Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed” is the definitive chronicle of a tragic war that has left the country in the state described by Tacitus: “where they make a desert, they call it peace.” As for the title, it originates from the graffiti that Assad’s militias painted on walls everywhere. “Assad or We Burn the Country.”
Left in shambles by a senseless war, about 83 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line. A half-million people died in the fighting. That would be equivalent to more than seven million people in the USA. Meanwhile, more than six million Syrians were internally displaced, with another round five million going into exile. This was the necessary price, it seems, for preserving a family dynasty that began in 1971.
Sam Dagher was among the three most capable reporters covering the war. Two others succumbed far too early in their careers. N.Y. Times reporter Anthony Shadid died in 2012 at the age of 43, a result of an asthma attack brought on by walking behind horses. His asthma attack was in turn the result of putting himself into the care of smugglers who customarily used horses to enter and leave the country. If only Shadid had agreed to write the same kind of puff-pieces others have written about al-Assad, none of this would have been necessary. Then, there is Marie Colvin, who was a victim of one of Assad’s barrel bombs in Homs in 2012. Her mistake was being embedded with the rebels rather than al-Assad’s military. After a day in the field, you could always return to a four-star hotel in Damascus for cocktails.
In the introduction to “Assad or We Burn the Country,” Dagher counts himself lucky for not ending up like them. Kicked out of Syria in 2014 for his trenchant reporting, his Syrian friends advised him: “Count your blessings, you’re so lucky, you got away lightly.” He could have easily disappeared in a mukhabarat (regime enforcers) prison. Even worse, with a bullet in the head from a mukhabarat agent who might then blame his death on “armed terrorist groups.” An American-born Lebanese journalist with a background in finance, he was overlooked as a Syrian national. This appearance helped him blend in and cover the dictatorship for an extended period. With his low profile, he was able to gather the facts that make his book so riveting.
To provide a context for the scorched earth attack on a civilian population, Dagher spends the first eight chapters providing penetrating character studies of the al-Assad and Tlass families. This background is essential for
understanding why, in the ninth chapter, Assad chose to drown peaceful protesters in blood.
Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, and Mustafa Tlass, a Sunni, both came from rural peasant families. For them, like many men in third world countries, the military was a career that could lift them into the upper ranks. While my late father-in-law was by no means a pillar of Turkish society, becoming an air force pilot catapulted him into a comfortable middle-class existence. Al-Assad and Tlass were much more like Mustafa Kemal and Gamal Abdel Nasser. As Generals, they were in a position to use their social weight to change society and then to dominate it.
Sensing that Arab nationalism was on the upswing in the 1950s, al-Assad and Tlass joined the Baathist party that gravitated to Nasser’s Egypt. Like other Arab nationalists, they applauded Nasser’s challenge to British imperialism over control of the Suez Canal. When Syria and Egypt formed the United Arab Republic, the two men were dismayed to see Nasser’s willingness to use a heavy hand against criticism. It wasn’t so much that they were for democracy; it was more that they were for the independence of their officer corps.
In a complex maneuver, al-Assad and Tlass spearheaded a coup against “secessionists” in Syria who wanted to break with Egypt. They also sought such a break but decided to exploit sympathy for Nasser among the poor. In 1966, they helped prepare the way for their dictatorship by backing Salah Jahid, another general that Dagher describes as a ruthless Marxist-influenced ideologue. After overthrowing the country’s figurehead president Amin al-Hafiz, the next step was for the two friends to topple Jahid, whose “Maoist” and “Trotskyist” economic policies were ruining the economy.
Leaving aside Jahid’s actual goals, the salient point is that al-Assad and Tlass sought to steer Syria in a capitalist direction. Evidently, Richard Nixon saw Hafez al-Assad as someone he could do business with and became the first president to visit Damascus. There was a quid pro quo, to use the term bandied about during Russiagate. The dictator has free rein to suppress his citizens as long as he maintained peace with Israel.
After a state visit to North Korea in 1974, al-Assad was struck by the insight that he had to follow their example of a society ruled strictly from the top. Borrowing from what he saw there and East Germany’s Stasi, he established the Mukhabarat, Arabic for military intelligence service. It was designed to put teeth in his control of the population. Torture went along well with a cult of personality such as the kind that helped North Koreans obedient. Dagher observes that children drew pictures of al-Assad’s miraculous achievements, including one boy who got high marks pasting his president’s face over the sun in a drawing that depicted the arrival of spring. Meanwhile, the army began shouting “Our Leader Forever Hafez al-Assad” at their ceremonies. It is details such as this that make Dagher’s book so credible.
During al-Assad’s rise to power, Mustafa Tlass remained his righthand man. Not only did they enjoy ruling over the country, they managed to put together substantial fortunes using their insider status. Within their respective families, two children emerged as likely successors in their dynasty. Hafez had a son named Bassel who was outgoing, athletic and as ruthless as his father. He overshadowed his younger son Bashar who was nerdy and shy. As for Mustafa, his son Manaf had the same macho qualities as Bassel. The two became close friends and rising stars in the Syrian military. These plans were shattered after Bassel, who loved fast cars, crashed into a concrete wall going 100 miles per hour in 1994.
It was now up to Bashar al-Assad to take the place of his brother in the nation’s cultish, mafia-like dictatorship.
Giving up his ophthalmologist profession in England, he returned to Syria and was put on a fast-track to rule the country. Destined for dynastic power, he helped his cause by going to a military academy and graduating with the rank of captain. Trained to submit fully to the new head of state, soldiers began to chant, “We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, Bashar” and “God, Syria and Bashar.”
At his father’s funeral in 2000, the imperialists came to pay their respects, including Jacques Chirac and Madeleine Albright. Albright, with her nose for dictators and ready to play ball, gave Bashar thumbs up at a press conference. “It seems to me he is poised and someone who is ready to assume his duties. I was very encouraged by his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.” So much for the “axis of resistance.”
In addition to providing military muscle for Bashar, his good friend Manaf was adroitly building both political and economic ties to France. Sarkozy saw eye-to-eye with the two budding dynasts, so much so that he made a state visit to Damascus in 2008. The Tlasses, father and son, facilitated French cement giant Lafarge to buy a plant in which Manaf’s brother Firas became a partner. Later Firas partnered with a UAE company to build condos on land around Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia that he purchased for pennies.
Meanwhile, Syria was about to suffer from a terrible drought and the withdrawal of state support for farmers.
Bashar al-Assad was smart enough to exploit divisions in the American political establishment. In 2007, he welcomed Nancy Pelosi to Syria to see if there were grounds for a new approach in Mideast politics, especially after the odious George W. Bush presidency had ended. Next year, after Obama became president, Bashar told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that he was ready to work with the new president as long as “regime change” was abandoned. The Syrian dictator sensed the new mood in Washington. In January 2009, Obama appointed George Mitchell as Mideast envoy. Part of his mission was to reengage with Syria.
Obama’s next step was to dispatch John Kerry to Syria, where he assured al-Assad that the new administration was going to be different. The USA was now ready to talk “respectfully and frankly with the parties in the Middle East.” At an elaborate dinner at al-Assad’s mansion, Kerry met Manaf Tlass, who was the dictator’s top enforcer. Kerry gushed, “I am happy that someone like you is at the president’s side.”
Toward the end of his stay in Damascus, Kerry met with Michel Duclos, the French ambassador whose nation was much further ahead of the USA in cementing ties with the dictatorship. Kerry told Duclos that Bashar was “a man we can do business with.” Duclos thought that Kerry was smitten with the Assad’s, including his wife Asma, who many Americans viewed as hip and progressive.
Meanwhile, conditions were ripening for the Syrian version of the Arab Spring. Dagher writes:
With Bashar’s recipe for economic liberalization came cancer-like corruption that plagued the entire state. The attitude of civil servants, mukhabarat officers, and almost everyone connected to the state became this: Why should the president’s cousin, the big-shot businessmen, and regime officials be the only ones accumulating obscene fortunes? We deserve our cut—just crumbs compared to what these people are taking.
Discrepancies in income and living standards became staggering. Residents of the slums and rural areas around urban centers, what some called the “misery belts,” watched the newly rich inside the cities get richer and flaunt their wealth. The rich were also frantically building malls and condominium projects on the city’s outskirts, squeezing out the poor and marginalized even more. By 2009, almost 35 percent of Syria’s population of about 22 million was considered poor by the government’s own definition of poverty, an increase from previous years. This was hastened by a severe drought in the country’s northeast in 2006, which forced many farmers to abandon their land and flock to the cities.
When the Arab Spring arrived, there were hopes in both the USA and France that the charming couples would understand the need for peaceful change. There were precedents for skillful politicians finding a way to co-opt and/or wait out a protest movement. Indeed, that is the norm.
Even after Bashar’s snipers had killed hundreds of peaceful protesters, the West was willing to cut them some slack. Vogue Magazine had a big spread titled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert” ready to go.
As always, France was one step ahead of the USA. France’s ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, was interviewed in the Vogue puff-piece. Referring to the very chic couple, he said, “I hope they’ll make the right choices for the country and the region.” To give you an idea of Bashar and Asma’s glowing reputation with enlightened leaders in the West, Chevallier represented the policy goals of his boss Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister. Kouchner, of course, was infamous for his “regime change” liberalism. As France’s counterpart to Samantha Power, he represented imperialist perfidy at its worst.
Within a couple of years, hopes for peaceful change in Syria had evaporated. Bashar sought the militarization of the conflict. The sooner, the better. Dagher reports that the mukhabarat began to surreptitiously supply automatic weapons to people opposing the dictatorship in cities such as Daraa, Homs, Hama and the suburbs of Damascus. Bashar anticipated that the Sunni states in the region, all of which were hostile to the goals of the Arab Spring, would supply weapons and funding to the rebels, especially those anxious to see things from a sectarian standpoint.
While some on the left harp on Sunni religious fanaticism, there are grounds for seeing it as a reaction to Alawite framing of the conflict. They saw it as a repeat of a conflict going back for eons. Alawites and Shiites were united in seeing a fight for the succession to Muhammad’s ecclesiastical throne as one that was predetermined by Arabs who saw their forefather Hussein as illegitimate. It was not a deeper faith that led to Hussein’s defeat but superior military power by those who would become known as the Sunnis.
Celebrated for his religious tolerance, Bashar al-Assad was as fierce in his sectarianism as any jihadist, according to Dagher:
Now Bashar and his Lebanese and Iranian allies borrowed from the same historic narrative to cast themselves as the righteous party of Hussein fighting the Sunni extremists, or takfiris—fanatics ready to excommunicate and kill Shiites and other minorities in the Levant such as the Christians. All the rebels without exception were branded by Bashar as takfiris backed, he claimed, by the “Great Satan” America, Israel, and their tools in the region, wealthy Gulf Arab Sunni states. The mission in Syria would also be another Defa Moghadas (Sacred Defense) for Hezbollah and Iran. It took a good deal of work for this narrative to be fully consummated but, once it was adopted, its repercussions would go far beyond Syria and the defense of Bashar for many years to come.
Today, Syria is a country on life-support. With Russia and Iran battered by the pandemic and USA sanctions, its prospects seem even gloomier than it was a few months ago. The Syrian revolution came to an end in 2014, and al-Assad’s victory now seems hollow. He can continue to reign dynastically over an impoverished state, expecting his son Hafez to take over the skeletons from him in the future.
Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed” is a reminder that blind determination to preserve a tyranny cannot end well. One hopes that Bashar al-Assad’s supporters on the left will have the strength to read the book if only to weigh their scanty knowledge of the country against an expert’s testimony. The revolution will continue sometime in the future. Let us hope that the left will be up to the task of understanding its dynamics next time around. That is why we study history, after all.