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The failures of Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad are laid bare by an American academic who once found the regime impressive.

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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.  

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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? 

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.


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