Psychogram of a Syrian dictator
Dedications on the first pages of books reveal a great deal about their authors. Whom they have a guilty conscience about (partner), whom they are grateful to (biological parents or spiritual foster fathers and mothers).
It's no different in Sam Dagher's work "Assad or We Burn the Country", which tells the story of the rise of the Syrian presidential family up to the turmoil of the civil war – even though the U.S. journalist focuses here instead on his own relationship to his subject. The book is dedicated "To the Syrians who rose up to demand freedom and dignity".
The author’s point of view on a conflict that has been perceived and evaluated so differently is thus clear from the outset. He stands on the side of those Syrians who, after 30 years of Assad rule, began in March 2011 to take to the streets to demonstrate for reforms.
The second clause of the dedication indicates another leitmotif that will run through the nearly 500 pages: beyond the battles taking place in Syria itself, a propaganda war has been raging on an unprecedented scale – and Dagher hopes that his book will furnish some ammunition against the regime's disinformation campaigns.
In order to safeguard his recounting of almost 50 years of Syrian history from counterattacks, Dagher has done meticulous, indeed almost manic research. His sources are cited on almost 70 pages of narrowly spaced text. We often read here: "... in discussion with the author". In fact, Dagher's sources are what make "Assad or We Burn the Country" stand out from the other literature on the Syrian conflict.
The U.S. citizen with Lebanese roots is the only Western journalist to have lived in Damascus from 2012 on. Until being expelled from the country in August 2014, he worked as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, observing closely how the Assad clan did everything it took to survive.
The parts of the book in which Dagher describes how Hafez Assad set up a system that caused Syrian society to freeze up in fear, a system that his son Bashar inherited, make it easier to understand from a Western point of view some seemingly irrational actions taken by the regime that were in their perfidious calculation in fact extremely effective.
And the passages recounting how Bashar Assad countered the initially peaceful protests with violence from the very start, ultimately besieging and bombing entire towns, districts and cities, are carefully researched and written in the typical tone used by big-name American reporters: always close to the action, yet with an eye to the big picture to allow for a change of scene at just the right moment.
The Syrian catastrophe unfolds almost like in a trailer for a feature film. In the paragraphs where Dagher analyses how hesitation on the part of the West let Assad stride confidently across all "red lines" with an icy smile, and even use chemical weapons against his own people, he draws the right conclusions. But all this is still not what makes the book so special.
Dagher did not discover his most valuable source until he had already been forced to leave Syria. In Paris, he met again and again over the ensuing years with an exile whose appearance and vanity had the media calling him "Syria's Alain Delon". Although he would have liked to become a movie actor, he made a career for himself in the military instead – and after his escape he shared with Dagher his personal insights into the otherwise well-guarded "Palace of the People", which towers over Damascus in all its brutalist bulk.
Manaf Tlass is the son of the long-standing minister of defence under Bashar's father, Hafez, and later became a general in the National Guard. Most importantly, though, he was a close companion of Bashar's brother Bassel, who was the actual heir to the throne, but died in a car accident in 1994. Bashar took over not only his position, but also his circle of friends – and so for decades Manaf Tlass was closer to the dictator than hardly anyone else.After the two had become increasingly estranged due to differences in opinion as to how the protests that began in 2011 should be handled, Tlass was able to flee Syria with the help of the French secret service. He willingly agreed to speak to Dagher about his days in the innermost circles of power. Tlass naturally has his own agenda, and of course he won't always have told everything he knows, so as not to incriminate himself. But the author claims to have thoroughly researched and verified all that he did have to say.
Thanks to his contact with Tlass and the latter's relish in indiscretion, Dagher succeeds in drawing a psychogram of a dictator initially hampered by various personal complexes and tics who then tried to compensate for these handicaps through a show of exaggerated masculinity, harshness and cynicism.
Dagher thus puts an end to the distorted picture that Assad loved to paint of himself: that of a modern and progressive-minded physician who accidentally ended up in politics and only needed a bit of time to open up and reform Syria.
On the contrary, according to Tlass, Assad commented time and again even before he became president: "There's no other way to govern our society except with the shoe over people's heads." And this is the spirit in which he would also react when his rule was threatened.
By that point, the lanky young man who lisped and turned red at the slightest provocation had metamorphosed into a cool, calculating dictator who would rather destroy his own country than give up power.
"Assad or We Burn the Country" is hence what his militias were to spray-paint on the ruins of recaptured city districts. In some cases, dedications also reveal a great deal about those to whom they are addressed.
© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2019
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor