While this was a gross misreading of the situation, he did enjoy genuine and widespread popularity both within his own country and more broadly throughout the region.
This support was not merely a matter of the Alawite minority, from which his family sprang, versus the rest of the population. In a country that is 75 per cent Sunni Muslim, the various Christian sects, Druze and Kurds, as well as a small Jewish population, have been the target of a consistent regime message that the end of the Assads would lead to the installation of a repressive Sunni regime under which minorities would pay a high price. Indeed, Lesch refers to the way the regime stoked the fears of minorities with tales of atrocities, such as that of a woman in Homs drinking the blood of dead Alawites, whose bodies were delivered to her by armed terrorists.
Regime confidence that Syria was different and hence immune to threat has been compounded by the level of disunity among the forces arrayed against it in opposition. The establishment of the Syrian National Congress in August 2011, as an umbrella group for opposition forces, has gone some way to overcoming this disunity. Nonetheless, deep tensions remain between the exiled groups and those, such as the local co-ordination committees, that are at the heart of the organisation of anti-regime agitation across the country and that would not look kindly on exiled opposition figures reaping the rewards of what they would feel they had rightly earned. All of this plays into the hands of the regime, as Lesch makes clear.
Also feeding the confidence of the Syrian leadership is the disunity in the international sphere. While the US, since the end of 2011, has finally abandoned any pretence that the regime might reform itself, and, with the support of Europe, calls for Assad to go, other players see things differently. Iran provides funding, cheap oil and technical assistance in the black arts of cyberwarfare and repression, skills honed by the Iranians in suppressing the protests that followed the fraudulent presidential elections of 2009 in that country.
Russia, too, is a key player, and Lesch’s exploration of this is rewarding for its avoidance of cliche and its clear-sighted analysis. Russia has a long history of dealing with Syria. The country is the seventh-largest importer of Russian arms and, perhaps more significantly in the longer term, offers some of the last points of Russian access to a region that continues to be of great geopolitical significance. The Syrian port of Tartous hosts Moscow’s last naval base in the Mediterranean.
The combination of opposition disunity and international stalemate is one of the reasons why Lesch suggests that the outcome of the revolt in Syria may be that Assad simply rides out the rebellion to hold on to power indefinitely. But he offers an alternative, and frightening, scenario of Syria as a failing state, locked in civil war, “with a strong extremist Islamist element, on the border of Israel, at the epicentre of several faultlines in the Middle East”.
This is not just about Assad clinging to power for power’s sake. In acknowledging the error of greeting him as a pro-West, modernising reformer when he first came to office, Lesch notes that Assad spent all of 18 months in London. He is, first and foremost, the son of Hafiz al-Assad, a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, who grew up with the backdrop of the cold war, in a Syria that had been repeatedly beset by external enemies. Assad is, above all, “the keeper of the Alawite flame”. He was therefore never much more than the creature of his upbringing. This is the lesson that is now being learned not only by the outside world but also by the Syrian people whose suffering seems destined to continue indefinitely.
Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics at University College Dublin and is a visiting lecturer at Bethlehem University, in Palestine. He is co-author of Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World: The Dynamics of Change, published by Routledge in 2010