Assad or We Burn the Country by Sam Dagher

Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family's Lust for Power Destroyed Syria   by Sam Dagher Little Brown 2019

The country that brought us the 21st century’s worst humanitarian disaster — and the family responsible for it — come under the microscope in Sam Dagher’s masterpiece of journalistic reporting, Assad or We Burn the Country. Dagher, a Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist with more than 15 years’ experience reporting on Middle East affairs for such publications as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, chronicles in detail Syria’s descent into chaos under Bashar al-Assad. A chunker of a book (nearly 600 pages), Dagher’s account is prodigiously footnoted and impeccably researched; however, it is not for the faint of heart. It is a relentless chronology of the Syrian regime’s sundry atrocities, international double-dealing and manipulations, and the unspeakable suffering of Syrians whose only crime was asking for basic human rights.   

Dagher’s subtitle is “How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria” and family is a dominant theme running throughout. The author describes it as Syria’s “sons and daughters wrestling with their parents’ choices and legacies.” For Bashar, his father’s legacy was one he not only wanted to live up to but also surpass. The “father” of modern Syria, Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria with an iron fist, using his widespread citizen surveillance arm of government, the mukhabarat (chillingly modeled on the East German Stasi) to tamp down opposition. Syria suffered under Hafez for nearly 30 years until his death in 2000, but little did they or the world know the worse was to come with his son. The quiet and unassuming ophthalmologist possessed a ruthless ambition to not only pay tribute to his father’s legacy, but to surpass it. Violently, if necessary.

By a cruel twist of fate, Bashar (the third of five children), was never meant to inherit his father’s position, but rather his older brother, Bassel. Bassel seemed to many observers the most suited: tough, popular, handsome, and a lover of beautiful women and fast cars. Bashar, on the other hand, was a gangling, awkward, and introverted young man, always in Bassel’s shadow. He eventually broke away from his less-than-promising prospects at home to study abroad. He entered an ophthalmology residency program in London in 1992. In 1994, he was studying for board exams to practice in the United Kingdom when news came of Bassel’s death. He was called home to comfort his grief-stricken father, but more importantly, to start the grooming process for succession. 

From the beginning of his presidency in 2000, Bashar positioned himself as a reformer. As such, he was greeted warmly on the international stage. Promising to bring much needed economic and educational reform to Syria, he said nothing about political reform. Indeed, it was never on the table. While the major powers courted Bashar’s assistance in Middle Eastern matters (after 9/11, America needed help quashing terrorist insurgents within Iraq, while France focused on stability in Lebanon and business enterprises within Syria), the people at home began to grow discontent with Bashar’s rule following the mass protests in Iran in 2009. 

Citizens like Mazen Darwish, a Damascus human rights lawyer and activist, believed the uprisings in Iran over a fraudulent election could be replicated in Syria. Afterall, “…what happened in Iran made me think it was also possible in our region ruled by police states and ideological and sectarian regimes,” he recalled.

Peaceful gatherings of protesters demanding basic rights began in earnest in 2011. By March of that year, those groups became targets of the mukhabarat and regime defenders. Bullets flew, people died, and the civil war was underway. Dagher does yeoman’s work in relating the many complexities of Middle Eastern sectarianism and how it impacted Bashar’s ability to play different groups and nations off one another. This goes a long way toward explaining why Bashar is still in power.

In the book, Dagher takes us on this sad journey using two different perspectives: those from inside the palace and those outside the palace. From inside, our point of view is Manaf Tlass, the son of Mustafa Tlass and the best friend of Bashar. Bashar’s father, Hafez, seized control of Syria along with his best friend Mustafa in the 1970s, and were partners in power until Hafez’s death in 2000. The generational friendship of the Assads and Tlasses continued with their sons. But as Bashar’s reign of terror upon his own citizenry ratcheted up, Manaf increasingly grew frustrated and alarmed at Bashar’s pivot to Iran and Hezbollah and his unwillingness to dialogue with protesters. “You can only rule these people with the shoe,” Bashar coldly replies to Manaf’s concerns. 

Their unusual friendship unfolds in a surprising way as the reader will discover, but the stories from outside the palace are truly the most gut-wrenching. Dagher deftly weaves in their experiences and sufferings in a respectful manner that never veers into the exploitative. Still, the image of Mazen, the human rights activist, waking up on top of a dead body after a horrendous beating is something that stays with you. And there are others…so many others.  

What one comes away with after Dagher’s 600 pages of civil war, repression, torture, chemical attacks, red lines drawn and erased, Alawite vs. Shia vs. Sunni, the beginnings of ISIS, and a Middle East generally on fire is the aching need for a little hope…somewhere, anywhere. But hope is a hard thing to come by in Syria, where the Lie rules over Truth. Bashar al-Assad still holds the shoe over his people. But in Assad or We Burn the Country, Sam Dagher reveals the truth of those closest to the fire and warns the world to look away at its own peril. Fittingly, he dedicates his book: 

To the Syrians who rose up to demand freedom and dignity: Your heroism, sacrifice, and story will never be obscured by lies.

—Peggy Kurkowski is a copywriter living in Denver, Colorado.