It wasn't supposed to be this way. Or perhaps it was inevitable." Like millions of Syrians, US scholar David Lesch had high hopes for democratic reform when the young and popular Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist trained in London, delivered his inaugural speech as president of Syria in Damascus on 17 July 2000. It was inconceivable that 11 years on, the same man to whom Syrians once referred to as "The Hope" would face a popular uprising against his rule and go down in history as a "bloodthirsty killer" for his regime's brutal response to the protests. What went wrong?
Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad explores the young president's transformation from bearer of hope to reactionary tyrant in what is portrayed as an increasingly hopeless struggle for power, chronicling key decisions and events as well as the domestic and international circumstances in which they occurred. Lesch excels at presenting a complex and ever-changing situation in a straightforward, highly readable manner, and aims to furnish the reader with an insight into the reality of the Syrian situation as it presented itself to Assad. As one of the few scholars who frequently met with the Syrian president in recent years, and who has at times come under fire for being too close, Lesch seems uniquely qualified for such a task.
It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, that a particular strength of the book lies in its nuanced assessment of the international context, especially the US and its changing position on Syria, and how this must have influenced Assad's decisions at home. It is less clear, however, in its treatment of events and dynamics within Syria. Although Lesch readily acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining accurate information relating to events within the country since the beginning of the Arab Spring, he still seems undecided on key issues such as the extent of Assad's control over the mukhabarat (security and intelligence services) and his involvement in the arrests and alleged torture of schoolchildren in Deraa in March 2011, the event that triggered the wave of protests across the country.
Instead of examining Assad's role in the making of the crisis, Lesch devotes his analysis to his handling of it: "I asked the Syrian official I spoke to in December why Assad did not go in front of the camera (to be interviewed) instead of merely delivering live televised speeches. Maybe they thought it would be a sign of weakness for the president to admit any mistakes. Maybe they thought Bashar might be able to dissociate himself from the crackdown by 'connecting' at a more personal level with the Syrian people ... Whatever the reason, in my mind it was a huge error."
It would be unfair, however, to write off the book as not delivering what it set out to do. Lesch offers a nuanced assessment that is focused on the role of the political elite within Syria and that will be immensely helpful to anybody concerned about the future of the crisis-ridden country. Perhaps unintentionally, but without undermining the value of its own analysis, it subtly allows for the conclusion to be drawn that assessments of the future of Syria and the region as a whole must move beyond a focus on the political class and include the view from "below and within".
Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
By David W. Lesch
Yale University Press, 256pp, £18.99
Published 30 August 2012