Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad

In the heady days of the Arab Spring, it seemed possible that 2011 might join 1989 as a year that stood for liberation. To Western eyes, the spectacle of young people using Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests and oust sclerotic and oppressive regimes — in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt — seemed like a democratic fairy tale. Since then, it has become clear that things are not so simple, that the Arab Spring might sow new kinds of extremism and discord — witness the assassination of the American ambassador to Libya.

But nowhere in the Middle East has the promise of the Arab Spring turned more bitter than in Syria. As David W. Lesch writes in Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, the freedom movement came to that country in the first of week of March 2011, when a group of ten schoolchildren in the city of Deraa “decided to do what children at this age do the world over: be mischievous.” Underestimating the paranoia of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, they scrawled “Down with the Regime,” a slogan borrowed from the Egyptian revolution, on their school’s walls. When the children were dragged off to prison and tortured by the state security forces, the regime managed to provoke the revolution it had been clumsily trying to prevent.

Within months, protests spread around the country, the government’s response turned openly violent, and a low-level civil war, punctuated by spasms of intense violence, was in progress. Almost two years later, that is where Syria remains — with neither the government nor the rebels able to gain the upper hand. In the meantime, the chaos in Syria is threatening to spill across the country’s borders with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Lesch, an American expert on Syria who teaches at Trinity University in Texas, offers an informative guide to the first year or so of the Syrian uprising, and the political, diplomatic, and economic factors that shaped it. He writes as one of the many Westerners who once held a sanguine view of Bashar al-Assad, a former ophthalmologist who unexpectedly succeeded his father as Syria’s ruler in 2000. “Many inside and outside Syria were energized in a positive way by the new young president,” he notes. The “fall” of his subtitle is not simply that of the Assad regime —  which is still clinging to power — but of the high hopes that Bashar might reform and democratize the corrupt one-party dictatorship he inherited.

Much of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad is devoted to explaining why Bashar failed to do this. In essence, Lesch’s argument is that he didn’t try hard enough but that it wouldn’t have made much difference if he had. Syria is a Sunni-majority country ruled by a secular, nominally socialist party, the Baath, which relies on the Shi’ite Alawite minority for its chief support. Neither the government nor the society nor the economy was resilient enough to change peacefully. Instead, Lesch shows, Bashar al-Assad continued a long tradition of seeing all challenges to his rule as foreign conspiracies, led by the United States and Israel. He refused, and still refuses, to acknowledge that the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army are voicing widespread and legitimate grievances by his own people, who had no way to change the system from within.

Lesch’s book is perhaps more sympathetic to Assad and to Syria than the facts warrant, but this sympathy allows him to write knowledgeably about a conflict that has not gone away, and that may yet erupt into a regional war, or worse.


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