‘Assad or we burn the country: how one family’s lust for power destroyed Syria’

This piece was initially published on LSE Middle East Blogs on October 16th, 2019.

‘Assad or we burn the country’ has become the most notorious slogan associated with the Assad regime and its supporters in Syria. It’s been chanted by jubilant soldiers and militiamen, graffitied at the entrance of besieged towns, and posted by both bots and humans on social media accounts of activists and refugees. It is therefore no surprise that Sam Dagher, who was based in Damascus between 2012 and 2014 before Assad’s henchmen detained him in an underground prison and deported him from the country, chose it as the title of his book. Nor is it surprising, though no less shocking, that this is the second major book on Syria with the word ‘burn’ in the title (after Leila Al Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab’s Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War).

The subtitle of Dagher’s Assad or we Burn the Country frames our expectations: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. The book takes us through the history of the family and the country they’ve destroyed. It is a deeply disturbing history, with implications for both Syrians and non-Syrians, and with lessons for both tyrants and those resisting them. Perhaps more than most other regimes, Assad’s is one which has learned how to create new realities, on the ground through extermination, and online through the Putinist motto (and the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s excellent book) ‘Nothing is true and everything is possible.’ Syria’s story is a tale of destruction and creation, of horrors and awe-inspiring resistance. Most importantly, what it shows is that the contradictions generated by brutal suppression cannot be contained within the borders of one nation. Assad’s pyrrhic victory could not have been possible without his main backers – Russia, Iran and Iran’s sectarian proxies, most notably Lebanon’s Hezbollah – or indeed without his supposed enemies (Turkey, Western governments and the Gulf monarchies) and their own priorities.

But speaking of geopolitical causes and effects risks obscuring the dynamics that have dominated Syrian life since Hafez Assad rose to power in a coup just three years after losing the Golan Heights to the Israelis in 1967. Dagher thus dedicates the bulk of his book trying to explain these very Syrian dynamics. From how the regime chose to brutally respond to peaceful protests in 2011 to the mass defections in response, passing by the lessons Bashar learned from his father’s slaughters in Hama and Aleppo (and Baniyas, Homs and Latakia) in the early 1980s or those Iran learned from its own repression against protesters, Assad or we Burn the Country chronicles a tortured country while avoiding teleological interpretations. Nothing is written in stone, Dagher shows. Rather, the burning of Syria was and is the result of political decisions made at the very top of the Syrian hierarchy with the help of regional and global allies and the choices of regional and global enemies.

Reading Assad or we Burn the Country makes one want to reach out to the characters in the book and save them, or at least warn them. Syrians of previous generations couldn’t help but think of the 1982 Hama massacre when they saw the mostly young crowd gathering on the streets of Aleppo, Daraa, Homs, Damascus, Hama, Daraya, Lattakia or Douma. One activist even told Dagher that the Local Coordination Committees, or LCCs, those grassroots groups set up to coordinate between rebellious towns and villages, were infiltrated by the mukhabarat, or secret services. Among those within the LCCs who ‘were arguing the hardest for armed resistance’, activists would later learn, were the mukhabarat. One of the lessons for both tyrants and those resisting them, it would seem, is that tyrants love armed resistance. It allows them to portray the state’s fight as one against armed extremists, which of course is precisely what the Syrian state did. In hindsight, this was entirely predictable. In the early days of the revolution, there were even rumours, entirely believable, that the mukhabarat were smuggling weapons into rebellious areas to facilitate armed confrontations.

But the cruelty of hindsight is the helplessness it can generate. Facilitated or not, the arming of the revolution was inevitable. Syrians could not tolerate the sheer scale of Bashar’s repression against peaceful protesters. Syrians of all ages and of all backgrounds, no matter how young or old, no matter the sect, were being rounded up, detained, tortured and killed. Even children were being tortured to death, their bodies mutilated and returned to their parents. The most notorious case in 2011 was that of Hamza Al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy from Daraa. Al-Khatib was kidnapped by regime forces, brutally murdered and then had his corpse mutilated before it was returned to his family. The widely distributed photos and videos of his body helped add fuel to the flames of the revolution. And true to form, the Assad regime responded with disinformation: pro-regime media outlets were instructed to say that Hamza was either tortured by terrorists or not tortured at all; Bashar himself told the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt that Hamza was not tortured; and Fawaz Akhras, Bashar’s father-in-law, based in London, told the Syrian leader to dismiss the video of Hamza’s body as British propaganda.

The Hama Doctrine

This was by no means a coincidence. As he was crushing the Palestinian/Leftist/Nationalist resistance in Lebanon in 1979, Hafez turned his rage to the rebellious parts of Syria that never fully submitted to his rule, particularly Hama. In Hama, Hafez went after the secularists and community leaders first. Omar al-Shishakli, for example, was an influential local leader and president of the Arab Ophthalmological Association and the Hama Medical Association. Part of his role was to mediate between local Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who were encouraging defiance, and the Assad regime. In the spring of 1980, al-Shishakli was summoned by Mustafa Tlass, the then-governor of Hama (and father of Manaf Tlass, a close family friend of Bashar’s, who defected in 2012 and went into exile), supposedly to discuss de-escalation. Instead, al-Shishakli was tortured to death and his body dumped on the streets of the city. The regime would do the same with many other professionals and prominent figures. The message was simple: all those who peacefully protested, whether through labour strikes or other forms of civil disobedience, were to be crushed.

This was the Hama Doctrine or, as Dagher’s chapter calls it, the Hama Manual: terrorise and murder peaceful and secular opposition first, thereby crushing any notion of a multi-confessional and peaceful alternative. When left with the Islamists (or perceived Islamists), use the War on Terror rhetoric to inflame sectarian tensions. When the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly its hard-line section the Tali’a al-Muwatila (Fighting Vanguard), started attacking minorities, especially members of the Alawite sect Hafez belonged to, this allowed him to declare a war against religious extremism. He then proceeded to use that war to crush all remaining opposition. When the Islamist militants were defeated, Hafez’s forces started their ‘cleansing’ operations: they repeatedly raped girls and women of all ages; set people on fire or hacked them to death; led people to mosques, shot them and then dynamited the mosques; looted everything; and raised entire neighbourhoods to the ground. In February of 1982, tens of thousands of people were killed by the Assad regime in Hama. His forces even graffitied the shahada (the statement that ‘there is no God but God, and Muhammad is His messenger’), one of the five pillars of Islam, on the walls of the conservative city, but replaced ‘God’ and ‘Muhammad’ with ‘Homeland’ and ‘the Baath’ respectively. This wasn’t over. When the surviving members of the al-Khani family went back to Hama in the fall of 1982, they were forced to attend pro-regime rallies. It wasn’t enough to know that their loved ones were killed. They were also forced to endure this most gruesome of gaslighting manipulations and had no other choice but to declare that it was not the regime, but ‘terrorists’, who killed their parents. In Dagher’s words: ‘Children whose fathers had been executed by the regime grew up singing the glories of Hafez.’

Sound familiar? In August of 2016, after four years of siege, the town of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, was emptied of its remaining people after a truce was reached between the regime and local rebel groups. Shortly after being forced to pay their respects to friends and loved ones killed by snipers, barrel bombs or starvation and leave their homes, the people of Daraya had to endure the sight of Bashar himself praying in one of their mosques. To his left was Mufti Hassoun, whose nickname ‘the Mufti of Barrel Bombs’ needs no explanation. Less than a year later, we learned that the Mufti was among those who approved the hanging of up to 13,000 people between 2011 and 2015 in the notorious Saydnaya prison, a mere 35km (21 miles) or so from Daraya. Similar scenarios would play out elsewhere as the Assad regime’s military machine, heavily backed by Russia, Iran and Iranian-backed sectarian groups like Hezbollah, retook liberated towns. And just as Hafez’s forces declared the regime to be quasi-divine, so would Bashar’s: In 2011, two days after hundreds of Syrians took to the streets in Hama, Bashar’s forces brutally crushed the protests, killing hundreds in the process. On the same city walls, Bashar’s forces sprayed the words: ‘There is no God but Bashar’.

How long will it take for the seeds to grow?

The sheer horror faced by Syrians is more than enough reason to be cynical about the country’s (and the world’s) future. But while hindsight can feel helpless, hope for the future does not. One thing that Bashar has not been able to do is crush the extraordinary waves of creative defiance that sprung out of the Syrian revolution, and Syrian activists know that. Dagher ends the book with a quote by a woman named Sally, living in Germany where she sought refuge with her husband. As the city of Daraa, the so-called cradle of the revolution, was being retaken by the regime in July 2018, Sally told Dagher that: ‘they are trying to bury us, but they do not know we’re the seeds of a revolution’.

Forty-nine years have passed since Hafez’s coup, nineteen years since Bashar took power, and eight years since the Syrian revolution started. In those eight years, multiple media outlets organically grew out of the wreckage and artists grabbed their brushes and musical instruments. The Syrian Prints Archive alone counts over 300 newspapers, the vast majority of which were created in 2011 or since. They seemed to have responded to a calling they did not know they had, a calling that was only whispered before 2011. ‘I know that I lost a lot, but at the same time, I gained a lot’. So goes the song ‘People’s Revolution‘ by the Syrian rap group-in-exile Refugees of Rap in 2015. The lessons learned in mass-organising and resistance under extreme duress will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Their own children might soon learn of the tactical mistakes made while also appreciating the many successes that the impossible revolution achieved. How long will it take for those seeds to grow? Don’t write Syrians off just yet.