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.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a Muslim Institute Fellow, the co-editor of Critical Muslim and the author of The Road From Damascus, a novel published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin. He is also the co-editor and regular contributor to PULSE, recently listed by Le Monde Diplomatique as one of its five favourite websites.