steve bell’s asad
This review of David Lesch’s book was written for the Scotsman.
Until his elder brother Basil died in a car crash, Bashaar al-Assad, Syria’s tyrant, was planning a quiet life as an opthalmologist in England. Recalled to Damascus, he was rapidly promoted through the military ranks, and after his father’s death was was confirmed in the presidency in a referendum in which he supposedly achieved 97.29% of the vote. Official discourse titled him ‘the Hope.’
Propaganda aside, the mild-mannered young heir enjoyed genuine popularity and therefore a long grace period, now entirely squandered. He seemed to promise a continuation of his father’s “Faustian bargain of less freedom for more stability” – not a bad bargain for a country wracked by endless coups before the Assadist state, and surrounded by states at war – while at the same time gradually reforming. Selective liberalisation allowed for a stock market and private banks but protected the public sector patronage system which ensured regime survival. There was even a measure of glasnost, a Damascus Spring permitting private newspapers and political discussion groups. It lasted eight months, and then the regime critics who had been encouraged to speak were exiled or imprisoned. Most people, Lesch included, blamed the Old Guard rather than Bashaar.
“I got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West,” Lesch writes, and this is probably true. Between 2004 and 2008 he met the dictator frequently. His 2005 book “The New Lion of Damascus” seems in retrospect naively sympathetic. He can be forgiven for this. Most analysts (me included), and most Syrians, continued to give Bashaar the benefit of the doubt until March 2011.
The most visible result of the early reforms was the rise of a new crony capitalist class. There was economic growth, but not enough to keep pace with population growth, or to withstand the shocks of recurrent drought and the 2008 financial crisis. The regime’s socialist pretensions collapsed, and by 2011 Syria’s working classes were as discontented as Egypt’s or Tunisia’s. Still, almost every observer predicted that Syria would weather the revolutionary storm. The Assadist state was expected to survive because of its (false) image as a ‘resistance regime’ amid a sea of cowering Arab puppets, because of the crushed and divided opposition, the unity of the government with military and security agencies, the threat of sectarian splintering, and a deeply-rooted popular fear of repression.
There was a great deal of truth to this perception. Calls for protests in January and February failed to mobilise the people. It was regime stupidity and barbarism, its failure to recognise the historical moment, which finally brought crowds to the streets. (“Bashaar is the real leader of the revolution,” a Syrian recently told me.) In March children scrawled subversive graffiti on the walls of the drought-struck city of Deraa, and were arrested and tortured. A few hundred relatives demonstrated for their release. Soldiers opened fire, killing four. The next day 20,000 protested. Soldiers killed still more and water and electricity were switched off. Protests then spread around the country.
Lesch blames the miscalculation on inertia and instinctive violence as well as Bashaar’s increasing hubris since 2005, by which time he’d survived Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon and the threat of Bush-doctrine regime change. A man who was “unpretentious, even self-deprecating” betrayed by 2007 “self-satisfaction, even smugness.”
At first the protests were uncoordinated, and local grievances were as important as national. Nobody called for the downfall of the regime, only for reform. Yet, crucially, the fear barrier was falling. Lesch quotes an activist on the catharsis felt by many: “It was better than joy, it was better than love. What was amazing was that suddenly everyone felt like family.”
Bashaar still had time, but it was rapidly running out. He waited a week after the first bloodshed before addressing the rubber stamp parliament. Lesch calls the speech “pathetic”, and so it was. Not wanting to appear weak, or to concede to pressure as Mubarak and Ben Ali had done in vain, he blamed the upheaval on foreign conspiracies. In fact, the West, the Gulf and Turkey were willing to wait for Assad to offer real reforms and stabilise the situation. He did mumble about reforms, but stressed he’d been planning them since 2005. Disastrously, he giggled throughout the speech. In the new context his “childlike laugh” no longer provided a charismatic touch.
The vicious circle set in – demonstrations, killings, larger demonstrations, worse repression – until the current crescendo of over 20,000 dead, thousands (including children) tortured and raped, and the major cities bombed by tanks and planes. State violence brought unstoppable momentum to the uprising. Lesch quotes another activist: “If we had known it would reach this point, we probably wouldn’t have dared oppose the regime. But we did it, and now we can’t stop, because if we do they will kill us all.”
Lesch gives a good overview of the various opposition organisations, the grassroots Local Coordination Committees, and the burgeoning Free Syrian Army. He describes the international forces supporting and (ineffectually) opposing Assad, and the ultimately irrelevant international diplomacy.
Lesch finished writing before the FSA became more effective, before the high-level defections and assassinations of top figures. His book inevitably suffers slightly from the gaps and editorial lapses of a book rushed out in haste. It is also difficult to read that Lesch still holds Assad’s spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban “in high regard” (“Do you think this system would accept torture?” she asked Channel 4 in outraged tones).
Stephen Starr’s excellent “Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising” offers a more street-level account, but the strengths of Lesch’s book are his solid analysis and his previous access to the top which, while not providing any particularly new insights, does add an interesting layer of personal observation. Lesch’s disillusion echoes that of ordinary Syrians, and he is therefore ideally placed to chart how the dictator’s smugness has pulled Syria, this ancient country, into the abyss.
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October 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm
An excellent piece. Accurate and beautifully written.
So why am I clutching my head in exasperation while reading it?
It’s because you wrote: ” Most analysts (me included), and most Syrians, continued to give Bashaar the benefit of the doubt until March 2011.”
Then comment: ” It was regime stupidity and barbarism … which finally brought crowds to the streets.“
Exactly! But why is the the true nature of the regime treated as a discovery?
It has confounded and appalled me since 2000 that anyone could accept, at any level, that Bashar Assad should be automatically elevated to lead Syria and then taken seriously. And that the situation was likely to be sustainable.
A hereditary dictatorship in the 21st century? End of story. And one as inept and sinister as they come.
The bleak inevitability of today’s nightmare from the day Hafez Assad seized power was summed up with crystal clarity by Burhan Ghalioun in a speech at the LSE last month:
“…the Syrian regime is not a political regime. It’s not even a nationalistic patriotic regime. It’s actually acting only through blood and authority of occupation. The Syrian regime came to power through violence. It never sought to integrate or actually have any sort of participatory approach towards its own people, even in a partial way. It never answered to any political standard.
…“It’s only through violence or sometimes they resorted to manipulation. The way they always played and exploited any contradictions that are there in Syria, any fractions that are already there. They always manipulated it to rule. “
(I recommend in full the speech in London at the LSE on 20 September by Dr Burhan Ghalioun, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and Former Chairman of the Syrian National Council –
What were Lesch and others thinking? That Planet Assad was ‘normal’? That Assad was the Syrian people? That the Syrian people weren’t human beings like everyone else?
Calling it naivety is being kind. I think a sharp recalibration of his moral compass is required if Lesch wants to be regarded as a grown up.SL
October 12, 2012 at 9:20 pm
I remember when hafez died there was an atmosphere of barely suppressed panic amongst many syrians. people were terrified of a return to the coups. i think many, perjaps most, syrians welcomed bashaar not wholeheartedly, certainly not beuase they liked the hereditary president idea, but as the least worst option. aand the late 90s, early 2000s looked a hell of a lot better than the 80s in syria. so many people hoped. I too (and obviously i was completely wrong) hoped. i think hafez, though undoubtedly a ruthless tyrant and a domestic mismanager, had a strategic intelligence. for instance, he immediately understood the ramifications for syria of the collapse of the soviet union. i thought perhaps some of that strategic intelligence might survive in the regime and that the family would recognise the new historical moment – 2011, the arab uprisings, etc – and respond more intelligently so that syria could have had a staged route to democracy with guarantees for all etc. i was wrong, i was wrong. (i would say that your characterisation of the baath is too simplistic, although it’s cetainly true that the regime was always based in violence and never in a genuine mass movement. it did however represent a movement of rural sunnis and minorities to the urban centres and a share in power, whatever we think of how it was done and what happened to other social groups. i mean, it had some kind of social base at first, some kind of natural constituency. since bashaar and the crony capitalism (and really since the late 70s when the gloves came off) it hasn’t had that.Robin Yassin-Kassab
October 12, 2012 at 10:50 pm
Usually leaders are given 100 days in office as a grace period. Assad was given 11 years.
Don’t be too hard on yourself regarding this. Would it had made much difference if you had wanted Assad gone years ago? Was there any credible alternative after the Damascus Spring was beaten down? Not really. The Assads did not allow any alternative except the mosque to raise its head in Syria. So the only real alternatives for someone what cared about Syria were either to go into a pessimistic funk or optimistically hope that Assad will change. If you want to fault yourself for anything it should be for being too optimistic despite the evidence. But that is not more than an epistemology misdemeanor.
If I may ask, at what point did you reach the conclusion that the Assad regime was not really a resistance regime? How would you define a resistance regime?AIG
October 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm
I would define a resistance regime as one which resists zionist occupation and aids the palestinians to resist apartheid. if that’s the AIG i think it is, you won’t agree, especially with the apartheid bit – but let’s not fight about it now. Theoretically a resistance regime could resist in any of a variety of ways – diplomatically, politically, militarily, even culturally. I’ve never liked the term and I never thought the asad regime was really interested in resistance, but it did seem to me at one point to nearly fit as a result of its help to hizbullah – which it seems i was also wrong about. But I still respect the past version of hizbullah for its work for the lebanese shia and for its military resistance to israel. asadist help to hizbullah is outweighed by its slaughter of palestinians in lebanon and its useless attempts over the decades to coopt and divide palestinian political and military organisations.Robin Yassin-Kassab
October 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm