It is not usual to begin a book review with a quote from elsewhere, but, “Bad men need nothing more to compress their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing,” as nineteenth century English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill remarked, is the initial feeling that I took away from Sam Dagher’s Assad Or We Burn The Country: How One Family’s Lust For Power Destroyed Syria. The Assad family in Syria, I believe, has been allowed to act with relative impunity and, quite literally, get away with murder.
“These poisonous regional conflicts [Iran and the Arab Spring fallout] and the West’s reticence and caution gave Bashar and his backers ample time to decimate those resisting peacefully and to turn the standoff into an armed struggle fuelled by sectarian extremists on both sides, “argues Dagher. “…the Assad regime’s henchmen mocked [then US President Barack] Obama’s calls on Bashar to relinquish power and his warnings over chemical weapons use because they had calculated — correctly, it turned out — that these were merely words.”
The author offers insight into the thinking of the Syrian regime and explores the family history of the bloodied Assad dynasty. Crucially, though, he does this while exploring the personal stories of Syria’s anti-authoritarian revolutionaries and this offers an interesting contrast between the 2011 street protestors and Bashar Al-Assad’s inner circle. One moment we are with anti-regime activists coordinating street protests and the next minute we are in the dictator’s “crisis management cell”, a group setup in 2011 by officials and close aides of the Syrian leader to organise the crackdown on protesters and later lead the military campaign against the rebellious population.
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The book’s title comes from graffiti sprayed on walls by pro-Assad militia groups in 2011 — “Assad or We Burn the Country” — as an expression which best exemplifies the way that Assad supporters saw events in their country. Indeed, as Assad himself said in 1995, “There is no other way to govern our society except with the shoe over people’s heads.” Both quotes capture the essence of Dagher’s point that power for the Assad family has always been a zero-sum game.
Arab regimes have always used claimed that, “It is us or it is chaos” in order to cling to power in any way possible, but Syria has taken this line to terrifying new levels. As Dagher writes, even with the formation of the crisis management cell, which was made up of different factions, all of whom were personally loyal to the Assad family, there were divisions on how to respond to the uprising. However, those who did not favour the scorched-earth policy adopted by the regime, were eventually eliminated. Syria’s Deputy Defence Minister Assef Shawkat, despite being responsible for countless deaths, did not take well to the blanket destruction of Syria being enacted by the regime of which he was part. He was eventually killed in a mysterious explosion in an up-market Damascus neighbourhood in 2012, as were other officials and aides who did not support the extent of the regime’s belligerent policies.
One key difference between Dagher’s analysis and others about the Syrian regime is the role that Bashar Al-Assad personally played in instigating the civil war. It is still common to find those who argue that he was merely a figurehead who had been sidelined by his own family; someone who simply took control of the military response from 2011 onwards, but the book makes clear that this is not true. According to the author, the Syrian President pushed for hard-line solutions and friends around him who tried to dissuade him from doing so found themselves shut out from his inner circle. “Bashar used what would become a characteristic medical/clinical analogy when he linked his opponents to ‘multiplying germs’,” explains Dagher. “‘We can’t completely eradicate them, but we can work on strengthening the immunity of our bodies,’ he said.” Furthermore, Assad was never a reformer, contrary to the image presented of him prior to the 2011 uprising.
Beyond the politics, the book depicts Assad as an emotionally detached figure who did not portray any emotion at his older brother Bassel’s funeral in 1994, nor at his father’s funeral in 2000. Upon the death of his brother, he was groomed to be the President of Syria after his father; a shy and introverted figure, Bashar sought to find ways to prove his masculinity to himself. One way was to have countless love affairs, not for pleasure but to prepare to be the man that he felt he needed to be in order to be president. Even after his marriage to Asma Akhras in 2000, Assad felt it necessary to boast about his extramarital affairs to foreign diplomats. This is not mere trivia; it tells us a lot about the psychological pathologies of the man at the head of the Syrian regime.
There was nothing inevitable about the destruction, brutality and savagery of the Syrian civil war. Decisions made and not made by those dealing with the crisis have led to the situation in which Syria finds itself today. Nevertheless, while the outcome of events was never inevitable, the book leaves little doubt that it was indeed inevitable that Assad would handle things in the way that he did, and continues to do. It was always going to be brute force all the way, unless someone stopped him, and nobody did.
To be clear here, Sam Dagher is not calling for foreign intervention in Syria; he is showing us the consequences of allowing such a regime as that led by Bashar Al-Assad to survive. It is a much-needed antidote to all those who think otherwise. As T.S. Eliot puts it in his poem Gerontion, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” The book is an essential read because is dispels many of the myths surrounding the Syrian conflict and forces us to ask some hard questions about how we got to this position.