The Syria I Knew: On the Fall of the House of Assad

By Frederick DeknatelJanuary 29, 2013

    The Syria I Knew: On the Fall of the House of Assad

    Syria by David Lesch. Yale University Press. 288 pages.

    THE FIFTEEN BRANCHES of Syria's intelligence apparatus, the mukhabarat, count some 50,000 to 70,000 full-time officers, along with hundreds of thousands of part-time personnel and informers. By 2011 it was estimated there was one intelligence officer for every 240 or so Syrians. A third of the country’s military budget has historically gone to the security services, including the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence, which does not gather intelligence against Israel (the regime’s nominal enemy), but rather monitors Syria’s 500,000-strong Palestinian population (along with many Syrians) and runs a notorious detention and torture center in Damascus. “The garbage collectors are intelligence agents,” a protester told the Associated Press after 120 people were killed in two days of protests in April 2011. “Sometimes we think even our wives are working with the intelligence. All the phones are monitored. We live in hell.”

    This was the reality in Syria long before the start of the popular uprising in March 2011. Hafez al-Assad, the Baath Party general who seized power in 1970 from a group of other Baath Party generals, ruled for 30 years through coercion and brutal suppression, and filled the high ranks of the state’s many military and intelligence agencies with fellow Alawites. But he also maintained power through a “Faustian bargain,” as David Lesch writes in Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, in which Syrians traded — or were forced to accept — a loss of political, economic, and social rights for a level of stability. For a country that by 1970 had seen 21 coups and countercoups — many of them bloody and led by rival military men — since its independence from French colonial rule in 1946, this was the Assad deal: one family, father and son, ruling Syria ever since.

    But now Lesch, who in the early 2000s used unique access to the new president to craft a softly lit, optimistic profile, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria (Assad is one of Arabic’s many words for “lion”), believes that era is finished. “Whether or not he remains in power, Bashar Al-Assad, in my mind, has already fallen,” he writes at the outset of his new book, a kind of mea culpa by an academic who believes he “got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West.” The Fall of the House of Assad is a reappraisal that struggles to match his earlier auspicious impressions with the brutality of a regime that seems bent on destroying Syria to keep it a family domain.

    Months after the uprising began, Lesch still had close enough contact with the regime to write emails to Assad’s personal advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, including one in which he advised “Bashar” to “consider measures of true political reform rather than pieces of co-optation masquerading as reform.” Lesch doesn’t know if Shaaban forwarded these messages to Assad, or if she herself even read them. “But I have been told by Syrian officials that my comments and suggestions are taken seriously,” he writes. “This is perhaps why the Syrian mukhabarat did not particularly like me: it considered my access to be dangerous.”

    In a 2007 trip to Syria to meet and interview Assad, Lesch was detained at Damascus’s airport, where security agents interrogated him for three hours. A colonel twirling a pistol was only convinced of Lesch’s business when he called the president’s office and confirmed their meeting. Unfortunately Lesch doesn’t tell us what Assad, a former London ophthalmologist who speaks with a lisp, said at their subsequent meeting. He only reports that he told Syria’s president “he needed to reign in the security forces, because the freedom he allowed them could come back to haunt him.”

    For the first decade of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, many in Washington, and much of the world, believed like Lesch that he was a reformer. It wasn’t all blind hope. Despite enacting few political reforms, Assad liberalized the state-run economy and opened Syria to tourism and the Internet. (Among Assad’s early promotions, in the 1990s — after his older brother and heir apparent Basil died in a car crash near Damascus airport — was to head the Syrian Computer Society, whose name combines Arab bureaucracy with an archaic view of technology). Assad courted European and American diplomats anxious to break Syria’s Iranian ties. The government’s interest in preserving Syria’s rich archaeological heritage, and particularly the historic cities of Damascus and Aleppo, filled the travel sections of leading newspapers and glossy magazines. As a travel dispatch awkwardly declared in The New York Times in 2007: “Though most Americans might be wary of sojourning in a country whose authoritarian government stands accused of some serious charges — financing Hezbollah, allowing foreign fighters into neighboring Iraq and assassinating the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — a week among the regular citizens of Syria and its cultural riches is eye-opening.”


    Now 60,000 Syrians are dead, killed in a civil war that was the outcome, as the regime planned, of its response 22 months ago to peaceful protests with live fire. The scale of the regime’s brutality and cynicism keeps rising. In his live address from Damascus’s Opera House — named, like the national library, after his father — Bashar al-Assad spoke in front of a giant Syrian flag made out of a collage of faces, some of the “martyrs” of a war that has claimed the lives of mostly unarmed civilians, but also armed rebels, soldiers, and everyone in between. Assad offered more false reforms, but also maintained, as he has from the beginning, that this is not a popular uprising or a revolution but a plot against Syria from abroad, led by “terrorists” and a “gang of criminals.” His pledge for national dialogue and a constitutional referendum, to a hall of applauding sycophants, ran alongside the “war to defend the nation,” which he said will go on “as long as there is one terrorist left” in Syria. The awful absurdity of the regime’s talk of peace plans was captured by the Syrian writer Samar Yazbek, who wrote in her memoir of the uprising’s beginning, A Woman in the Crossfire: “Tell me, what kind of dialogue is supposed to take place between an artillery turret and an unarmed house?”

    Lesch’s book traces the contrast between the Syria he visited and studied in the last decade, and the president he got to know, and the country and leader today on television, in news reports and horrific, grainy YouTube videos. The crackdown and civil war clearly shattered the view of Assad as a reformer. Yet Lesch was hardly alone in seeing in the younger Assad the plausibility and hope of change in a country ruled for decades by secret police and hidden prisons. Though today it’s easy to criticize early profiles of Assad and his glamorous former banker wife that presented them as signals of progress, for those who lived and studied in Syria in the 2000s, the story is more ambivalent. Assad could count on genuine popular support then, even if his portrait hung in every shop and store by familiar regime edict. As the novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab recently told the BBC, after Assad’s “delusional” opera house speech:

    I used to quite like him, I’m ashamed to say. I know a lot of Syrians who were very optimistic about Bashar even after he’d been there for over 10 years: people thought he really wanted to reform. If he had played this thing differently in the early months [of the uprising], he could have come out of it as the hero of the transition. I believe he could have won democratic elections in Syria.

    Instead Assad, with an inner circle that includes his brother, Maher, and an aged clique from his father’s era, followed an earlier example. He sought to crush the 2011 uprising like his father had in 1982: faced with an Islamist-led revolt concentrated in Hama, Hafez leveled the historic city and killed between 10,000 and 25,000, or maybe as many as 40,000. No one knows. The regime, as Yassin-Kassab and others noted, also “deliberately instrumentalized sectarianism” through its propaganda and support of the shabiha: armed Alawite gangs that have sacked and tortured Sunni towns and villages. That sectarianism is embedded in the nature of the Assad regime, built as it is on an exclusive empowerment of Alawites in a majority Sunni county. The regime’s self-professed trait that it is the last bastion of Arab secularism — which Bashar uses to rally support from the country’s many minority sects — is its own delusion. Alawites dominate the army, security services, and other high ranks of the regime, along with Sunni elites from the cities and few token Christians chosen by the regime. As former American ambassador Frederic Hof recently wrote, Hafez al-Assad ensured that his dominance of the Alawite community and, in turn its dominance of the regime, would produce a “political poison pill that could make the price of a hostile takeover prohibitive.”


    I lived in Damascus for most of a year from 2008 to 2009, when Assad’s liberalizing economic reforms were reaching a peak, opening Syria to Western tourism and providing the narrow elite with an economic boom. Boutique hotels and restaurants opened in restored Ottoman courtyard houses in Damascus’s Old City, as they did in Aleppo. But the BMWs and Audis crammed outside Naranj — an opulent restaurant on Damascus’s Straight Street — made clear who benefited from the newly privatized banks and businesses. Assad was known to show up in staged acts of casualness to Naranj, the favorite restaurant for visiting dignitaries, including John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz, who shared a table there with Bashar and Asma in 2009.

    For Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, economic liberalization meant owning Syriatel, the country’s only telecom industry, along with stakes in real estate, banking, hotels, and new free trade zones (along with the duty free shops at the airport and on the borders). Any foreign company wanting to do business in Syria had to go through Assad’s childhood friend and cousin, who some estimated controlled 60 percent of the economy. Subsidies, meanwhile, were cut for all those other Syrians of lower incomes who lived without such privileges and access. Damascus’s suburbs, long home to Palestinian refugees and, since the American invasion in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, were hardly so prosperous. In the Jazeera, the eastern agricultural plain that runs from the Euphrates River to northern Iraq, farmers were wracked by drought. People in the dusty southern city of Deraa, on the Jordanian border, suffered the same.

    This was the backdrop when the people of Deraa rose up in March 2011, after their young boys were detained and tortured by the local governor for writing familiar Tunisian and Egyptian anti-regime graffiti on the wall of their school. Rampant regime corruption and cronyism in the midst of widespread economic suffering, as it had in other Arab states, led to open revolt. But in Syria, where red lines had long been drawn by the mukhabarat, the stakes of protest immediately rose. The army, unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, did not signal a full or partial break with the regime to shuttle out an unpopular autocrat. Syria was different. Lesch’s insights into why Assad responded so harshly are not that new. In fact his interviews and access to Syria’s president rarely yield rich, new details. But in a crisis with such limited firsthand reporting, due to the regime’s media crackdowns, Lesch still provides essential outlines that confirm widely held suspicions. “Either he convinced himself or he was convinced by sycophants that his well-being was synonymous with the well-being of the country,” he writes, “ and that what he was doing — violently putting down protests and not meeting the demands for change — was both necessary and the correct response.”

    As for the notion of delusions, Lesch contends that Assad and his inner circle — “more than most people can imagine” — really believe that the uprising has been led by foreign conspiracies from its outset. The emergence of militant Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, plays directly into the regime’s narrative — and was in many ways what it hoped to get out of militarizing the conflict. For the rebels, the jihadists are the regime’s self-fulfilling prophecy: they play on the fears not only of Alawites but other minorities, from Christians to Druze, who see protection in the Assad regime. This conspiracy-driven mindset, Lesch argues, accounts for the “convulsive reaction” of regime-led civil war.

    The legacy such a reaction will leave to Syria remains to be seen. As Joshua Landis, another longtime American observer and academic of Syria, recently wrote: “In the end, the numbers will be decisive. The regime does not have an infinite supply of supporters who can fight. The rebels probably do. But what will Syria look like when it is over? The thought is staggering.”


    At the apartment I lived in for most of a year in Syria between 2008 and 2009, in the Old City of Damascus, I had Arabic lessons with one of my tutors in a small kitchen. Whenever I brought up politics with my tutor — like the potential for negotiation with Israel to return the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967 — he got quiet, removed the SIM card from his cell phone, then mine, and chose his words carefully. If it seemed paranoid — so your phone is being tapped, but how can they listen when it is off? — taking out the SIM card was the preamble to any vaguely sensitive discussion in Syria. The feeling of being monitored was always present. Neighbors and grocers knew your schedule, your friends, and their schedules.

    The apartment was on the top floor — the roof, really — of a modern, five-story walk-up on Straight Street. The kitchen peered down into the courtyard of a traditional Damascene house below, which had been renovated, like many others, into a boutique hotel, and which is now likely empty or boarded up while the city fears the fight to come. My kitchen window looked east, past the Roman-era Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of the Old City, to the Ghouta suburbs that today are slowly falling, by fierce firefight, into rebel hands.            

    From my roof looking west across the city, I’d stare at Mount Qassioun, which looms over Damascus even as housing creeps up its steep, arid slopes. The mountain is reportedly now being fortified by the Syrian military, a final redoubt in the regime’s defense of the capital. Qassioun is celebrated as the mountaintop from which the Prophet Muhammad first saw Damascus. He didn’t climb down and enter the city, though; you could only enter paradise once. Now, regime artillery on the mountain is used to shell restive suburbs below.


    LARB Contributor

    Frederick Deknatel is the managing editor of World Politics Review. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, and other publications.


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