When Assad Dropped the Façade

AP Photo/Gurinder Osan

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad 

In 1994, Bashar al-Assad was appointed chairman of the Syrian Computer Society. It was the only official title he would hold before landing the country’s top job, president, in 2000, but the appointment seemed to speak volumes about the direction in which his country was headed. This was six months into President Bill Clinton’s first term, in the same year that Tony Blair was elected as the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Modernization was all the rage. 

Bashar, the mustachioed Mr. Bean of the Assad family, had not expected to be groomed for politics. The Computer Society gig only rolled into his lap because of the death of his older brother Basil. But he was perfect for it. For the previous two years he’d been living off Sloane Street in West London, training as an ophthalmologist, wooing the beautiful, thoroughly modern British-Syrian Asma al-Akhras, who would go on to become his wife, and spending a huge amount of time online. “Interested in computers,” David Lesch wrote in his 2005 hagiography The New Lion of Damascus, “he found the freedom of Internet access in London positively enlightening, especially since the Internet would not enter Syria for several more years to come; indeed, every morning the first thing he did was surf the Internet, especially the Top 40 Billboard chart to see which songs were popular. … He learned a great deal about the level of technological modernization necessary in an increasingly globalized world, something he would assiduously work to duplicate in a small way in his homeland.”

Even while al-Assad was being propelled through the ranks of the Syrian army to full colonel in the 1990s, and before he assumed the presidency on the death of his father Hafez (the original “Lion of Damascus”—“Assad” means “lion” in Arabic), he was working hard, Lesch explained, to increase the rate of Internet penetration in Syria. By the turn of the century, Internet cafés had begun to sprout up in Damascus, and computers appeared in Syria’s universities. 

Al-Assad’s geeky enthusiasm for the Internet helped him build bridges to reformers and the intelligentsia, and when he arrived in the presidential palace he brought a number of people from the Syrian Computer Society into government. These new politicians, Lesch tells us in the 2005 book, weren’t reformers in the traditional sense but rather technocrats, “tasked with the job of modernizing Syria, implementing administrative reform in the various ministries to which they were assigned, and examining the economic weaknesses of the system and devising ways to correct it.” 

In the first seven months of al-Assad’s presidency, between his inaugural address in July 2000 and February 2001, there followed the Damascus Spring, a heady period of liberalization in which the regime released some political prisoners, mothballed an infamous prison, licensed a sprinkling of newspapers, and tolerated a sliver of dissent. This civil society movement ended in an abrupt backlash by the regime’s old guard, who felt that their new president had gone too far, too fast; by fall 2001 many activists were being sent back to prison. 

But Syria’s young president was playing a long game, Lesch suggested. He tried outflanking his rivals by embarking on economic reform. He issued licenses for a few private banks, let investors set up a few private, semi-autonomous universities, pushed on with his anti-corruption drive. In the perilous geopolitical environment after 9/11, al-Assad also did his best to navigate a path for Syria—warming to the West by stepping up intelligence-sharing on al-Qaeda with the CIA and trying to appease neoconservatives in the Bush administration who’d had Syria in their sights even before they made war on Iraq. 

Riffing on the posters in Syria that show al-Assad and his late father in military fatigues, staring out like mafiosi from under dark sunglasses, Lesch likened al-Assad’s predicament to that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather—the accidental don who starts out by securing his authority, sweeping away the old guard in order to realize his dream of making the family business legitimate. The mantra of this new Ba’athism was “change within continuity,” and it was, in Lesch’s 2005 opinion, the best we could hope for. Here was a man “with whom we should be engaged, someone whom we should be helping to make sure Syria does not implode. He is really the only one in Syria who could achieve this. … Bashar is, indeed, the hope—and the promise of a better future.”


One good thing about revolutions is their ability to sweep away defunct ideas. The New Lion of Damascus is full of tales of al-Assad’s daring, incognito walks among his people and soft-focus interviews with acolytes attesting to his humility, his likability, and most of all his shimmering modernity. Lesch, as an eminent American scholar, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in Texas who’d been traveling to Syria for the previous 15 years, had been granted rare access to the president and his inner circle and had come to think of the man as a friend. Al-Assad came across as personable, and admirably thoughtful compared to the stereotypical loud-mouthed, gold-plated Arab dictator. 

The result was a hopelessly compromised book and yet, taken together with Lesch’s latest effort, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, it’s also revealing. The Fall of the House of Assad updates the story with the uprising that began to engulf the country in March 2011. Confronted with an unexpectedly popular and determined revolt, al-Assad, Lesch now finds, fell back on “a push-button response of quick and ruthless repression.” For the most part, the new book is a mea culpa in which the prevailing tone is one of lofty disappointment. Even if the House of Assad hasn’t yet fallen, Lesch writes, al-Assad “has fallen in my estimation. … The person I came to know (and like) showed that he—and the hope he sparked when he came to power—is long gone.”

In this tragic second act, Lesch walks through a month-by-month chronology of events in an effort to explain why things went so wrong. Here again the best bits are the nuggets of access; for a while Lesch managed to maintain enviable regime contacts, including his relationship with the president’s close adviser Bouthaina Shaaban. And once again, Lesch’s focus is the presidential personality. Looking back, he finds that al-Assad the younger changed around 2007, after Israel went to war on South Lebanon and Syria moved closer to America’s and Israel’s enemies, Hezbollah and Hamas. 

What he leaves out is the role of his own country in this psychodrama. Given that Lesch has consulted for the American government, and that his access to al-Assad was itself an act of public diplomacy on the part of Syria’s Ba’athist regime, the value of his work is to shed light on the deeply ambiguous relationship between Western officialdom and that regime in the last few decades—and the embarrassing series of about-turns that ensued when this relationship was confronted with the Arab Spring in 2011. 


Since Syria emerged from colonization by the French at the end of World War II, the relationship between it and the West has been both murky and unequal: Democracy lasted just three years before being overthrown in a 1949 coup. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad and his pragmatic friends in the military waged a “corrective movement,” side-lining firebrands within the Ba’ath Party who had wanted to foment a broader Arab revolution and fight Israel over the Golan Heights at any cost. Since then, the overarching concern of Syria’s Ba’athist regime, neatly decked in secular Arab-nationalist garb, has been its own survival. 

The country’s economy was an afterthought, secondary to the freewheeling foreign-policy brinksmanship brokered by Hafez al-Assad in the later decades of the Cold War to insulate it from foreign meddling. The result, laid out in the British journalist Patrick Seale’s epic 1988 biography, Assad: The Struggle for The Middle East, was that under al-Assad Syria became a regional cornerstone, no longer just played by stronger neighbors but a player in its own right, and one with which America had to deal. Even throughout the country’s fractious marriage of convenience with the Soviet Union in the 1970’s and 1980’s, al-Assad kept open a channel of communication to the United States, hoping in vain to use America to lean on Israel so Syria could win back the Golan Heights. 

When Assad the elder’s Soviet ally collapsed, he simply switched sides to support America’s first war in the Gulf in 1991. The result was to keep the Syrian regime afloat for another decade on grateful handouts from the same Gulf states now quibbling with its record on human rights. Through the careful administration of carrots and sticks, America believed that Syria still might prove itself useful. In Damascus for Hafez al-Assad’s funeral in 2000, then–U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright burnished his son’s credentials as a reformer right for the job. “They have a process here which seems to be operating in a peaceful and orderly way,” she told the press, “but I was very encouraged by his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.” 

When the “war on terror” came along, Syria’s regime saw a fresh opportunity to extend its lifespan. The first hearing in the trial of leading Damascus Spring dissident Riad Seif (who, now backed by the U.S. and Western countries, was elected vice president of the new Syrian opposition umbrella organization in November) occurred on October 31, 2001. The trial was largely forgotten amid a press conference on the same day in Damascus’s Sheraton Hotel at which British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bashar al-Assad reiterated their commitment to fighting Osama bin Laden. 

There was no love lost between America and the Syrian regime. Made nervous by the invasion of Iraq, for a time the Syrian regime either acquiesced in or eased the passage of jihadi militants inspired by al-Qaeda into Iraq. Hawks in George W. Bush’s administration were furious, but from the regime’s perspective, Syria had gotten little in return for its attempts to play nice—its intelligence assistance on al-Qaeda, for example, and its withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005 in the wake of the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Rather than a quirk of the president’s evolving personality or a sign of new militancy, the regime’s subsequent flag-waving for Hezbollah and Hamas’s “axis of resistance” against Israel was largely an opportunistic maneuver, born of the need to shore up domestic support and, crucially, secure fresh leverage with which to bargain with America and the West. 

For a time, it worked. While America and Syria were frequently at loggerheads over Israel or Iran, a relationship still existed, and lines of communication remained open. Meanwhile, the notion that the Ba’athist regime was simultaneously moving the country forward was a fiction that suited all sides. 

In reality, it was renewing itself via what one dissident dubbed the “modernization of authoritarianism.” I first visited Syria in 2010 and have been back three times since the revolt began. In Homs last November, I met a young man whose friend had gone to a demonstration the day before at Kalamoon, a science and technology campus built by industrialists that had been one of the first of al-Assad’s vaunted new private campuses to open (a friend of Lesch’s liked its business plan so well he bought shares). Demonstrators were charged with electrical cattle prods, and the young man’s friend was taken away by the police. 

Despite al-Assad’s talk about new technology, Internet access was limited and carefully monitored. Facebook was not legalized in Syria until February 2011, and then only because of revolutionary changes blowing in on Al Jazeera from Tunisia and Egypt. Early in the uprising, according to an activist friend of mine in Damascus, some Syrian border guards were so clumsily suspicious that they checked people’s bags for copies of the dreaded “face book.” 

By doling out rare licenses and franchises, many of them entitling the holder to deal with Western companies, al-Assad’s program of tepid privatization had the effect of reinforcing his authority. It’s many of the favored businessmen, both Sunni and Alawi, according to documents passed to me by an opposition local coordinating committee in Damascus, who are now returning the favor by funding the thuggish, pro-regime shabiha (literally, “ghosts” in Arabic) in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.

If anything, the Syrian experience should be a lesson that the fashionable politics of modernization can be as self-serving as old-school corruption. Even the rhetoric of “civil society,” borrowed from Eastern Europe after dissident intellectuals turned out to dance on the corpse of the Soviet Union, might need some rethinking in light of Syria and the Arab Spring. Those who took part in the first Damascus Spring were a tiny minority of intellectuals; most would admit that when the earthquake finally arrived it passed them by. 

What finally led to revolt was the gap between the demands of a young and rapidly growing population and a stagnant economy that had failed to modernize at all. In a largely traditional society, the Syrian rebellion grew under cover of the mosque and social media, then progressed via ties of family, neighborhood, and tribe. At an opposition funeral demonstration in Damascus’s Kafr Sousa district in late February, a 25-year-old activist from Dara’a told me that protests were harder to organize in big cities like Damascus or Aleppo; in a jumpy security state and with so many suffocating semi-official public institutions, people trusted those they knew. 

While the Syrian regime and the international media have focused attention on the threat to the country posed by al-Qaeda and religious sectarianism, much of the current struggle for Northern Syria has been rooted in clan-based, tribal politics. The tardy, second-rate nature of Syria’s modernization was often explained away with an orientalist respect for its cultural difference. In a Daily Telegraph interview in October 2011, Bashar al-Assad drew on his Syrian Computer Society days to argue that comparing his leadership to a Western country’s was akin to comparing a Mac to a PC. “Both computers do the same job, but they don’t understand each other. You need to translate. If you want to analyse me as the East, you cannot analyse me through the Western operating system, or culture.” For a while after the revolt began, al-Assad continued with much the same operating system—a combination of window-dressing political reform (I was in Damascus in February 2012 when a referendum on a new Syrian constitution passed overwhelmingly, with an alleged turnout of 57.4 percent, despite polling stations in the central city looking suspiciously empty) and military repression. 

Earlier in 2011, in the first stage of the uprising, David Lesch, as he tells us in The Fall of the House of Assad, was still passing notes for the attention of al-Assad, urging him to “get ahead of the curve” and push through meaningful reforms before standing down as president. The ongoing disjuncture between rhetoric and reality in the West’s dealings with the Syrian regime—witness Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s often garish denunciations of the regime’s cruelty, usually followed by worries about al-Qaeda and pressure on both sides to smooth an orderly transition—goes some way to explain the confusion and paranoia exhibited by Syrian rebels. On my way across the Turkish border into Syria in July, I met a Free Syrian Army sentry cradling a Kalashnikov under an olive tree and asked him whether he’d seen any of the communications equipment promised the rebels by Clinton. “They are liars,” he spat. “Ask anyone in Syria; we’ve received nothing. The Americans made Assad, and now they need him for the stability of the region.” It was an angry and extreme point of view, but you could see the reasoning: The rebel may have confused America’s faltering uncertainty about what to do now with the clumsy self-interest that has characterized its dealings with the country in the past.

Driving through Aleppo with another middle-aged rebel and former Ba’athist on the same trip, I wondered how Syrians view their own history. I discovered that he had read the British journalist Seale’s 1988 biography of Hafez al-Assad, a beautifully rendered work of gentleman scholarship that may be the best book on modern Syria written by an English speaker. But the book, steeped in an even older (and distinctively English) tradition of awestruck Arabism than David Lesch’s, also suffers from proximity to its subject; since it is based on interviews with Hafez and his flunkies, it tends to perpetuate the elder Assad’s own mythology and self-image. “It’s a bad book. He took money,” fumed my rebel companion. It wasn’t true, but it was the end of the conversation.

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