Review | Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria – Sam Dagher

About the Book

From a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist specializing in the Middle East, this groundbreaking account of the Syrian Civil War reveals the never-before-published true story of a 21st-century humanitarian disaster.

In spring 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned to his friend and army commander, Manaf Tlass, for advice about how to respond to Arab Spring-inspired protests. Tlass pushed for conciliation but Assad decided to crush the uprising — an act which would catapult the country into an eight-year long war, killing almost half a million and fueling terrorism and a global refugee crisis.

Assad or We Burn the Country examines Syria’s tragedy through the generational saga of the Assad and Tlass families, once deeply intertwined and now estranged in Bashar’s bloody quest to preserve his father’s inheritance. By drawing on his own reporting experience in Damascus and exclusive interviews with Tlass, Dagher takes readers within palace walls to reveal the family behind the destruction of a country and the chaos of an entire region.

Dagher shows how one of the world’s most vicious police states came to be and explains how a regional conflict extended globally, engulfing the Middle East and pitting the United States and Russia against one another. 

Timely, propulsive, and expertly reported, Assad or We Burn the Country is the definitive account of this global crisis, going far beyond the news story that has dominated headlines for years.

485 pages (kindle) 
Published on May 28, 2019
Buy the book 

There are a lot of times when I see things happening in the Middle East and I just get completely overwhelmed. It seems like there are so many factions, and factions of factions, and such a long, rich history and all these people… it’s just a lot. So, while I want to understand the roots of (insert conflict here) I have a hard time actually doing it. This is all made worse because I generally feel like every book or article I really read seems to, at its core, have some sort of political bend. I usually end up giving up. 

Now, I will say off the bat that this book is not very friendly to the Assad family. The people who were interviewed were defectors, and/or witnesses to events that transpired. None of them, as far as I’m aware, are currently standing in the arena going, “WOO! GO ASSAD GO!” This book is very critical. Recently I had a discussion with someone who lives in Jordan (so not a Syrian) who said that he thought people were far too critical of Assad, that while he is ruthless, look at all these good things he’s done, and then he listed off these progressive reforms and all that. To which I gesticulate wildly at, “but he gassed his own people” and then… well, the conversation goes in circles. So there is that side, too, and that’s not extensively examined in this book. 

However, this honestly is one of the most comprehensive breakdowns of a Middle Eastern dynasty and numerous crises that I’ve read in a while. 

Assad, or We Burn the country is not just about Bashar. Rather, this book starts out with his father, Hafez, who wrested control of the country away from numerous other powers vying for it and then managed to keep his power through coup attempts and various social and military unrest. He was a brutal man (he literally wiped a city off the map, for example, killing thousands upon thousands of people in the 1980’s), who kept an iron fist wrapped tightly around what he considered his own, borrowing ideas from other governments to create his own uniquely Syrian system. He borrowed ideas from the Nazi Youth, for example, to create his own weird kid’s club where they basically sang songs about how wonderful he was and wore special clothes. He liked the idea of the Stassi, the Russian arm of the KGB that operated in occupied Germany, and from that he formed the Mukhabarat, or the Syrian state police that have just a shocking amount of oversight and control over the Syrian people. He liked a lot of Ba’ath party ideas, so as Sadam was rising up in Iraq, Hafez watched with interest and borrowed some of his ideas as well. 

While Hafez was interesting, Bashar was really the one who captivated me. Perhaps this is because I don’t remember Hafez at all. It’s also because Bashar was the second son, and he was pretty content to be left alone to become an eye doctor in London while his dad forgot he existed (They weren’t close.). However, after his brother died in a car accident, Syria turned its attention to this second son who was meant to inherit. At first, there was a lot of hope hanging on Bashar. He was westernized and therefore enlightened (or so people thought) and he would certainly come to Syria and change things for the better. He would be the young breath of fresh air the country needed, and perhaps for a time, that was the case. He even married a woman who had spent her entire life living in the United Kingdom. How much more modernized could a person possibly get? A lot of hope was hung on Bashar’s shoulders. However, the book follows his path, from London, to Syria. His quest to fill his brother’s shoes, to become the ruler of this country, and the various things that caused him to move from the hope of the Syria, to… what he is now. 

There were a whole lot of things I wasn’t aware of before this book, but perhaps that connection between Syria and the United States was one of the most surprising. I had no idea the regime had been supported by the United States for so long. I also had no idea that the Syrian government had their fingers in so many different pies. For example, Bassel, the older brother that would have inherited if he hadn’t died in a car accident, had hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in bank accounts all over Europe, from money he made by funding some of the drug trade, and by having a corner on the illegal archeology and relics market coming out of Lebanon, and this was, by and large, just something that people in the Assad family did. So, punish people for drug trafficking, while also making money from the same market they are criminalizing. It is, for all intents and purposes, a very lucrative way to live.

Dagher was the last journalist kicked out of Syria in 2014, and so he has a lot of perspective about how the Arab Spring impacted the country, how vying political forces from other countries (read, Russia, Iran, United States) had a hand in what happened next, and how it all played out. How Bashar reacted when he saw his power was being threatened. Once Ghaddafi was toppled, Bashar tightened his hold on his own country, and became almost paranoid that the same would happen to him, so he flexed his iron fist and did what daddy did: He retained control, no matter how hard he had to work to do so. Gaddafi laid out the playbook for dictators in the region, and Assad watched, very closely, to see what he had to do to keep control of his country. And we all know the results. 

Gaddafi laid out in no uncertain terms what Arab leaders must do if they wished to overcome what he called a conspiracy by traitors and foreign enemies. Notwithstanding his cartoonish persona, Gaddafi’s words were a precise roadmap for any dictator determined to stay in power at any cost: spread lies to sow confusion and manipulate the narrative, kill to illustrate the cost of defiance, and stoke paranoia to drive a wedge between people and make them fight each other. Keep the conflict going even if it means destroying the country: either the leader stays or the country burns.

One thing that makes Syria so complex, at least in my mind, is how many outside forces there are playing on the battleground of that particular country, and Dagher breaks it all down nicly. He is even handed with just about everyone, from Obama’s rather clumsy response to Syria’s civil war, to Trump’s callous and sudden removal of support and protection from the Kurds. Then there’s the Russian and Iranian interests, and how the removal of the United States from this particular region gave Putin a massive toehold in the Middle East, making him a huge powerbroker in the region. A lot of this stuff was very complex before, hard for me to understand, hard for me to outline on my mental map, but Dagher made it easy to digest. 

The Syrian civil war was horrible, and brutal, but due to so many things, the winners were less Syria and more everyone but the west. Russia now has a huge amount of power and influence in the Middle East, and also used the conflict to test hundreds of weapons in the region. Turkey also made peace with Bashar, and now, with the loss of US protection, they were able to root out the Kurds in Ankara like they’d always wanted. There’s also Hezbollah, which is the arm of Iran. They have close ties with the Assad regime (Truthfully, Syria has always cultivated their contacts in Lebanon, but I think the civil war has strengthened them) and works as a flexed muscle to threaten the power of Saudi Arabia, their arch nemesis in the region. Now that just about the world has given up trying to overthrow Bashar, and the United States is seen as unreliable at best. The Assad regime has weathered quite an impressive storm and come out the other side stronger, in a lot of ways, and far more sure of their place in the world. Hafez would likely be very proud of what his son has accomplished.

And yet.

And yet.

There are still people, like the person I spoke to in Joran, who cry out, “But look at all the progress and reforms Bashar has done for the Syrian people! Look at all the good his regime has accomplished!”

This book is captivating. Part memoir, part historical study, this is the most comprehensive breakdown I’ve read of a very complex struggle in the region. If you’re one of those people interested in foreign events, foreign policy, or even if you’re wondering how the Assad family remain in power despite everything that has been lined up against them, this might be the best book currently on the market to read. Dagher has a bird’s eye view of the conflicts, and the regime, and a knack for breaking down complex issues into relevant and easy to understand bites. 

5/5 stars


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