[Marxism] Robin Yassin-Kassab reviews "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 11 09:00:13 MDT 2012


Book review: Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, by David W Lesch
by Robin Yassin-Kassab

Published on Saturday 6 October 2012 18:34

Until his elder brother Basil died in a car crash, Bashaar al-Assad, 
Syria’s tyrant, was planning a quiet life as an opthalmologist in England.

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
by David W Lesch
Yale, 256pp, £18.99

Recalled to Damascus, he was rapidly promoted through the military 
ranks, and after his father’s death was confirmed in the presidency in a 
referendum in which he supposedly achieved 97.29 per cent of the vote. 
Official discourse titled him The Hope.

Propaganda aside, the mild-mannered young heir enjoyed genuine 
popularity and a long grace period, now entirely squandered. He seemed 
to promise a continuation of his father’s policy of promoting stability 
at the expense of freedom – not the worst one for a country wracked by 
endless coups before the Assadist state, and surrounded by states at war 
– while at the same time gradually reforming. Selective liberalisation 
allowed for a stock market and private banks but protected the public 
sector patronage system which ensured regime survival. There was even a 
measure of glasnost, a Damascus Spring permitting private newspapers and 
political discussion groups. It lasted eight months, and then the 
critics who had been encouraged to speak were exiled or imprisoned. Most 
people, Lesch included, blamed the Old Guard rather than Bashaar. “I got 
to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West,” Lesch writes, 
and this may be true. Between 2004 and 2008 he met the dictator 
frequently. His 2005 book The New Lion of Damascus seems in retrospect 
naively sympathetic. He can be forgiven for this. Most analysts (me 
included), and most Syrians, continued to give Bashaar the benefit of 
the doubt until March last year.

The most visible result of the early reforms was the rise of a new crony 
capitalist class. There was economic growth, but not enough to keep pace 
with population growth, or to withstand the shocks of recurrent drought 
and the 2008 financial crisis. The regime’s socialist pretensions 
collapsed, and by 2011 Syria’s working classes were as discontented as 
Egypt’s or Tunisia’s. Still, almost every observer predicted that Syria 
would weather the revolutionary storm. The Assadist state was expected 
to survive because of its (false) image as a “resistance regime” amid a 
sea of cowering Arab puppets, because of the crushed and divided 
opposition, the unity of the government with military and security 
agencies, the threat of sectarian splintering, and a deeply-rooted 
popular fear of repression.

There was a great deal of truth to this perception. Calls for protests 
in January and February failed to mobilise the people. It was regime 
stupidity and barbarism, its failure to recognise the historical moment, 
which finally brought crowds to the streets. (“Bashaar is the real 
leader of the revolution,” a Syrian recently told me.) In March children 
scrawled subversive graffiti on the walls of the drought-struck city of 
Deraa, and were arrested and tortured. A few hundred relatives 
demonstrated for their release. Soldiers opened fire, killing four. The 
next day 20,000 protested. Soldiers killed still more and water and 
electricity were switched off. Protests then spread around the country.

Lesch blames the miscalculation on inertia and instinctive violence as 
well as Bashaar’s increasing hubris since 2005, by which time he’d 
survived Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon and the threat of 
Bush-doctrine regime change. A man who was “unpretentious, even 
self-deprecating” betrayed by 2007 “self-satisfaction, even smugness.”

At first the protests were uncoordinated, and local grievances were as 
important as national. Nobody called for the downfall of the regime, 
only for reform. Yet, crucially, the fear barrier was falling. Lesch 
quotes an activist on the catharsis felt by many: “It was better than 
joy, it was better than love. What was amazing was that suddenly 
everyone felt like family.”

Bashaar still had time, but it was rapidly running out. He waited a week 
after the first bloodshed before addressing the rubber stamp parliament. 
Lesch calls the speech “pathetic”, and so it was. Not wanting to appear 
weak, or to concede to pressure as Mubarak and Ben Ali had done in vain, 
he blamed the upheaval on foreign conspiracies. In fact, the West, the 
Gulf and Turkey were willing to wait for Assad to offer real reforms and 
stabilise the situation. He did mumble about reforms, but stressed he’d 
been planning them since 2005. Disastrously, he giggled throughout the 
speech. In the new context his “childlike laugh” no longer provided a 
charismatic touch.

The vicious circle set in – demonstrations, killings, larger 
demonstrations, worse repression – until the current crescendo of over 
20,000 dead, thousands (including children) tortured and raped, and the 
major cities bombed by tanks and planes. State violence brought 
unstoppable momentum to the uprising.

Lesch quotes another activist: “If we had known it would reach this 
point, we probably wouldn’t have dared oppose the regime. But we did it, 
and now we can’t stop, because if we do they will kill us all.”

Lesch gives a good overview of the various opposition organisations, the 
grassroots Local Coordination Committees, and the burgeoning Free Syrian 
Army. He describes the international forces supporting and 
(ineffectually) opposing Assad, and the ultimately irrelevant 
international diplomacy.

Lesch finished writing before the FSA became more effective, before the 
high-level defections and assassinations of top figures. His book 
suffers slightly from the gaps and editorial lapses of a book rushed out 
in haste. It is also difficult to read that Lesch still holds Assad’s 
spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban “in high regard” (“Do you think this 
system would accept torture?” she asked Channel 4 in outraged tones).

Stephen Starr’s excellent Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising 
offers a more street-level account, but the strengths of Lesch’s book 
are his solid analysis and his previous access to the top which, while 
not providing any particularly new insights, does add an interesting 
layer of personal observation. Lesch’s disillusion echoes that of 
ordinary Syrians, and he is therefore ideally placed to chart how the 
dictator’s smugness has pulled Syria, this ancient country, into the abyss.

• Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road to Damascus (Penguin) 
and blogs at www.qunfuz.com

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