September 7, 2012 5:01 pm

The road from Damascus

How a western believer in Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was converted to scepticism
Bashar al-Assad, centre, talks to an official while inspecting damage in the Baba Amr district of Homs, Syria©Eyevine

Bashar al-Assad, centre, talks to an official while inspecting damage in the Baba Amr district of Homs, Syria

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, by David Lesch, Yale, RRP£18.99/$28, 288 pages

In the years after he inherited the presidency of Syria in 2000, Bashar al-Assad was often criticised in the west. But not everyone subscribed to the image of him as a duplicitous and mischievous ruler and, particularly in the second half of the last decade, there were politicians and academics prepared to argue his case. Assad, they countered, should be seen rather as a victim of the Bush administration’s belligerent policies in the region and even as a potential ally, with whom the US should seek to engage.

Assad’s background, as a young, London-trained ophthalmologist with a beautiful former-banker wife, was part of the appeal. Professional public relations advice also helped. Wealthy expatriate Syrians were invited to wine and dine with the first couple – and bring their money back to their homeland – while westerners were courted with access to the top echelons of power, including the president himself.

David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, was among those who flocked to Syria to learn about the new ruler of Damascus. He reckons that he knew Assad “probably better than anyone in the west”, having interviewed him extensively in 2004 and 2005 and continued to meet him regularly until 2008.

In 2005, Lesch published his first book on the subject – The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria (Assad means lion in Arabic) – in which he argued that the young leader should be given a chance. Assad, he found, was indeed “the hope”, as he was being called in Syria, and his government held the promise of a better future.

 

Lesch, of course, has been sorely disappointed. Assad the hope turned into Assad the monster after Syrians rose against his Ba’athist regime last year only to face a vicious campaign of destruction and slaughter that has so far left more than 20,000 people dead. The American academic admits to having believed that Syria was unlikely to succumb to the turmoil experienced in north Africa, where leaders had been swept away by popular uprisings. But, as the Syrian rebellion spread, he was forced to revise this view.

His new book, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, is not quite a recantation of his earlier work – indeed, residual, frustrated sympathy for Assad can be felt in the writing (not to mention the fact that he holds Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s media and political adviser, in “high regard”). It is, rather, an attempt to explain how power corrupted Syria’s president, leading him to rely on violence in his response to what started as a peaceful uprising and gradually transformed into an insurgency.

Many Syrians, driven perhaps by the same wishful thinking as Lesch, had bought into the idea that Bashar al-Assad would be a reformer, even if there were numerous indications in the early years that he was building nothing more than a modern façade to the repressive regime of his father Hafez. Assad the son was winning cheers for pushing his father’s old companions aside yet the new guard was, in many ways, more corrupt and less politically astute than the one it replaced. What the optimists failed to grasp, writes Lesch, was that Assad had spent only 18 months in London before being called back to Damascus when his elder brother and designated heir Bassil died in a car accident – “and they were not during the formative years of his life”.

Much of Lesch’s book is a summary of the events of 2011 and the first half of 2012. We are given an account of how the uprising started, the regime’s response, the behaviour of the main opposition groups and that of international parties bitterly divided over Syria. It is useful as an introduction to the state of one of the Middle East’s most important countries but it explains less well the psychology of Assad and his inner circle, and the vital role that other family members – including his brother Maher, head of elite military forces, and powerful sister Bushra – play in Syria’s drama.

The deepest insight we get into Assad is the apparent transformation he underwent in 2007, when Lesch says he noticed a self-satisfaction that he had not detected before. Assad had been reconfirmed as president in a referendum. The man Lesch had found to be “unpretentious, even self-deprecating”, had started listening to the “sycophants” and believing that it was his destiny to lead the country.

To be sure, there was at that time reason for greater self-confidence. Assad had consolidated his rule at home and could rely on a measure of popularity. Most importantly, he had been able to resist pressure from the Bush administration, including accusations that his regime was behind the 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister.

Given this state of mind, it is not surprising that Assad thought he would be immune from the popular revolts that struck the Arab world at the start of 2011. As Lesch writes, the Syrian president misunderstood the source of disenchantment of Arab youth, wrongly believing that leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were toppled because they were seen as lackeys of the west and soft on Israel. Syria, a crucial player in the resistance front against Israel, would remain safe, Assad argued at the time.

Nonetheless, Lesch continued to believe in Assad, writing to him after the outbreak of the first protests to urge that he announce genuine reforms. He was soon reminded of the true nature of the Syrian regime, controlled by the Assad family for four decades. As he says: “When a domestic threat appears, there is a push-button response of quick and ruthless repression ... No one questions it.”

His conclusion is that, ultimately, Assad was simply not “up to the task”. He was “short-sighted” and “deluded”. But even then, in describing the potential scenarios for the future of Syria, Lesch does not dismiss the possible survival of the regime, with Assad isolated and discredited but still in power. This notion, as he says, did not look far-fetched in the middle of this year, after the regime prevailed over the rebels in the central city of Homs.

Since then, however, the rebels have become a more effective force, better funded and equipped from Gulf states. They have struck back, taking their battle to the capital Damascus and to Aleppo, the most populous city. Assad’s regime retains the superior firepower but it has already lost vast swathes of the country. For all the illusions that he might have harboured about Assad, Lesch was right in picking the title of the book. However long the Syrian leader survives, he has already lost Syria. The House of Assad has fallen.

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor

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