The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria

Syrian president Bashar al-Asad is an enigma of his time. Whereas his father, Hafiz al-Asad, was the archetypal inscrutable player in the Cold War, the puzzle of Bashar is much more post-modern in its ability to support a variety of opposing interpretations simultaneously. Although not quite all things to all people, the various characterizations ascribed to Bashar sometimes come close: for European liberals, he is a would-be reformer hemmed in by the Baathist old guard; for America’s Fox News, Bashar is the ‘Evil Eye Doctor’, a ruthless dictator in an ophthalmologist’s clothing.


Lesch’s book seeks to escape such hoary clichés and reveal the ‘inside story’ on Syria’s young president. The contours of Bashar’s biography are well known: for most of his life he played second fiddle to elder brother Basil, the heir apparent to Hafiz, but abandoned a promising medical career for politics upon his brother’s premature death. Noted more for his advocacy of the internet than for the ruthless political manoeuvring which ran in the family, Bashar nevertheless claimed the presidency in 2000 without running into any serious opposition. Lesch fleshes out this skeleton with information gained from a series of interviews with Bashar’s family, friends, teachers, colleagues and associates from his childhood, as well with the president himself, in the aim of providing an idea of the man behind the headlines as well as insight into his motivations and ambitions as a political player.


Several anecdotes attest to Bashar’s humility, sincerity, integrity and unwillingness to exploit his position for selfish ends or personal advantage. Even as a youth, he lacked the arrogant swagger which marks the gait of many sons of authoritarian rulers. At a nationalist rally as a student, for example, Bashar once decided that applauding the mere mention of his father’s name was absurd and did not join in with the rest of the auditorium. As a result, he earned himself a hefty belt on the back of the head from a nearby Baathist minder, to encourage him to participate. To the amazement of his friends, Bashar simply joined in the applause once again and did not seek retribution on the party apparatchik, who was unaware of his identity. As Bashar later pointed out, the man was only doing his job. Such a reaction would no doubt never have come from someone who was born to power; indeed, the relative normality of much of Bashar’s early life seems to have marked his character quite profoundly and, Lesch maintains, goes some way in explaining a presidential style which is not ‘weak’, as detractors proclaim, but based on consensus rather than confrontation. In addition to such politically-relevant psychological insights, we learn that Bashar enjoys photography, working out, 1970s Arabic pop music and Phil Collins. Although apparently trivial, such personal information serves to remind us that Bashar is a member of the next generation of Syrians – it is difficult to imagine that Hafiz al-Asad ever listened to Genesis – and no doubt serve to distance Bashar from some of the US media’s cruder character assassinations.


Despite his privileged access to Bashar’s inner circle – and therefore the approval of the powers that be – Lesch presents a balanced account which is sympathetic to his subject without being uncritical. He is careful never to dismiss the official side of the story – for example, he leaves intact the Syrian narrative of Bashar’s ascendancy, which maintains the children of Hafiz al-Asad were not being groomed for power – but does not shy away from pointing out Bashar’s more recent political misjudgements as president. Ending intelligence co-operation with the US might have been an understandable reaction to deteriorating relations with Washington, Lesch notes, but it also deprived Damascus of a valuable interlocutor with the Bush Administration: the CIA has in the past provided an effective break to the more ebullient accusations about Syria’s putative WMD capability. Unlike many journalistic commentators on Bashar’s career to date, Lesch successfully steers clear of both hagiography and polemic.


However, political biographies run an inherent risk of seeing a particular individual as a metaphor for all the challenges and problems faced by a nation at a given time, and on this count Lesch fares slightly less well. A historian by training, Lesch does a sound job of contextualizing Syria’s geostrategic position in the events of the last fifty years, though efforts to link the historical narrative back to the biography of Bashar sometimes flounder: the suggestion that Bashar was ‘worried’ as an eight-year-old during the 1973 war appears to be more of a banal supposition than a genuine insight. Lesch’s contextualization of Syria goes further and pays considerable attention to the wider problems of contemporary Syrian society, covering important issues such as Syria’s education crisis, its restrictions on the media and political debate and the need to open up the banking sector. But his coverage of Syria’s social problems is very much influenced by the regime’s idea of which issues are even remotely acceptable topics of discussion; there is no mention of problems the regime refuses to acknowledge in public – such as the rise of Islamist sympathies in Aleppo and amongst the middle classes, or the increasingly vocal demands of the Kurdish minority in the north east.


Given the co-operation Lesch received from high-ranking figures in writing the book, it is perhaps no surprise he chooses his fights wisely. Lesch is forced to tread delicately, slowly leading the reader through the arguments of the regime and its critics, before gently elaborating some pre- eminently sensible conclusions. It is counter-productive to treat Syria as a rogue state, Lesch argues, and Bashar should be supported as he really is the only person with the vision and legitimacy to move the country into the twenty-first century. Such recommendations might be neither novel nor revolutionary, but the value of Lesch’s book is not so much in the conclusions he reaches as the path he takes to get there. Given the current polarization of most Syria analysis, a synthesis acceptable to both sides is not only long overdue, but an essential precondition for breaching the present impasse.


Daniel Neep
Associate Fellow, RUSI

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