The Assad family's long-standing mask game

Assad or We Burn the Country
Forfatter: Sam Dagher
Forlag: Little Brown and Company (USA)
SYRIA / The Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970. Sam Dagher's new book shows how the family has clung to power at all costs, exposing their cynical strategies and brutal acts of violence.


Assad or We Burn the Country is written by Wall Street Journals Sam Dagher, the only Western journalist to be living in Syria when the Arab Spring burst into full bloom. The book is the first to point to Assad as the person responsible for the war in Syria through testimony from inside the regime: It is not the activists who accuse Assad of this book, but Manal Tlass – Bashar al Assad's close friend and adviser and so far with the highest official position that reveals the regime.

The jihadists we first meet on page 314 (in a book on 463 pages). This is not only because they are a consequence of the war in Syria and not its cause, but at least as much because 91,6 percent of the civilian victims in Syria have been killed by Assad's army.

Embassies and five-star hotels are now opening their doors again in Damascus. And in Saydnaya – the city where the Assad regime's most brutal prison is still operating; Amnesty International claims that 17 723 prisoners have been tortured to death here – our European MPs take selfies and raise glasses of French white wine to a bowl for the brave businessmen who cannot be intimidated by the embargo. Equally, all books on Syria tell the story of a war that is, admittedly, very complex, but which has one principal: Bashar al Assad.

Clamped on the power

Tlass fights for dialogue and reform, but is put on the sidelines. Pictures of Syrian corpses roll across the television screens around the world, and Asma, Bashar's wife, confesses to the pictures: "There are no dead people here?" Vogue magazine recently referred to Asma as "a rose in the desert" and paid tribute to her efforts to help the poor, who still make up two-thirds of the country's population. At the same time, Bashar's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, sits on the money bag with control of 65 percent of Syria's financial resources.

Hafez sold the only valuable resource Syria holds – the country's
geographical position.

Tlass is a general in the Republican garden and the son of Mustafa Tlass, Secretary of Defense and in many ways very similar to Hafez al Assad, Bashar's father. The man who – despite 500 dead, 000 million refugees and 5,6 million internally displaced people – is widely regarded as Syria's legitimate president, is really just the "crown president": the Assad family has been in power in the country since 6,2. Totally since Nixon was president of the United States. And when power was passed on to the next generation, Bashar was also given a handbook on how to retain that power – retain it at all costs.

Fadi Toon. See

"Assad at the helm, otherwise we set fire to the countryside" was the slogan the Assad loyal thugs sprayed on the ruins after their raids. For while the United Nations was sitting on the fence and wobbling (as usual), Bashar did everything but wobble: he briefly and cashly struck back against the Arab Spring. Here he needed two important lessons from his father's time in the presidential chair, first and foremost on how to deal with rebellion, as in Hama in 1982, where the rebellion was brutally and bloody broken. Pure and wild violence to give a clear warning to other rebels. But also, and perhaps more importantly, the strategic lesson the regime gained in Lebanon: Since Syria is a land of limited natural resources, Hafez decided to sell the only valuable resource they possess – the country's geographical position – to the highest bidder. First in the power play that took place during the Cold War, then in the war between Israel and Palestine, and then during the war against Saddam Hussein, when US President George Bush was to "export democracy". And today in the "war on terror". In Lebanon, Hafez gave his support to Arafat and the Palestinian freedom fighters before turning to them next. This strategy is still the backbone of Assad's regime, writes Sam Dagher. The regime throws gasoline on conflicts that are already in full fire, and then presents itself as the only solution to the problem.

A cynical strategist

That was the strategy Bashar also used for the jihadists: As Assad hunted for secular activists, he released all Islamist rebels from the prisons. And he never did anything to thwart IS's progress. In fact, on the contrary. I was the only Western journalist in IS-controlled Aleppo, and I remember that time as a time of few air strikes. Assad quickly withdrew its forces from Raqqa, then from Palmyra, and from all areas consumed by the caliphate. Step by step he transformed himself into the least evil. And he succeeded.

The jihadists are a consequence of the war in Syria – not the cause of it.

However, it turned out that neither Iran, Russia nor Hezbollah were his best allies; they were just the most visible. The split and weakening of the opposition has been absolutely crucial. It was broken down by internal facts created by conflicting pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and from Turkey and Qatar on the other. In addition to the hesitant West that is so terrified to get involved in a new Iraq. The Americans and Europeans have supplied the rebels with only light weapons; they did not want the rebels to be superior and win, only to prevent Assad from doing so, thereby forcing him to compromise. But the West achieved nothing, since the United Nations simultaneously provided relief, and with it basically supported Assad: While the Security Council was blocked by Russian President Putin, the UN distributed food and medicine through organizations selected by Assad's regime. Without ever checking where the food and medicine ended up. And in this way, the UN helped Assad to starve the areas the rebels had control over, and to tell the world community that he was the only one capable of providing a normal Syria. A Syria where French wine is served.

Assad or We Burn the Country is compelling reading because it is the first to deal with Assad's regime. And, more importantly: because it deals with us.

Translated by Vibeke Harper

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