3/4 Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria, by Sam Dagher
The Wall Street Journal writer gives a compelling insider account of the deadly ambition of the Assads
Ian Black @ian_black
In the summer of 2012, news broke that Manaf Tlass, a general in Syria’s elite Republican Guard and a confidante of Bashar al-Assad, had defected and was en route to exile in France. Tlass was not just the tennis partner of the shy ophthalmologist who was presiding over the greatest crisis of the Arab spring; they were close, indeed intimate, family friends.
Tlass had been alarmed by Assad’s brutal crackdown since protests erupted in the southern city of Daraa in March 2011: young people inspired by the historic changes taking place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya called for dignity, freedom and the overthrow of their own oppressive regime. Syria, however, seemed destined from the start to be a different story – and a far bloodier one.
Sam Dagher’s grim and impressively detailed account of the destruction of a country rests on two closely related factors: first, he was the only journalist for a major western newspaper based permanently in Damascus from 2012-2014, before being detained and thrown out. Second, his work is impeccably sourced – his access to Tlass and others provides rich insights into Assad and his inner circle, as well as into leading opposition activists.
Dagher’s sympathies are clear from his title (though he missed a trick by not explaining that the menacing slogan, daubed on walls, rhymes neatly in Arabic) and from his even more explicit subtitle (How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria). “There is no way to govern our society except with the shoe over people’s heads,” he quotes the Syrian leader as saying both before and after the unrest began.
Assad’s reaction to Daraa, advised by his younger brother Maher and cousin Hafez Makhlouf, was to double down on repression. Crucially, he also released hundreds of Islamists who had previously been encouraged to fight the post-Saddam Hussein US occupation of Iraq, but were imprisoned when they returned home. The result was that the slogan “selmiya” (peacefully) was drowned out by the blast of jihadist suicide bombings (some faked by the regime) and barrel bomb attacks.
In the early days, there was debate in western capitals about how Assad would respond: one clue was that his accession in 2000 had been followed by a short-lived “Damascus spring”. Talk of reform was in the air then, though it was largely about economic liberalisation for the privileged and did not impinge on the “barrier of fear” maintained by different branches of the ubiquitous mukhabarat secret police.
His glamorous anglophone wife Asma (AKA Emma from Acton) was an invaluable asset even when Syria was in the doghouse over the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The opportunities for positive spin were a publicist’s fantasy. In 2008, the presidential couple were feted by Nicolas Sarkozy on Bastille Day; the following year they hosted Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Damascus.
International and regional responses are an important part of this bleak and continuing story. In August 2011, Barack Obama called for Assad to step down. Britain and other EU countries followed suit. By the end of that year Syria’s death toll had already exceeded 5,000. The slim prospects for western intervention – always overshadowed by the Iraq war – had peaked by the time Tlass made it to Paris with the help of French intelligence agents.
The big picture is that half-hearted western responses never matched the strategic determination displayed by Iran, backing both Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Russia, angered by Nato’s role in toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Uncoordinated regional support for Syrian rebel groups – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey all competing for influence – helped transform both the military landscape and the official narrative. What Dagher saw as a moving struggle for freedom – as did I when I reported from Damascus and a nearby rebel-held area in January 2012 – was transformed into a war on terror. “It was in keeping with a long-established regime tradition of nurturing the beast and then presenting itself to the west as the only one capable of slaying it – but subject to preconditions,” he writes.
The Tlass connection is an excellent way to sketch out the historical context (though it is fair to assume an element of self-justification in what Tlass chose to reveal). His father Mustafa served loyally as defence minister under Assad senior, Hafez, who ruled from 1971 until his death in 2000. The Tlass family were from Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community, many of them co-opted by the Assads, who belonged to the minority Alawite sect. Mustafa was in office during the Hama massacre of 1982, when thousands died in the wake of an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Hama remained a byword for official ruthlessness.
Dagher, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, does not just make do with putting together this complicated tale, linking developments in an accessible way for a non-expert audience. Significant scoops are scattered throughout his account, many underlining the cynical cruelty of a regime that was fighting,
The deaths of Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and a French colleague in Homs were described as “justifiable” by a Syrian general he spoke to, he writes. He also shows beyond reasonable doubt that Assad arranged the killing of his own brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and other senior security figures – in what state media reported as a terrorist attack. Dagher quotes “regime insiders” as saying that Assad ordered baffled army commanders to abandon outposts on the Iraqi border just as Isis was emerging. Tlass, he reveals, advised the CIA’s covert Syrian programme and was supported by the UK government (committed only to proving “non-lethal support”) in organising meetings with other potential defectors.
Dagher devotes a lot of space to the stories of Mazen Darwish, an Alawite lawyer and human rights activist who was tortured in the notorious Saydnaya prison (where Amnesty reports that up to 13,000 people were executed), and of Sally Masalmeh, a young woman from Daraa. Both ended up fleeing to Germany – part of the wave of Syrian refugees that helped determine Europe’s non-response to the crisis on its doorstep. It would have been instructive to read more, nevertheless, about those Syrians who, despite everything, stayed put and continued to support their president.
Dagher’s judgment is that Obama’s acquiescence in Assad’s use of chemical weapons, killing an estimated 1,400 people in Ghouta in August 2013, was a crucial turning point. “No single event in the history of the Syrian conflict helped Islamist extremists justify their terror and message of hate more than the … attack and the way the international community handled its aftermath,” he concludes.
Another significant moment was Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in September 2015. Since then, Assad has regained control of most of the country apart from Idlib province, where what looks like the final act in Syria’s tragedy is now being played out. In recent months, the regime has been publishing the death certificates of people who it disappeared, tortured and killed – blaming heart attacks or strokes – while statues of Hafez al-Assad destroyed since 2011 are being rebuilt in Daraa and elsewhere. On balance, the subtitle seems spot-on.
Ian Black is a former Middle East editor of the Guardian.
This review is from the Observer