In his new book Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, David Lesch, one of the only Westerners well acquainted with Assad, sheds new light on the ophthalmologist-turned-tyrant and how his regime failed Syria. As the chaos continues, we take a look at this illuminating and important book on this tragic (and preventable) crisis.
The conflict in Syria has entered a new phase of chaos in recent weeks. Yesterday, UN envoy Kofi Annan resigned because of Syria’s growing militarisation and a lack of unity among world powers. Annan’s resignation leaves the UN without any coherent strategy in what has become the deadliest chapter of the Arab spring, now a civil war that has already led to an estimated 20,000 lives lost. It looks as though this bloody crisis could continue indefinitely.
It all looked rather different back in May 2011, when Yale author David Lesch outlined the options for President Bashar al-Assad, during the early stages of the unrest. Back then the uprising was confined to protests rather than armed conflict, and Assad had been caught unawares, having refused to believe that the Arab Spring, which had already engulfed Tunisia and Egypt, would reach his ‘stable’ country. On the Yale blog Lesch, a professor of Middle East history who has met the Syrian president on a number of occasions, summarised Assad’s inept handling of the Arab Spring, providing three possible outcomes for the situation:
If I could visit with Bashar al-Asad today I would tell him that he has three choices. First, he could continue to unleash the hounds and brutally repress the uprising. He would stay in power, but then he would become an international pariah and join the ranks of the Saddam Hussein’s and Pol Pot’s of this world, and he would eventually most likely meet the same fate [...]
Second, he could try to muddle through as he has, with a mix of reforms and crackdowns [...]
Third, he could accept the inevitable (and the reality of these other less desirable alternatives) and do what is in the long-term best interests of himself and his country before it is too late (and it may already be): establish a new precedent in the Arab world as well as a positive legacy for himself by announcing real political reform, including new party and election laws, the elimination of article 8 of the Syrian constitution that secures the rule of the Baath party, and, most importantly perhaps, setting presidential terms limits. (Read the full blog here)
Looking at the situation today, with Assad’s security forces firing mortar rounds at refugee camps in Damascus, thousands of displaced citizens fleeing the country, and the hope of a diplomatic solution fading, it seems that Assad, who is rumoured to have fled the country and hasn’t been seen in public for over two weeks, has stuck with option number 1.
When the Syrian President 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 his timely new book Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, Lesch 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, Lesch suggests scenarios that could unfold in Syria over the coming months and years. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad provides excellent insight for those wanting to grasp the wider history of the Syrian conflict, and who wish to chart the events that led what could potentially be a long and bloody war.
Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad is available now from Yale University Press.
David W. Lesch is professor of Middle East history, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas. He has written numerous books on the Middle East and has traveled widely there on scholarly, business, and diplomatic endeavours. He is a frequent consultant to US government departments on Middle East issues.