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Jerome DonnellyDecember 28, 2012
Syriaby David W. Lesch

Yale University Press. 288p $28

David Lesch, a recognized specialist in Syrian politics, is the author of an earlier book on Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, with whom he has conducted several interviews. His latest book traces the fortunes—mostly misfortunes—of Assad, his government’s off-and-on relationship with the United States and the events leading up to the current Syrian civil war. The book’s last chapters rush to keep up with unfolding events and include citations from as late as July 2012.

Bashar al Assad became an accidental president when his brother Basil, who had been groomed to take the position, was killed in an auto accident in 1994. Bashar’s early days in the role, when he seemed prepared to initiate sweeping reforms, gave way to disappointment when the reforms fell short of expectations. Lesch found a new “smugness” in Assad after his 2007 re-election. An opposition grew until protests turned to rebellion and the civil war that up to now has failed to achieve the “regime change sought by the right-wing Arab League and the U.S.”

Assad, Lesch argues, mistakenly believed that Syria was immune to the unrest that spawned the Arab Spring and has now become embroiled in an unexpected civil war whose outcome is far from certain. Lesch, disappointed in Assad and sympathetic to the opposition, nonetheless sees that a rebel victory might not bring a spring cleaning of the sort its Western supporters hoped for.

Assad liberalized (that is, privatized) part of the economy, including limited banking and a stock exchange. Privatization led to new forms of corruption in Syria’s new military-industrial complex. Lesch implies that the changes amounted to too little too late, even as he sees that too sudden a reform can result in “economic instability.”

A book like this very much needs an explanation of the Baath Party’s economic views in relation to the market economy advocated by the United States as well as by an opposition which has a strong foreign-based Syrian component. This would help to show just what Assad faced as a reformer, yet Lesch does not provide one. To imagine a Syrian official telling Assad, “Hey kid, this is not how we do things here” does not explain a complex situation.

This book comes up short in other ways as well. Fleeting references to local movements and persons call for more explanations than Lesch supplies. Lesch refers, for example, to a “neo-conservative straight jacket” that kept the Bush II administration from dialogue about Islamic terrorism and Israel; Israel’s continued occupation of Syrian territory (the Golan Heights); the long-standing U.S. sanctions against Syria; “foreign conspiracies in Syria over the decades”—without clarifying details that might sharpen an understanding of the hostility that Syria and Assad have faced.

Lesch appropriately calls attention to the influence of perceptions created and reinforced by worldwide media, including this book: “If the perception of a regime is that it is ordering or condoning the torture and murder of children, it is often well-nigh impossible to rehabilitate such a tarnished image.” Media in the United States, both left and right, have almost all implied or expressed the view trumpeted by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: “Lord knows, I am rooting for the opposition forces in Syria to quickly prevail.” And the book does not sufficiently free itself from that “tarnished image” expression.

Syria suffers from more than image problems; U.S. sanctions, about which Lesch has little to say, have damaged Syria. Only the veto of a resolution in the U.N. Security Council may have prevented even more damage—a coup de grâce. The refusal of Russia’s President Putin to be fooled again by a U.N. Security Council vote for the protection of civilians that turned into a Western assault on Libya may have kept the death toll from soaring. Assad has often made claims about foreign interference, as Lesch observes, even if Assad has exaggerated them. They deserve more attention than given here.

Reports available since the book has appeared tend to corroborate reports available much earlier that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were supplying arms to Syrian rebels with C.I.A. assistance in coordinating war efforts from over the Turkish border. A recent U.S. appropriation of $45 million to aid rebels in “logistics” now confirms those reports. Lesch makes repeated references to reports of torture and killing by government forces, while rebel car bombs, roadside bombs and suicide bombers receive only passing mention and are never characterized as terrorism. The Syrian government has no monopoly on brutality.

The possibility that violent sectarianism might follow an Assad fall becomes a growing concern. Lesch cites Henry Kissinger’s dire warning: “If the objective is confined to deposing a specific ruler, a new civil war could follow in the resulting vacuum, as armed groups contest succession, and outside countries choose different sides.” Retired C.I.A. agent Philip Giraldi, writing presciently last year, is even more explicit than Kissinger: “In the United States, many friends of Israel are on the Assad regime-change bandwagon, believing that a weakened Syria, divided by civil war, will present no threat to Tel Aviv. But they should think again, as these developments have a way of turning on their head. The best organized and funded opposition political movement in Syria is the Muslim Brotherhood.” Direct talk like this from Lesch would have been welcome.

Only in recent weeks have the U.S. media damped down the level of vocal support for the rebels as more Islamic radicals alter the rebel matrix. Since the book’s publication, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had led in cheerleading the Syrian opposition, but who has recently been much quieter amid increasing concern about growing jihadist ranks, organized a meeting in Doha to overhaul the rebel leadership on the grounds that “the opposition must include people from inside Syria,” a tacit admission that further validates Assad’s claims of outside (exile and foreign) interference. The conference replaced the Syrian National Council with a new Syrian National Coalition endorsed by Clinton and six Sunni countries as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

The head of the new coalition, Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib, a former Damascus imam and long-standing opponent of the Assad government, has been living recently in Qatar. Despite his strong sectarian (Sunni) views, Western supporters are counting on him both to advocate for pluralism and to counter the growing Salafist presence among the rebels and consequent jihadist character of the opposition. Moreover, the divisions for and against the Assad government among surrounding countries threaten to turn the civil war into a regional one.

The fact that in just over a year, elections could result in a new Syrian president and preclude the continuing slaughter does not stop the United States and others from insisting that Assad must go now. This fans the flames of war and the likelihood that fighting will continue. Khatib, to his credit, has called for an end to bloodshed, more of a fond hope, perhaps, than a likelihood. These recent developments, of course, are beyond the reach of Lesch’s book, but a deeper critical look at the U.S. policy and activity toward bringing about the fall of Assad would have markedly contextualized these developments and improved this effect.

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