Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th August, 2012
In February, US President Barack Obama declared the fall of his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad ‘is not going to be a matter of “if”; it’s going to be a matter of “when”.’ Six months later, Assad is still hanging on in there in Damascus, though the country is riven by civil war. So it was maybe a bit premature for David W Lesch to entitle his new book Syria:The Fall of the House of Assad (Yale University Press, £19). Yet this is not just a case of wishful thinking. Professor Lesch (who teaches History of the Middle East at Trinity University at San Antonio, Texas) is a distinguished authority on Syria and a longtime advisor on Middle East policy to the US State Department. Moreover, he was one of those who believed that when Bashar al-Assad assumed power following the death of his father Hafiz in 2000 that this could be the dawn of a new, less repressive era for Syria. Indeed, Lesch wrote an eqarlier book that portrayed Bashar as a potential saviour (The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria, 2005). Lesch interviewed Bashar on numerous occasions — though not recently — and has travelled widely round the country. But rather like a lover scorned he is now totally disillusioned with the Syrian President. ‘Many of us hoped that Assad would change the system,’ he writes in the conclusion of his new book. ‘What seems to have happened is that the system has changed him.’ Indeed, the once rather gauche opthalmist, who was plucked from his higher studies in London because his elder brother — and Hafiz’s presumed heir — Basil had been killed in a car accident, has changed dramatically. Some analysts argue that he is a prisoner of the system, unable to resist the pressure from other members of the regime, including his thuggish younger brother Maher. But that is not the whole stoy. Bashar does now seem to believe that he has a God-given role to ‘save’ Syria from the forces of insurrection, whereas in reality he is leading it to perdition. He and his cohorts denounce the opposition forces — including the somewhat disjointed Free Syrian Army — as ‘terrorists’, while it is the government that is terrorising the peopulation. Nonetheless, it remains true, as Lesch points out, that a significant proportion of the Syrian population — notably the dominant Alewite minority and the Christians — would prefer Assad to stay in power as the prospect of a salafist Sunni alternative alarms them. But a resolution to the Syrian crisis does not seem imminent. Lesch was doubtless under pressure from his publishers to get his book written fast and they have turned it round in a couple of months. But the endgame is not yet in process. The short-lived Assad dynasty may be going, probably it is going, but it certainly isn’t gone yet.