Of the three books on Syria and the Arab uprisings reviewed here, David Lesch's makes, perhaps, the biggest claim – and delivers the biggest disappointment.
Lesch's claim is to have had exceptional insight into the workings of the Syrian regime and of Bashar Assad, who took over as Syria's leader in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez. Lesch, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, has travelled to Syria more than 20 times since 1989, met Assad regularly in 2004-08 and also interviewed his wife Asma and senior figures in the leadership. “This unique access meant that I got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West,” he writes.
Yet throughout the book, Lesch prevaricates on some of the most important questions about Assad and his role in the vicious crackdown on the uprising that began in March last year. For example, he writes that Assad, who “seems to view the security organs as a necessary evil”, was “either unwilling or powerless to stop what in Syria is a reflexive response to perceived threat” when the uprising broke out. But reluctance is not the same as inability; morally and politically, the distinction is absolutely crucial if we are to understand what has been happening in Syria.
Such ambiguities – and they are numerous – might be explained by Lesch's earlier, largely positive view of Assad, set out in “The new lion of Damascus”, published in 2005. The events of the past 18 months have proved that view wrong, and “The fall of the house of Assad” is a corrective.
Indeed, Assad was “not up to the task”, Lesch concludes. “He was shortsighted and became deluded. He failed miserably.” But in his discussion of recent events, one senses the author's unwillingness to be as clear. For example, he writes about regime propaganda and activists' propaganda that “the truth probably lay somewhere in the middle, although most of the journalists I spoke to...were virtually unanimous in maintaining that...the truth was closer to the way the opposition presented matters”. Why does Lesch in effect reject these journalists' assessment? Does he have any evidence to claim that the truth is to be found “in the middle”? He does not tell us. As so often in this flawed book, Lesch simply leaves us guessing.
Syria: the fall of the house of Assad
By David Lesch (276 pages)
Yale University Press, €23