Books: A product of the system?

A defense of Bashar Assad paints him as a victim of a corrupt and repressive environment.

Destroyed houses in Homs (photo credit: Reuters)
Destroyed houses in Homs
(photo credit: Reuters)
Amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Syrian President Bashar Assad explained to American journalists that his country would remain stable because its leaders were attuned to the beliefs of the people. “When there is divergence,” he added, a vacuum “creates disturbances.”
In January, the Syrian representative to the UN insisted that “Syria will not be Libya; Syria will not be Iraq; Syria will not be Somalia; Syria will not be a failing state.”
This bravado, of course, is at odds with realities on the ground that may well bring the 40-year rule of the House of Assad to an end. In Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, David Lesch – a professor of Middle East History at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas – assesses the causes of the uprising, Assad’s decision to crack down on peaceful protesters, the response of the international community, and the different outcomes the civil war may produce.
A bit of a name-dropper, Lesch makes too much of his relationship with Assad and other well-placed members of the regime. Nonetheless, Syria is an informative, almost up-to-the-minute book, especially helpful in sorting out the ways in which the crisis has fed the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as a “new Middle Eastern Cold War” between the US and EU and a Russian-led bloc that includes China and (to a lesser extent) India, Brazil and South Africa.
Lesch points out that although the leaders of Saudi Arabia are committed to maintaining stability in the region and fear that grassroots protest might spread to their own authoritarian country, they (and their Qatari allies) are determined to reduce Iranian influence in Syria. Concluding that anything less than full support of Assad’s opponents would squander the substantial reserve of soft power he has accumulated throughout the Islamic World by supporting rebels in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has organized diplomatic pressure on Assad and given safe haven on Turkish soil for the armed Syrian resistance.
Realizing that they can have little impact on the outcome in Syria, Israelis, Lesch reminds us, are divided among those who think it is better to have the devil they know (whose responses to the bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor and the assassination of a Hezbollah terrorist in downtown Damascus were muted) remain in power, in a weakened state; those who conclude that Assad’s fall will hurt Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas; and those who fear that if Muslim militants replace Assad, they might be more inclined to use Scud missiles, advanced surface-to-air missiles, and chemical weapons.
With limited leverage and military options, the United States, Lesch suggests, can’t do much more than step up the rhetorical and diplomatic pressure on Assad to step aside. By contrast, Russia, which has a close relationship with Syria (its seventh-largest customer for weapons), may be hedging its bets – vetoing UN resolutions condemning Syria while waiting for the right moment to regain the clout it had in the Middle East during the Cold War by brokering a deal with Assad (perhaps in collaboration with the Arab League) to transfer authority to a transitional government.
Lesch is less helpful, alas, in specifying the ideological make-up – and political agenda – of the rebels. Or in identifying emerging leaders. A “clearing house” for political and diplomatic initiatives by the opposition, the Syrian National Council, he writes, is an “umbrella organization” of groups inside and outside the country.
Made up largely of “tech-savvy youth,” Local Coordination Committees “have differing agendas, based on local circumstances.”
The vast majority of homegrown activists, the author indicates, are religiously conservative Sunnis in the rural lower and middle classes. He insists that they are not “in any way, shape or form Islamist extremists,” but acknowledges that jihadists may have returned to Syria, that a number of suicide bombings “bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda,” and that “the longer the conflict continues, the more radically Islamist it may become.”
In the end, he mounts a somewhat contradictory and perhaps half-hearted defense of Assad as the product of a corrupt and repressive system “that is a paradigm of stagnation and control.”
Although he has considerable power, Lesch argues, Assad has had to manage competing interests, “often cannot act in an arbitrary manner,” and ultimately succumbed to a “self-reinforcing alternate reality that was orchestrated and constructed around him.”
Lesch is surely right about the difficulties of breaking out of “the stifling, anachronistic box of Syrian politics-asusual.”
But if, as he admits, Assad bears some responsibility for failing to implement the reforms he once promised, then why, one wonders, does he deem it “inevitable” that the system would change Assad instead of Assad changing the system? And where does this conclusion leave those of us who believe that “singular leaders” – and extraordinary citizens – can seize the moment and take on transformational roles?
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.
Syria:The Fall of the House of Assad By David W. Lesch Yale University Press 275 pages; $28