Interview with David Lesch, Author of Syria: Fall of the House of Assad

“I can almost guarantee you that when the Arab spring seeped into Syria in March 2011, that Bashar and the ruling circle were absolutely shocked,” said David Lesch, author of a new book on Syria, in this interview. “Bashar had commissioned three separate reports from his national security apparatus early in the year on whether or not the Arab Spring would seep into Syria, and all three said no.”

Mr. Lesch, who developed a close relationship with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the mid-2000s, said that the Syrian president believes his brutal actions are part of an effort to save Syria. He also said that the West had an unrealistic view of Assad as a reformer. “I think that from the very beginning, the expectations of Bashar were probably too high,” he said.

On the question of why Russia doesn’t offer al-Assad asylum, Mr. Lesch said he would not accept an offer from Russia, “which is exactly why I think the Russians will not offer it to him, because Putin, who has positioned himself as the supposed go-to guy in terms of delivering Bashar al-Assad to the table, is, I think, fearful that if he’s actually asked to do so, that Bashar won’t comply, and therefore Putin looks powerless.”

Mr. Lesch said he is very skeptical of the new opposition group that was recently recognized by Britain, France, Turkey, and several Arab countries. “Perhaps it’s just the cynicism in me born by watching the failure of many such attempts to date since the uprising began, particularly the Syrian National Council, which was in many ways quite a failure.” He said the position taken by the United States is right: “Before they formally recognize it as the representative of the Syrian people, we have to see them in action–and actually, will it stay together?”

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Advisor for External Relations, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Warren Hoge: Our guest today in the Global Observatory is David Lesch, Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University at San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of a new book called Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad. It’s something of an inside account, because over the years, David has become the Western scholar who best knows Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President. He has traveled to Syria more than 20 times, since his first trip there in 1989, on visits that sometimes last months, and he’s observed, close-up, the transformation of Bashar from a bearer of hope to a reactionary tyrant responsible for terrorizing his own people.

David, Bashar is certainly beleaguered, but he is still in office in Damascus, so why have you entitled your book The Fall of the House of Assad?

David Lesch: I entitled the book that way for two reasons: one personal, one kind of systemic. Personally, because, as you said, I got to know him fairly well over the years, and I am someone, like many Syrians, who had high hopes in him in the beginning– so seeing the reaction by Bashar and his government in terms of the brutal crackdown of the protestors that has now devolved into a civil war that has destroyed much of the country and is likely to continue.

For me, personally, he has fallen from that pedestal of hope that we had had in the beginning to someone now who has lost his legitimacy to rule and his mandate to rule. That gets to the more systemic reason, in the sense that–the Assads, both father, Hafez al-Assad, and his son, who took over when his father died in 2000–their mandate to rule was to provide stability in the country. It was a Faustian bargain that the population bought into and was offered by the government in terms of providing stability. But the population would have less liberties and freedoms in return for that stability because of Syria’s turbulent pass, particularly prior to Hafez al-Assad coming to power in 1970.

But now, Bashar al-Assad’s own policies has brought about quite the opposite–has brought about instability and chaos in many ways, which is exactly what they promised that they would not do. They promised they would provide stability. So in that sense, he lost his mandate and legitimacy to rule.

WH: What is Bashar’s own view of what is happening in his country? Did he anticipate that the Arab Spring would engulf him, or does he really believe the official line that this is the work of outsiders and Jihadis and maybe even Washington to topple his regime? 

DL: I can almost guarantee you that when the Arab Spring seeped into Syria in March 2011 that Bashar and the ruling circle were absolutely shocked, because for several months, Bashar, as well as the mouthpieces of the regime that actually expressed support for the protestors in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere–they were commenting that Bashar was the man of the people.

He was relatively young—forty-five of the time—whereas the leaders in these other countries that had been overthrown, that were in the process of being overthrown, were septuagenarian and octogenarian authoritarian rulers that were unpopular with the people and were lackeys of the United States and Israel–whereas Bashar, of course, had been one of the heads of the resistance forces to what they call the American project in the Middle East, and of course against Israel, and supportive of resistance groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, alliances against Iran that played well on the Arab street.

So they really felt they could weather the storm, and many people outside of Syria thought they could weather the storm of the Arab Spring, and there were many reasons, beyond the reasons I just listed, that they felt they could weather the storm.

In fact, Bashar had commissioned three separate reports from his national security apparatus early in the year on whether or not the Arab Spring would seep into Syria, and all three said no. So he felt pretty secure about his position at the time, and I think that feeds into the notion of why, from the beginning–his first speech on the issue on March 30, 2011, where he blamed terrorists and external enemies of the state for the unrest–is that he thought he was popular beyond condemnation in his own country, and therefore it had to be outside forces because his people who loved him would not dare rise up against him.

WH: Which gets me to my next question, which is, what was his own personal view of his own personal role, almost cultural role in Syria, and how has it changed since he took power in 2000, at the death of his strongman father, and signaled that he might be a different kind of leader for Syria?

DL: Well, this gets me to talk about what I call the conceptual paradigm of Bashar al-Assad and the leadership circles in Syria and most Syrians in general. They just have a different way of looking at the world and perceiving the nature of threat than many people outside of Syria see, particularly in the West.

I think that from the very beginning, the expectations of Bashar were probably too high. People thought that he would be this modernizing pro-West reformer that would make peace with Israel, simply because he was an ophthalmologist who spent time 18 months in England getting an advanced degree in ophthalmology, because he liked Western music, because he liked the technological toys of the West. 

I think at the time when I was first seeing him in 2004, 2005, I was telling people that the expectation shouldn’t be too high, because first and foremost, he’s a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he’s a child of the superpower Cold War, he’s a child of the tumult in Lebanon, and most importantly, he’s a child of Hafez al-Assad. These are the things and the influences that have shaped his worldview, much more so than spending 18 months in London, and so therefore, the amount of change and reform that he was able to implement was always going to be less than what people outside of Syria wanted or expected, and when the expectations are high, the disappointment is that much greater.

Unfortunately, I think that over time, as happens to many authoritarian leaders throughout history in other countries and in Syria itself, and with Bashar, is that they assimilate into the system. Instead of changing the authoritarian system, the authoritarian system changes them. There’s this alternate reality that’s constructed around them by sycophants, who praise them constantly, and they start to believe the leaders and their own destiny and the righteousness of their cause. It constructs a bubble around them that basically insulates them from reality of what’s going on in the rest of the country, in many ways.

So I think he’s started to believe the propaganda, he’s starting to believe the press, he’s starting to believe the sycophants around him that said that the well being of the country is synonymous with his well being. I saw this first-hand–a comfort level with power that developed over time with Bashar to the point where he became a prototypical Middle East dictator.

WH: Does he think that long-range he can prevail, that Syria will end this troublesome insurrection and one day be readmitted to the community of nations?

DL: I think they absolutely believe this. I think that from the beginning they saw this as a security solution to this uprising, that it was something that could be stamped out. In many ways in Syria it’s a convulsive, automatic response to domestic unrest that you stamp it out. It’s just the way things are done in Syria, and Bashar had bought into that particular paradigm, and I think that, in his view, in the view of the people who support him, they are actually saving the country. They are not only surviving, but they are actually saving the country from these pernicious forces from the outside working with unwitting forces internally, and jihadist forces, and all the rest of the things we’ve heard since the beginning of the uprising from the Syrian regime.

They really believe that if it takes ten years to emerge victorious, then so be it, because they know that in the Middle East, there’s a great amount of change in a short span of time. The Middle East often affords countries and authoritarian rulers and leaders of all types to rehabilitate themselves and reintegrate into the regional and international community, and they’ve already done so.

Bashar had already done this once, following the opposition to the 2003 US led invasion of Iraq, and also following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February of 2005, for which Damascus was held responsible. He emerged from all of that international pressure in flying colors, and was allowed to reintegrate into the regional and international community and have a seat at the diplomatic table, so he survived these challenges once in his mind, although the nature of these challenges currently is much different than back then, so I believe he thinks that he can do it again.

WH: A lot of people look at the Russian situation–by that I mean Russia vetoing resolutions in the Security Council and basically sticking up for Assad at a time when he’s become an international pariah–and they wondered, why don’t the Russians offer him a place in Moscow: it gets him out of there, it gets the Russians out of the difficult situation. Would he accept such an offer if it was made, and suppose it was made by his other ally, Iran?

DL: I think if the current circumstances, or if something close to the current circumstances remain in the foreseeable future, he will not accept an offer from Russia, which is exactly why I think the Russians will not offer it to him, because Putin, who has positioned himself as the supposed go-to guy in terms of delivering Bashar al-Assad to the table is I think fearful that if he’s actually asked to do so, that Bashar won’t comply, and therefore Putin looks powerless.

Right now, I think he’s enjoying this central position, diplomatic position, and for a great many other reasons in terms of the long-standing support Russia has given in the past: as an arms dealer, as economic support, the bureaucratic inertia that works against changing dramatically any sort of relationship that exists in the Russian-Syrian relationship, and a host of other reasons. So I don’t think that really Russia has the wherewithal to convince Bashar. Frankly, if Putin all of a sudden voted with the UN Security Council Resolution that was much more harsh on Syria and perhaps provide the wherewithal for a more robust international response to the Syrian situation, I think Bashar would just turn his nose up right at Putin, and so Putin doesn’t want to be in that situation because it would make him look weak and powerless.

However, the only country, in my view, outside of Syria who might have a level of influence with Bashar al-Assad is Iran, because, again, they’ve had a long-standing relationship. Iran actually has much more influence inside of Syria and with the Syrian regime. Although they’ve had their differences over the years, they are much more important geostrategic partners currently and in the past, and certainly during Bashar al-Assad’s time in power, and he has deepened the relationship of Iran much more so than his father did. Iran is the only one I think that could have an influence on Bashar in terms of stepping down, but even that is questionable.

WH: Earlier this week, a new coalition was formed after meetings in Doha, the capital of Qatar, to try to give the Syrian rebels an identity that better represents those fighting the government so that outsiders have a force they can support with aid and possibly even with arms. France and Turkey have recognized it as a legitimate government of Syria, and the US encouraged its formation. Do you think it will succeed in establishing the international legitimacy of the Syrian opposition?

DL: I’m very skeptical about this new Syrian opposition group. Perhaps it’s just the cynicism in me born by watching the failure of many such attempts to date since the uprising began, particularly the Syrian National Council which was in many ways quite a failure. I think that there are some immediate problems that exist, in that the meeting took place in Doha in Qatar, that the Qataris and the Saudis and the Americans and the Turks and others were basically pressuring all of these diverse groups to come together at least on the surface to present themselves as a harmonious opposition, so just the fact that you have all of these external countries exerting this pressure almost delegitimizes the coalition in and of itself in the eyes of many Syrians inside Syria who are actually fighting and dying against the regime.

So that’s a negative right off the bat. Secondly, I think there still is quite the divergence, and this is the major fault line in the opposition from the very beginning, and one of the major problems with the Syrian National Council in the beginning was that the fault line between the internal opposition and the Syrian expat opposition outside of the country, which was a major fault line that exists in most revolutionary movements. We saw it in Iraq as well. I don’t think that’s been answered with this new coalition. I think the majority of the power still lies with expat Syrian groups who are seen by many Syrians inside of Syria as being manipulated by outside powers.

And then a third problem I see with this coalition is still the preponderant role that the SNC, the Syrian National Council, appears to have that has already raised some skeptical remarks by Syrians inside of Syria, with the military councils and local coordination committees, so we have to watch that closely– how much power do they really have?–and basically the Syrian National Council is in essence an arm of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.        

While the idea and the attempt I think is legitimate to be applauded, I wish this was done much earlier, but I think there are still many many questions. I think the United States is right: before they formally recognize it as the representative of the Syrian people we have to see them in action–and actually will it stay together?

WH: Finally, what are the possible outcomes you can imagine for Syria looking ahead?

DL: I see three possible outcomes. First, one side could win–either the opposition or the government. Although right now, given the current balance of forces, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, because either side doesn’t have the wherewithal to land a knockout punch against the other. This could change, obviously, if say the Syrian coalition does become a force to be reckoned with, which generates a more enthusiastic and robust international response in support of them, in terms of military aid, and maybe even creating a safehaven, particularly in northwest Syria, along the Turkish border, that could change the equation, or if the government suddenly sees a rise in defections, or something like that, that changes the balance of forces. Right now, I don’t see that happening.

A second scenario is a negotiated solution, which is maybe the least likely outcome, simply because it has become such an existential conflict. It has become so militarized on each side, and mostly because each side still thinks they can win. In that sort of scenario, in those circumstances, I just don’t see how any sort of peace settlement or negotiated solution can happen when nobody is interested in it. That could change, and I think unfortunately that the only way it could change in the near future is if the opposition actually agrees to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad remaining in power for some period of time. But that’s the concession that the opposition, at least on paper, and very vocally, are not even willing to consider. So that doesn’t stand a chance right now. 

I think unfortunately, the most likely outcome is what I’ve called the Lebanonization of Syria. While there are many differences in Syria and what happened to Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s, I see some similarities in the sense of a weakened central government with a factionalized opposition that controls various parts of the country, where the government controls some parts of the country, where these various opposition factions are supported by different outside powers, thus complicating the internal dynamic of Syria as it did in Lebanon and why it took such a long time to even get Lebanon going in the right direction, and there’s still some questions regarding that. So, unfortunately, that’s what I see as the current most likely outcome in terms of basically the civil war turning into a stalemated conflict scenario.

WH: David Lesch, thank you very much for visiting with us in the Global Observatory.