Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad

by David W. Lesch

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When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came to power upon his father's death in 2000, many in- and outside Syria held high hopes that the popular young doctor would bring long-awaited reform, that he would be a new kind of Middle East leader capable of guiding his country toward genuine democracy. David Lesch was one of those who saw this promise in Assad. A widely


When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came to power upon his father's death in 2000, many in- and outside Syria held high hopes that the popular young doctor would bring long-awaited reform, that he would be a new kind of Middle East leader capable of guiding his country toward genuine democracy. David Lesch was one of those who saw this promise in Assad. A widely respected Middle East scholar and consultant, Lesch came to know the president better than anyone in the West, in part through a remarkable series of meetings with Assad between 2004 and 2009. Yet for Lesch, like millions of others, Assad was destined to disappoint. In this timely book, the author explores Assad's failed leadership, his transformation from bearer of hope to reactionary tyrant, and his regime's violent response to the uprising of his people in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Lesch charts Assad's turn toward repression and the inexorable steps toward the violence of 2011 and 2012. The book recounts the causes of the Syrian uprising, the regime's tactics to remain in power, the responses of other nations to the bloodshed, and the determined efforts of regime opponents. In a thoughtful conclusion, the author suggests scenarios that could unfold in Syria's uncertain future.

Editorial Reviews

Dallas Morning News
Insightful, valuable..Understanding Syria is important, and David Lesch’s book is invaluable for those who want to do so.—Philip Seib, Dallas Morning News

— Philip Seib

The Bookseller

"Detailed and thoughtful in the potential outcomes for this key Middle Eastern state."—The Bookseller

E. Roger Owen

"David Lesch is one of the very few outsiders who knows anything about either Assad or his highly secretive regime; all the other scholars of Syria are forced to look from the outside in."—E. Roger Owen, author of The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life

James Gelvin

"What separates this book from others on Syria and the Syrian uprising is the sense of immediacy that comes from Dr Lesch's long acquaintanceship with Bashar al-Assad and regime insiders and the anger and sorrow he feels about their betrayal of Syria." - James L. Gelvin, author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know

Dallas Morning News - Philip Seib

"Insightful, valuable..Understanding Syria is important, and David Lesch’s book is invaluable for those who want to do so."—Philip Seib, Dallas Morning News

Christian Science Monitor - Rayyan Al-Shawaf

"Lesch ably tackles Bashar’s failures. He excels in explaining the underlying economic reasons for the Syrian people’s frustrations with their regime."—Rayyan Al-Shawaf, Christian Science Monitor 

New York Journal of Books - Andrew Rosenbaum

“David Lesch’s Syria is timely, relevant, and to the point, providing the educated reader with everything needed to make sense of what is happening in that country. . . A major contribution to our knowledge of Syria and the Middle East. Anyone who seeks a real understanding of these subjects must read this book."—Andrew Rosenbaum, New York Journal of Books 

Kirkus Reviews
Anticipatory account of the demise of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's struggling dictator, and the quake potentials building in the regional political, religious and ethnic fault lines that run through his country. Lesch (Middle East History/Trinity Univ.; The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, 2007, etc.) first met with Assad in 2004 and has come to know key figures in Syria's political leadership directly. Assad was not groomed for the position of president--his assassinated brother-in-law was the choice for the top spot--but hopes were high for reform when he took over in 2000. Lesch goes through the process by which Assad became the dictator of the Syrian military state, and Assad's career provides the frame for the author's account as he discusses the way power is wielded in Syria, the religious and ethnic composition of the country's population, and how Assad and his country responded to the Arab Spring. The author provides a timeline and geographic discussion of the ongoing revolt since its beginning and an analysis of the many international interests that have a stake in the conflict. He shows that Assad, like his father, rules over an alliance of minorities. The revolt and its suppression have unleashed historical demons of the sort that came to the surface with the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Because of divisions between external and internal factions and fears of the consequences of domination by the Saudi-backed Salafists, Assad, Lesch argues, has succeeded so far in suppressing the uprising. However, in the meantime, Syria is being transformed into the center of an expanding region-wide religious and ethnic conflict. Personal knowledge and on-the-ground experience inform this behind-the-headlines chronicle of the Syrian conflict.

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By David W. Lesch


Copyright © 2012 David W. Lesch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18651-2

Chapter One

The Hope

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Or perhaps it was inevitable ...

For three decades, from the time an intra-Baath party coup brought him to power in 1970 until his death in June 2000, President Hafiz al-Assad was the ruler of Syria. By the early 1990s, though, his health was failing, and it was widely accepted that his eldest son, Basil, was being groomed for the top job – even though Syria is officially a republic, not a monarchy. Basil was viewed in Syria as a charismatic military figure who would seamlessly assume the presidency when the day came. But Basil was killed one foggy morning in 1994, in a car accident at a roundabout just outside Damascus International Airport.

Bashar al-Assad, the second-eldest son of Hafiz, was in his London apartment that January morning when he received the news that his older brother had died. Bashar, a licensed ophthalmologist who had graduated from Damascus University, was in London, studying for a postgraduate qualification in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital. Of course, he returned to Syria to support a grieving family and to assist with the funeral arrangements, in a show of familial solidarity. He may or may not at that moment have entertained the idea that he might someday become president. But – whether by choice or compulsion – that is what he became, six years later, on his father's death. He could not have guessed that, eleven years on, he would face a popular uprising against his rule. Nor could he have suspected that – as a result of the regime's brutal response, which has already left thousands dead – he would one day be almost universally reviled as a bloodthirsty killer who has lost his legitimacy to rule.

This was a far cry from people's high expectations of Bashar when he came to power. Indeed, even before he assumed the presidency, in Syria he was being called 'The Hope' – as in the hope for the future. After Basil's death, Bashar had been systematically elevated within the ruling apparatus and given more and more responsibility. He was appointed chairman of the Syrian Computer Society, a position that had been held by his older brother. He moved quickly through the ranks of the military, reaching the equivalent of brigadier general by the time of his father's death. In 1998, the all-important Lebanon portfolio was taken from Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam (who was not happy about it) and given to Bashar. It seemed to be a race against time to build Bashar's legitimacy and power base within the Baath party, the government and, especially, the military, to the point where he could succeed without serious opposition. If only his father could hang on long enough.

And his father did hold on just long enough: there was no serious opposition to Bashar al-Assad becoming president. Essentially, the generals in the state military-security apparatus gathered around Mustafa Tlas, Hafiz al-Assad's longtime – and loyal – minister of defense, to discuss the succession. No doubt most of the generals were Alawite, the minority Muslim sect in Syria that comprises 12–13 per cent of the population, which had dominated the ruling apparatus since the mid-1960s when the Baath party had consolidated its hold on power. The Alawites, a secular off-shoot of Shiite Islam that is considered by most Muslims to be heretical, had, for centuries, been an oppressed minority in the area that came to comprise Syria. Indeed, the great thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Sunni Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who leaned to the more rigorous – some would say puritanical – interpretation of Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa, or legalreligiousruling,callingtheAlawitesgreaterinfidelsthantheChristians, Jews or idolaters, and authorizing a jihad or holy war against them.

It was not until the French mandate over Syria in the period between World War One and World War Two that the fortunes of the Alawites (and certain other minorities in Syria, such as the Christians and the Druze) began to improve in a country that is 75 per cent Sunni Muslim. At the time of Syrian independence from the French, in 1946, the Alawites found themselves well positioned in the military: they had volunteered for and been recruited into the Syrian armed forces during the French mandate period, when Sunnis either looked down on military service or frowned upon it as collusion with the French in ruling over the country. When the socialist and pan-Arab neutralist Baath party started to win more and more parliamentary seats in the 1950s, and after it allied itself with important elements in the military to improve its political power in the divided and unstable Syrian political landscape, Alawite officers worked their way into the political mix and up the ladder, eventually becoming the dominant element in government as the primary arbiters of power. The February 1966 intra-Baath coup brought Hafiz al-Assad to a senior position in the new regime, as defense minister and commander of the air force. The Alawites were well represented from 1966 to 1970, but their position, especially in the military-security apparatus, improved immeasurably under Hafiz. This trend gained further momentum under Bashar, and Alawites are dominant in important sinecures in the regime (though over the years both Hafiz and Bashar also appointed Sunni Muslims to important posts in government).

The point is that the Alawites worked long and hard to obtain their positions of power and influence in the country, and they were not going to give those up easily. The Alawite-dominated military-security apparatus, as well as leading (mostly Sunni) businessmen tied into the regime, saw in Bashar al-Assad the best chance (or perhaps the least worst) of maintaining their political, economic and social positions and status. This, above all other reasons, is why Bashar became president. He was young, he had gained a certain amount of popularity, he was an Alawite – and, most importantly, he was an Assad.

On 11 June 2000, one day after his father died, Bashar was unanimously nominated by the ruling Baath party as president. There were no other nominees. The national assembly (or parliament) hastily amended article 83 of the Syrian constitution, which stated that the president of the republic must be forty years old – the minimum age was changed to thirty-four, the exact age of Bashar, who was born on 11 September 1965. On 24 June he was elected secretary-general of the Baath party at the Ninth Regional Congress meeting, the first such gathering of the Baath party for fifteen years. Three days later, the Syrian parliament voted 'yes' to the nomination, and in a nationwide referendum, Bashar received 97.29 per cent of the total vote (slightly less than the 99 per cent his father had regularly received to confirm his seven-year terms in office).

President Bashar al-Assad officially took the constitutional oath of office and delivered his inaugural speech in Damascus on 17 July 2000.

By Syrian standards, it was a remarkably enlightened speech, and it even went so far as to criticize certain policies of the past under Bashar's father. It served to confirm the suspicions among many inside and outside Syria – especially the pro-reform and pro-democracy elements – that Bashar was indeed a breath of fresh air who would lead the country in a new direction. In his speech, he made economic reform a clear priority; indeed, the frankness of his criticism of the previous system was unprecedented.

The new president declared that the state bureaucracy had become a 'major obstacle' to development, and he admitted that economic progress had been uneven, due, in large measure, to the state-dominated economy: 'Don't depend on the state. There is no magic wand. The process of change requires elements that are not the preserve of one person ... Authority without responsibility is the cause of chaos.' He went on:

We must rid ourselves of those old ideas that have become obstacles. In order to succeed we need modern thinking ... some people may believe that creative minds are linked to age and that they can frequently be found with the old, but this is not quite accurate. Some young people have strong minds that are still lively and creative.

And, in a subtle fashion, he seemed to lay the foundation for embarking on a different path from his father, proclaiming that 'the approach of the great leader, Hafez al-Assad, was a very special and unique approach and therefore it is not easy to emulate, especially as we remember that we are required not just to maintain it but to develop it as well'. Despite this reform-tinged rhetoric, Bashar did say that it would be impossible for Syria to become a Western-style democracy, calling instead for 'democracy specific to Syria that takes its roots from its history and respects its society'.

There was a genuine exuberance among many who had longed for change in Syria. Bashar brought into government a number of members of the Syrian Computer Society, people who could legitimately be called reformists. This added to the anticipatory environment, although the new so-called 'reformers' were more technocrats than pro-democracy elements. They were tasked with the job of modernizing Syria, implementing administrative reform in the various ministries to which they were assigned, and examining the economic weaknesses of the system and devising ways to correct it; they were not there to enact political reform. Besides, they had reached their privileged positions by being part of the system; they were not going to do anything substantial that would undermine it.

Bashar inherited from his father an authoritarian state. It was in a dilapidated condition, characterized by a stagnant economy, pervasive corruption and political repression. It was, as existed in a number of other authoritarian countries of the Middle East, a mukhabarat state – that is, one in which the security or intelligence services, in combination with certain trusted elements of the military, are dominant in controlling the population and in defending the regime against perceived threats, both internal and external. Hafiz al-Assad had largely established the mukhabarat state in Syria, having created a tangled matrix of overlapping security agencies during his time in power. With so much political instability in post-independence Syria, seething as it was with actual and attempted coups, many Syrians willingly accepted the Faustian bargain of less freedom for more stability that Hafiz al-Assad implicitly offered (or demanded). With chronic political instability and war on Syria's borders (in Lebanon and Iraq) an almost constant feature since the mid-1970s, it was not terribly difficult to convince most Syrians of the importance of stability above all else, even if this came at a considerable price. Under the Assads, therefore, it has been a constant mantra of the regime that it has performed its primary duty well – at times even achieving a modicum of socio-economic growth and opportunity – and that it is often the only thing standing between stability and chaos.

It has been an enormous challenge to provide that modicum of growth and opportunity, however. Syria is categorized as a lower-middle-income country, and is in the bottom third on most of the important international economic indices. It is a country that is dominated by the public sector, which was initially forged during the socialist-leaning and economic-nationalist post-independence period of the 1950s and 1960s, when countries were emerging from the shackles of British and French colonial rule. As Charles Issawi wrote at the time, three main shifts in power took place in the Middle East: 'from foreigners to nationals; from the landed interest to the industrial, financial, commercial and managerial interests; and from the private sector to the state'.

This was, of course, well intentioned: it aimed at distributing wealth and political power more equitably, ending reliance on outside powers, eliminating corruption and restoring justice. A social contract with the people became common in such countries, with the regimes promising to establish adequate safety nets, and to provide employment, education and social services in return for compliance and obedience (if not obeisance). As typically happened in such economic systems, Syria instead developed a bloated and inefficient public sector that, for five decades, provided the support base for the ruling regime. In the process, it established a classic 'Bonapartist' state, where economic policy was primarily driven by regime survival, especially in a regional environment that was anything but benevolent. As time went on, the wealth was funneled to the state as the capital accumulator, and the government became the source of patronage, as a pervasive clientelist network was created in the military, bureaucracy, business community and other elements of society tied to the state apparatus.

Because of this dominant public sector that was tied into the political apparatus, when the Syrian economy faced a crisis situation – a fairly frequent occurrence, since Syria's agrarian and oil export-based economy was ultimately dependent on unpredictable rainfall (and drought) and on the volatile international oil market – the regime had sometimes to engage in what has been called 'selective liberalization'. It had to be selective because of the following dilemma: if the Assads were to liberalize too much and/or too quickly, that could undermine the public sector patronage system that helped maintain the regime in power. Some contend that Syria's selective liberalization was directed as much by a desire to broaden the regime's support base during times of change as by the intrinsic need to improve its economic situation in general; therefore, significant elements of the bourgeoisie were brought – or dragged – de facto and de jure into a sort of coalition with the state. This led to enhanced access to political power and to greater corruption in the private sector, with lucrative results for those willing to be co-opted. On the other hand, it may have, as Volker Perthes put it, 'amalgamated' these societal elements together behind the regime, and it did not lead to any acquisition of political power by the private sector. Indeed, as Ghassan Salame wrote, this state of affairs could be described as 'bourgeoisies leaving politics to their masters who secure the stability these bourgeoisies need to enrich themselves'. This is also what Patrick Seale called the 'military-mercantile complex', which developed strong ties between the government and the large Sunni business class, whose support proved so crucial in 1982, when Hafiz al-Assad moved against the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The highlight – or in this case the lowlight – of the crackdown was the shelling of the city of Hama, the base of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood: this killed some 10,000–20,000 people, many of them innocent civilians, though it did succeed in stamping out the violent Muslim Brotherhood uprising that had been going on since the late 1970s.

Both Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad opened up the economy at various times, and to varying degrees; but the primary beneficiaries were usually those already tied into the regime through familial, business and/or political connections. An already elite class enriched itself further, and especially under Bashar this resulted in a conspicuously unequal distribution of wealth. But it also meant that the elite were co-opted by the regime, in the sense that their socioeconomic status depended upon regime support; they could very rapidly lose that status if they displayed any sign of disloyalty or acted in any way that embarrassed the regime.

In addition to the burden of an overly dominant public sector, there were numerous problems that inhibited economic growth under Hafiz al-Assad, including:

• a very small and restricted banking system, and no stock market to organize capital;

• an inadequate regulatory regime and insufficient transparency, which is also related to a corrupt and politicized judiciary that is anything but independent (a major impediment to attracting foreign investment);

• a private sector that is too fragmented to lead the way in capital accumulation;

• rampant corruption and a vibrant black market; and

• the absence of any tradition of large-scale domestic capital investment (leading to a proliferation of small-scale enterprises and investment in non-productive areas, such as commerce, instead of manufacturing).

Moreover, as a noted 2002 United Nations study (the Arab Human Development Report) found, right across the Arab world there is a 'knowledge' deficit – a result of poorly performing and inadequately supported educational systems, combined with the brain-drain of those who receive an education in the West and choose to stay there, rather than return to their native countries.

One can see why Bashar al-Assad focused on economic reform in his inaugural speech. Nonetheless, there was a noticeably more open political environment in the months after Bashar took office, leading many to call this period the 'Damascus Spring'. The seven or eight months of the Damascus Spring were marked by general amnesties for political prisoners of all persuasions, the licensing of private newspapers, a shake-up in the state-controlled media apparatus, the provision of political forums and salons at which open criticism and dissent was tolerated, and the abandonment of the personality cult that had surrounded the regime of Bashar's father.

The regime appeared to be caught off guard by the precipitate growth in the number of civil society organizations and pro-democracy groups, and by the level of criticism directed at the government. It is generally believed that some of the stalwart elements in the regime (referred to at the time as the 'old guard' – those who had reached positions of power, especially in the military-security apparatus, under Hafiz al-Assad and had been loyal to him) basically approached Bashar and warned him of the deleterious effects on the regime's power base of his move to open up society. As one diplomat who served in Syria at the time told me: 'Probably some of the tough guys in the regime came to Bashar and essentially said, "Hey kid, this is not how we do things here.'"


Excerpted from SYRIA by David W. Lesch Copyright © 2012 by David W. Lesch. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

James Gelvin
What separates this book from others on Syria and the Syrian uprising is the sense of immediacy that comes from Dr Lesch's long acquaintanceship with Bashar al-Assad and regime insiders and the anger and sorrow he feels about their betrayal of Syria." - James L. Gelvin, author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know
E. Roger Owen
David Lesch is one of the very few outsiders who knows anything about either Assad or his highly secretive regime; all the other scholars of Syria are forced to look from the outside in.—E. Roger Owen, author of The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life

Meet the Author

David W. Lesch is professor of Middle East history at Trinity University. He lives in San Antonio, TX.

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