(Hafez al-Assad and son Bashar al-Assad)
In the last few years a number of important books dealing with the Syrian tragedy have appeared. They all reflect the gruesome nature of how Bashar al-Assad and his family have clung to power as they have slowly destroyed their country by killing over 500,000 people and creating millions of refugees. Many of these books are journalistic accounts of Assad’s murderous policies or personal memoirs as their authors scream on the written page for the world to listen and act. Sam Dagher, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal new contribution to this ever-growing list is his ASSAD OR WE BURN THE COUNTRY: HOW ONE FAMILIES LUST FOR POWER DESTROYED SYRIA which focuses on the generational saga of the Assad and Tlass families, once deeply intertwined and now estranged by Assad’s bloody quest to retain the country that his father seemingly bequeathed to him.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring Syria has emerged from hopes of democracy and some type of governmental reform that was the calling card for the Middle East as the west which could not make up its mind as to what should be done to stop the ongoing slaughter. President Barrack Obama’s feckless approach fearing American involvement in another Middle Eastern country as he tried to extricate the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan or President Donald Trump’s callous and amoral abandonment of the Kurds last month leaving Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia with a further foothold in the region reflects the bankruptcy of US policy in the area and raises the question of what might have been done differently.
A scene from Hama after the 1982 massacre.
Dagher the last western journalist to be kicked out of Syria in 2014 relies on interviews with Assad’s former army commander, Manaf Tlass, now a defector, numerous other witnesses and participants in the events described, and his own extensive first-hand experience reporting from Damascus to take the reader behind the scenes to explore a ruthless family that is responsible for the destruction of Syria and the resulting chaos that still haunts the region. Dagher puts forth a number of important themes that dominate the narrative.
First, Bashar al-Assad inner struggle to live up to his father to justify his own reign which led him to replicate the violence that had been used in the past. Second, the role of the Tlass family particularly Manaf’s evolution from childhood friend of Bashar, a key cog in implementing his violent strategy, and finally breaking with him and achieving asylum in France. Third, how the Assad family, including Bashar’s brother Maher, cousins like the Makhloufs, a number of which led different segments of the Mukhabarat ruled the country. Fourth, Bashar’s inability to manipulate the west as successfully as his father. Fifth, how the Assad family helped arm Hezbollah and its militias and allowing their patrons, Iran to protect him. Sixth, the evolution of Bashar from a young western oriented individual who many Syrians and foreign governments saw as the hope for reform in Syria to one who quickly learned that to preserve power he had to crush the aspirations for general political reform and all challenges to the system. For Bashar continued to repeat the comment; “you can only rule these people with the shoe” which became a nasty reality for the Syrian people.
The al-Assad Family and the Syrian Government
Dagher provides exceptional coverage of the Arab Spring and its impact on Syria. He follows the developments of the protests and opposition and the Assad regime’s response. There is special focus on cities of Hama that feared a replication of the slaughter and destruction that resulted in the death of 10-20,000 Syrians at the hands of Hafez al-Assad in 1982; Homs, Daraa, Aleppo, and Damascus itself. As the violence spread in 2011 and 2012 different factions within the Assad government, the army, even inside the Mukhabarat began to appear. This fracturing was also evident on the part of the opposition as they tried to figure out a plan to deal with the regime’s violence. As the foreign media and You Tube began to show the truth of what was occurring Bashar resorted to describing events as “fake news,” all part of a western conspiracy to overthrow him. “Like his father before him, it was absolutely vital for Bashar to shift the narrative from one about a brutal clan and regime killing protesters and political activists to that of a state battling armed insurgents and gangs linked to a foreign conspiracy.”
Dagher is correct that once the west with its UN mandate overthrew Muhammar Gaddafi in Libya, Bashar close minded approach to the opposition became even more recalcitrant to the point that he would destroy his country instead of stepping down. The Russians felt the US had lied about its approach to Gaddafi, and Putin vowed he would not let that happen to the Assad’s. For the Bashar his vision was clear, and he would do anything to remain in power as he seemed to purposely lose territory to ISIS as a means of scaring the world even if it meant sacrificing a few thousand of his own militiamen and conscripts. Bashar was willing to pull out from peripheral areas deemed unimportant and allow ISIS to seize them and carry out their version of atrocities. This would fit Putin’s realpolitik, also as now Assad and the Russian President could argue that they were saving the world from Islamic terrorism.
The Assad regime’s duplicity whether under Hafez or Bashar is evident throughout the narrative. Dagher stresses how neither could be trusted but the west needed Syria as a means of controlling terrorism, its Middle East peace plans, events in Lebanon, and Israel. Washington at times was naïve in dealing with the Assad family and when it was obvious that something needed to be done they could not act, i.e.; Obama’s “red line” with chemical weapons which he did not enforce, refusal to provide weapons to certain opposition groups etc. Bashar craved rewards for engaging the West at the same time he fully embraced Iran, Hezbollah, and “the so-called axis of resistance against the West.” The corruption of the Assad regime is on full display as they practiced the tactics of a typical mob family. Dagher focuses on a number of interesting characters like Rami Makhlouf, another cousin who developed business partnerships with the regime and by 2010 his companies controlled almost 65% of the Syrian economy; Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah; Hafez Makhlouf, who was deeply involved as head of the Mukhabarat when Hama was destroyed; Atief Najib, head of the Mukhabarat during the Arab Spring who implemented Bashar’s violent approach to demonstrators among many others.
Dagher performs an important service explaining what really transpired in Syria during the Arab Spring. He concentrates on a number of important personages including Bashar, Maher, his younger brother, Manaf, a host of cousins and protestors like Khlaed al-Khani, an artist who survived the Hama debacle in 1982 as a little boy in which his father was killed, Darwish Mazen, a human rights lawyer who was imprisoned and repeatedly tortured by the regime before he was released and went into exile in Germany, and Sarah Masalmeh, who survived the destruction of Daraa to join the opposition eventually fleeing the country with her brother to create an easy to understand narrative that the general reader can absorb. As the protests and violence spread Dagher has an uncanny knack of zeroing in on Bashar’s thinking, the impact of foreign interference in events, and the devastation that the Syrian people as a whole had to deal with.
The author delves out a great deal of criticism for the Obama administration, much of which is on point. When Bashar’s regime used barrel bombs on civilians, delivered chlorine bombs on opposition cities targeting civilians, among the atrocities delivered by air either by Syrian or Russian forces in 2014, Obama refused to consider a no-fly-zone. Obama did authorize non-lethal aid to rebels and hundreds of millions of dollars to assist refugees but in the end when confronted whether to deal with the Assad regime and its massacres or the Islamic State, Washington chose ISIS. However, once Donald Trump was elected any pressure on the Assad regime ended. Trump’s bromance with Putin and his own authoritarian tendencies shut the door on any assistance to the Syrian opposition that was being decimated. Trump as Dagher points out probably secretly admired Assad as he had the type of power in his country that Trump craved.
In the end the winner of the Syrian civil war was Russia as Putin was now the arbiter of the Middle East, a renewed great power, and used the war as a means of testing over 200 new weapons. Turkey also is a victor as President Erdogan made his peace with Bashar and Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds a few months ago allowed the Turkish military to root out the Kurds and set up the buffer zone Ankara had always wanted. Iran and its puppet Hezbollah remain a bulwark in maintaining the Assad regime’s rule and provides Teheran with cudgel to hammer its enemies and threaten its arch foe Saudi Arabia. Lastly, of course is the Assad regime. No matter how many crimes against humanity they engaged in, they remain in power as France and Germany have given up trying to remove him from power, and the United States is seen as unreliable as Trump continues to kowtow to Putin in all areas.
Dagher’s monograph is part memoir and part a history of the Assad family that explains how we have gotten to where we are in Syria. His easy prose and analysis is important because he has created the most comprehensive history of what has transpired which is an important service for those who seek to understand American policy in addition to why Bashar al-Assad and his cronies still remain in power and continue to inflict countless deaths on the Syrian people.
(Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad)