New book reveals unknown details about how Assad prevailed in Syria

For Bashar Assad, clan is everything, and outsiders are just that — people never to be trusted. Most of Assad’s own people were against him.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Unknown insights. Cover of Sam Dagher’s new book “Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria.”
Unknown insights. Cover of Sam Dagher’s new book “Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria.”

Details in a new book by Sam Dagher, “Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria,” offer previously unknown insights into how the Syrian regime defeated the popular uprising against its rule.

The book relies much on accounts from Manaf Tlass, the former Syria Army brigadier-general and life-long friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who defected from the regime and fled to Paris. Tlass’s father, Mustafa, a former minister of defence, and brother Firas, a business tycoon, also left the country as the Syrian government increasingly turned its weapons on civilian districts in 2012.

In the years since, Manaf Tlass maintained ambitions of returning to Syria as part of a military council that, he hoped, would take control of the country. Until recently, he said he had no doubt that the Assad regime would one day fall.

So, it’s one thing for armchair experts and Western analysts to have wrongly predicted the regime’s demise but when one of its insiders — a person who grew up with the Assad family — got it wrong, the question of how the regime endured enters the realm of the mythical.

Most of Assad’s own people were against him. Powerful regional leaders, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, called for him to leave. So too did much of the West, which strangled the Syrian economy with sanctions. Assad’s army was — and continues to be — poorly trained and under-armed. His government had little in the way of money to pay for a years-long war effort.

And yet it endured.

Many observers, myself included, have been surprised — stunned even — that the Assad regime managed, against all odds, to prevail in Syria. Russian airpower and the radicalisation of the armed opposition helped the Damascus government win, of course, but first the regime had to create the conditions for events to go its way at every critical juncture.

Sure, the regime enjoyed a considerable amount of luck — that the Obama administration chose not to bomb Syria after it killed hundreds in chemical attacks around Damascus in 2013 was a major point. Assad had flown very close to the sun but survived.

Key to much of this was the idea that Assad and his wife, Asma, presented themselves as a new breed of Middle Eastern leadership with a modern, progressive worldview. This resulted in Western media lavishing praise on the Assads from 2007-10 that proved important in dissuading public opinion in the United Kingdom and the United States from supporting military strikes on the regime.

At that time, for many in the West the debate was framed as a choice between Assad, a secular though murderous leader, or jihadists whose aim was to attack targets in Europe and the United States.

In Dagher’s book, we learn that from the onset of the anti-government protests in March 2011, Assad stuck to the same game plan that it pursued during the years of war that followed. Tellingly, the regime didn’t adapt to events as they played out on the ground, as many analysts have argued, but followed a singular, brutal strategy from the beginning.

It shows that every attempt the regime made to appease protesters and the international community alike were fabricated and calculated as it presented itself as the victim of a “conspiracy.”

We learn that Assad’s brother, Maher, and his maternal cousins, the business mogul Rami Maklouf and intelligence chief Hafez Maklouf, forced out moderate elements of the regime’s inner circle early on and imposed their will on the president — who is himself revealed to be calculating and cold-hearted — unlike the image presented of him by sections of the media.

Assad’s favourite dish is mukhleh, we’re told, and that as a child his older brother and heir apparent Bassel treated him with very little regard. The transformation from quiet eye doctor to savage dictator is not one that’s ever fully been analysed, though Dagher, through Tlass, presents a man who was keen to make his own stamp on the world from the early days of his presidency.

A theme that readers are presented with from the president’s conversations with Tlass is that Assad always felt that to offer protesters an inch would add fuel to their demands. “We give them a metre and they want 2 metres. We cannot just keep making concessions,” the president is reported to have told Tlass as protests grew in the southern city of Daraa in March 2011.

What we don’t find out is whether Assad lied to Russia about its use of chemical weapons (Moscow has said Assad told them he didn’t conduct chemical attacks) or whether Moscow knew but lied to the West. We don’t know what Moscow and Tehran will eventually seek to extract from Damascus for their unwavering support.

What is made clear in the book, however, is that Assad regards familial relations and blood ties as more important than longstanding loyalty: being married to a relative of the president outweighs having served the regime for decades. For Bashar Assad, clan is everything, and outsiders are just that — people never to be trusted.