In this timely book, historian David Lesch explores the recent history of Syria from about 1970 to 2012. Unlike other investigations published recently, Lesch is uniquely qualified to write on Syria in general and Bashar al-Assad in particular. Lesch has traveled to and has written about Syria for twenty-three years and was given unprecedented access to interview President Bashar al-Assad in 2004 and 2005. He presents a narrative that blends intimate anecdotes about the Assad regime, while also considering evidence produced by scholars and analysts.
The book is divided into nine chapters which roughly follow the chronology of Assad’s ascension in 2000 to the time at which Lesch finished writing the book. This means that Lesch has in some places presaged later developments in the Syrian crisis, while in others his analysis at the time proved inaccurate. Chapter 1 offers a concise examination of Bashar al-Assad in 2000, who had fallen into power because of the untimely death of his older brother Basil, whose political acumen was apposite for following in the footsteps of Hafiz al-Assad. Lesch paints Bashar as a politically moderate, computer enthusiast, called back from London following the completion of his degree in ophthalmology to reticently take up the leadership position in his father’s party.
Against the backdrop of his hope for Syria, Lesch explores the subsequent events that have come to characterize Bashar’s headship. Chapter 2 discusses how the United States, under the Bush administration, shifted policy towards Syria in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, when Bashar failed (or neglected?) to close his nation's border to prevent Islamist insurgents from fighting US troops in Iraq. Lesch presents the difficult political decisions Bashar had to make during those years against the backdrop of political inexperience. His inexperience, even personal insecurity, gave way to anger and an increasing confidence in 2005 when Bashar was forced to remove his troops from Lebanon.
The following chapters (Ch. 3-6) examine the development of protests in the context of the Arab Awakening, as well as how he and the Syrian government responded. Readers in the West will likely find Chapter 7, “The International Response,” most fascinating. Here, Lesch lays out in a clear manner the countries and groups which are either for or against Assad, including al-Qaida and Hezbollah. Lesch effectively highlights the inconsistencies in the international response to government repression across the MENA.
Chapters 8-9 follow the latest developments, probably just before Lesch’s manuscript was submitted for print. In the end, Lesch presents a variety of scenarios which may play out depending on the international response to the ongoing war. He shows that the fall of Assad is likely to be the only option that will mollify the opposition and, in light of the ongoing fighting, a negotiated solution is becoming more and more improbable. In addition, Lesch also argues that the fragmented nature of the opposition precludes an effective and unified front to negotiate a peace with the Assad regime.
In the end, Lesch contrasts Bashar al-Assad with former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Realizing the collapse of the Soviet system, Gorbachev engaged in the process of glasnost and perestroika, socio-political and economic programs that fundamentally reconfigured the Soviet Union. Ironically, these same measures resulted in his fall from power. Nonetheless, as Lesch notes, Gorbachev “recognized and then seized the moment” to transform life in the Soviet Union. “Not unlike Gorbachev,” Lesch writes, “Assad desperately needed to break out of the stifling, anachronistic box of Syria politics-as-usual and to embrace a transformational role in his country” (p.241). However, he has failed miserably to do so. It is in this way, Lesch concludes his book.
One of the book’s virtues lies in Lesch’s ability to show that, despite his moderate and western-style upbringing and education, Bashar al-Assad is a product of the context in which he grew up. He is a product of the Cold War era, and someone who, not unlike his father, will secure his political longevity at all costs—even if that means brutally suppressing the people over whom the Assad regime rules.
This is a timely book that should be required reading for anyone interested in Middle Eastern history and politics. Lesch’s provides profound insight into what continues to be a brutal war and whose consequences have yet to materialize fully.