The failures of Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad are laid bare by an American academic who once found the regime impressive.
The title of David Lesch’s new book is metaphorical. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad does not predict the political demise of Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez. But Lesch, a Middle East history professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, maintains that the dictator has damaged his standing irrevocably with his bloody crackdown on an ongoing popular uprising that erupted in March 2011.
That is a damning indictment, given that Lesch met with Bashar on several occasions from 2004 until late 2008 (and with high-ranking Syrian officials until 2011), during which time he formed a relatively positive opinion of his regime. Indeed, in an earlier book – "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria" – Lesch made it appear as though Bashar would make a definitive break with his father’s politically autocratic and economically socialist style of governance. Compare Lesch’s volte-face on the Syrian despot with that of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who not only strengthened his country’s relationship with Syria but befriended its ruler, until Bashar crossed all red lines in his response to Syria’s version of the Arab Spring. Turkey now hosts Syrian refugees, opposition activists, and even leading members of the Free Syrian Army, which only recently relocated its headquarters to Syria.
The book’s first three chapters are somewhat apologetic; Lesch highlights Bashar’s tentative economic reforms, and explains why he saw promise in the Syrian strongman. Less objectionable – but nonetheless embarrassing – is the author’s gullibility regarding a personal image the Assads carefully constructed of themselves, one that was proven to be false after this book had already been written. According to Lesch, “There were no Wikileaks reports detailing the extravagant lifestyle of Assad... because he does not have one.” But thanks to hacked email accounts almost certainly belonging to the Assads, the contents of which were obtained by Britain’s the Guardian newspaper and United Arab Emirates-based Al Arabiya television channel, we now know that Asma Assad has a penchant for lavish and exorbitant designer jewelry and furniture – and that her husband has been only too willing to tend to her desires.
Once the slightly defensive rationalizations are dispensed with, Lesch ably tackles Bashar’s failures. He excels in explaining the underlying economic reasons for the Syrian people’s frustrations with their regime. The author argues convincingly that the “ad hoc liberalization” of the economy launched by Bashar “did not go far enough in terms of effective, broad-based market-oriented economic reform, but at the same time diminished the social safety net to which many Syrians had become accustomed.” Moreover, he points out that limited economic and educational reforms may have whetted the middle classes’ appetite for further change.
Meanwhile, the working classes’ living conditions deteriorated. And while the poor and downtrodden, together with almost everyone else in the country, had grown accustomed to the repression that has characterized Syria’s political life since even before Hafez Assad seized power in a 1970 coup, certain transgressions could not be countenanced. The Syrian uprising – initially peaceful, but militarized by the regime’s violent clampdown – was sparked by the arrest and torture of schoolchildren in Daraa who had scrawled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school.
Yet Syria, Lesch rightly reminds his readers, differs from other countries swept up in the Arab Spring. Bashar and the upper echelons of Syria’s ruling Baath party are members of a minority community (Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam) that is terrified of vengeance on the part of the (Sunni Muslim) majority. Moreover, the army’s (Alawite-dominated) core units have remained loyal to the regime, and the conflict is now part of a regional if not worldwide cold war. While the Syrian regime is backed by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (as well as Russia and China in the international arena), the rebels are supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (and internationally by the United States and other Western countries).
Toward the end of "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad," the author lays out several possible future scenarios: Assad could be toppled, remain in power, or preside over the country’s descent into a full-fledged civil war. A fourth possibility, understandably odious to the millions of Syrians opposed to Bashar, may nevertheless avert protracted civil conflict. “In essence,” observes Lesch, “enough Syrians who are currently opposed to Assad – especially those who sought political reform at the beginning of the uprising, rather than the ouster of the Syrian president – might be drawn back into supporting the regime because they are more fearful of an all-out civil war that would likely destroy the country and would, because of Syria’s sectarian composition, be a bloodbath.”
However, a fifth possibility was taking shape as this review went to press. Abdulbaset Sieda, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition group, said that were Bashar to step down, the SNC would not object to high-ranking members of the Baath taking a lead role in running the country. He stressed that this would be possible only for those Baathists who have not been implicated in the repression. (The SNC and Turkey are discussing Farouk al-Sharaa, one of Syria’s two vice presidents and a former longtime foreign minister, as a possible replacement for Bashar as interim leader.) The question on which the fate of Syria may depend is: Can Bashar be persuaded to relinquish power?