Assad Or We Burn The Country: Review and Excerpts

I just finished “Assad Or We Burn the Country” by Sam Dagher. It’s an interesting and captivating read. It gives an insider account (via Manaf Tlass) of the regime’s decision making in the first few months and years, which is its main draw. There’s also some on-the-ground activists whose activities it follows to balance out that perspective.

The main takeaway is that the regime was simply never interested in any kind of compromise, even when the protests and only calling for reforms and not regime change. Any overtures or gestures towards “reform” were simply the “good cop” part of a good-cop-bad-cop strategy. The regime was committed to dictatorial rule partially due to viewing the Sunnis as an existential threat, and also due to hope that bigger crackdowns would stop the protests. Insiders such as Manaf Tlass who called for restraint or dialogue were sidelined and had their loyalty questioned. And they generally ended up defecting, as did Manaf in July 2012.

Manaf’s defection takes place ~300 pages in. But the book continues for another 160 or so pages, describing the developments of the Syrian conflict until late 2018. If I had any critique of the book, I’d say it was trying to tell 2 different stories and ended up being a bit long: Manaf Tlass’s insider account of how the Assad regime destroyed Syria, and a general history of the Syrian conflict. It could have ended in mid-2012 with Manaf’s defection coupled with the collapse of Kofi Annan’s peace plan, with the rest in a follow-up perhaps.

Of course, I’m biased as I already follow Syria pretty closely and so I didn’t learn too much in the last 160 pages. People not as familiar with events there might have a different take. And to be fair, it did follow Manaf’s activities in exile too, which I hadn’t been familiar with prior.

The book also gives a sense of how much Bassel al-Assad was groomed to be the successor, and how Bashar was really just a “spare tire” candidate. Bassel wouldn’t have reformed anything of course, but he probably would have managed the situation “better.”

Some Excerpts

France was always #1 when it came to normalizing the Assad regime. They did so in the 1980s and again in the 2000s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trying to do it again now, if not for US policy.

The Tlass family was among the most loyal to the Assads, but they were generally passed over for Alawite families like the Makhloufs when it came to patronage

The fanciful idea that the Assad regime would cut or reduce ties with Iran and Hezbollah if only it got international support to do so. This idea was a driving force behind the West’s thaw with the Assad regime in the 2008-2011 period.

March 18th, 2011 – the first deaths as Bashar’s cousins and brother swiftly cracked down on the small protests in Daraa.

Generational gap between protestors and their parents – “You were the ones who brought us to this miserable state”
The list of demands that were hung outside Masjid al-Omari in Daraa
“They have wasted no time in taking the Hama manual out of the drawer”

For a moment, Manaf genuinely believed Bashar would undertake reforms. He was shocked by Bashar’s speech in late March 2011 where he said he would go to war to defend his regime if necessary.

Why Manaf’s position towards Bashar was different from his father’s with Hafez al-Assad.

Manaf managed to convince Bashar to meet with a delegation from Douma, who were then arrested and beaten a few days later

Bashar’s duplicity in meeting with “opposition delegations.” The lists of members provided were used to hunt down and arrest people, some of whom were later tortured to death…!

Regime elements handed out weapons to justify their crackdowns.

Sunni soldiers refused orders to shoot and some were executed or even committed suicide.

When Manaf suggested to Bashar that they work together against the hardliners.

I hadn’t known that Issam Zahreddine was Manaf Tlass’s deputy.

The small circle of hardliners calling the shots, with support from Iran and Hezbollah.

When Manaf’s wife confronted Asma al-Assad about the Houla massacre and she simply feigned ignorance.

Bashar’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was privately against the scorched Earth campaign, and put himself forward as a compromise figure to help end the conflict. He was killed in a mysterious explosion on July 18th, 2012.

“Bashar, Maher and Rami are kids. They are like kids who inherited a toy from dad and destroyed the toy rather than share it with others. As for the opposition, I am not even going to waste my breath on them.” – Manaf Tlass, October 2014
The meme that Russia would somehow displace or drive out Iran and Hezbollah from Syria. I guess we can forgive Manaf for being a little naive 5 years ago, but some still believe this…!

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