An essential new book by the only international journalist to have lived full-time in Damascus post-2011 shows the Assad regime’s criminality to be even worse than previously understood.
It’s quite often said, with the pseudo-skepticism that is the lifeblood of sophistry and conspiracy theory, that it’s impossible to know what’s really going on in Syria. Since the few international reporters who make it into the country tend to wind up killed—such as Marie Colvin, at the Assad regime’s hands, or James Foley at ISIS’—it’s long been simply too dangerous for credible observers to see the conflict for themselves, forcing us to rely for our information on unverifiable hearsay put out by murky partisan operators. Or so the argument goes.
This has always been a fiction, of course, not only because—despite the very real risks—reporters have never ceased braving the journey inside, like the Sky News team shot at by Assad’s tanks just last week. It’s also a fiction because there have always been hundreds of Syrian journalists on the ground, the best of whom are every bit as reliable as their international colleagues (and often a far sight more courageous to boot). And it’s a fiction, too, because between the crucial years of 2012 and 2014, there lived in Damascus the Wall Street Journal correspondent Sam Dagher; the sole reporter for a major Western paper to be based full-time in Assad’s capital.
Keen observers of Syria in the Anglosphere will already be familiar with Dagher’s work, which consistently cast invaluable ground-level light on the regime’s activities and atrocities until he was punted out the country without so much as the chance to collect his belongings. (The wonder was not that this happened, but that it took so long.) Now, his observations from Syria have been set out in full detail, and expanded on with years of further investigation, in a book, Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria, released on Tuesday.1 As with so much of Dagher’s writing, what’s striking about the book is it doesn’t just confirm the worst that’s been reported about Assad’s regime in the much-maligned “mainstream media;” it unearths new ways in which the horror and criminality are in fact more terrible than previously understood.
The book’s revelations, indeed, are numerous and substantial. On the subject of Marie Colvin, the commander of military intelligence in Homs (where the Sunday Times reporter and her French colleague Rémi Ochlik were killed by regime artillery in 2012), a man named Gen. Abd al-Kareem Salloum, tells Dagher matter-of-factly that the targeting of the journalists was “justifiable” as they were “embedded with terrorists.” The 2012 bombing assassination of Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy defense minister, Assef Shawkat, is shown to have almost certainly been an inside job, rather than the work of the opposition, as officially claimed. The leader of an important pro-regime militia, Mohammad Jaber, tells Dagher of Assad’s opponents, “The only solution is chemical: we must exterminate them all, they and their families and children.” The same man, who manufactures the regime’s notoriously indiscriminate and murderous “barrel bombs” in a steel plant in Latakia, also admits to paying al-Qaeda fighters to let him smuggle Iraqi oil across the desert, while boasting further of organizing mob attacks on the US and French embassies in Damascus in 2011. Dagher, evidently, has a remarkable talent for inducing people to freely confess to their own war crimes, on the record. A Brig. Gen. Jamal Younes proudly tells him that he and his men “slaughtered about 250” people in a village outside Hama in 2012. In a different vein, the officer in charge of a post on the Syrian-Iraqi border says he was ordered to abandon the position when attacked by jihadists in 2013, even though he “told his commanders in Damascus that he was confident he could hang on” to it. Raqqa Province would be surrendered in similar fashion within 48 hours. The implication is the regime was happy to see these territories fall to al-Qaeda, the better for the extremists to wipe out the moderate opposition while also scaring the urban middle class and religious minorities into supporting Assad unreservedly. The following year, it would be from precisely the same turf that ISIS launched its devastating invasion and takeover of northwestern Iraq, where it proclaimed the establishment of its “caliphate.”
“Assad or no one”
The early chapters of the book chart the bloody rise to power of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in the grim years following the Baath Party’s military coup in 1963. We’re helpfully reminded that the Baathists, who had no broad support base in Syria, were opposed by the general population from the very beginning, and were able to retain power only by overwhelming brute force. The weeks immediately following their coup saw dozens of street protestors shot dead, other opponents summarily executed by firing squad, and civil liberties in general stifled across the board. The basic underpinnings of Baathist rule have remained unchanged ever since.
As has the fact of opposition, against the odds. The late 1970s, in particular, saw a rising tide of dissent, with nationwide teachers’ and workers’ strikes as well as boycotts of bogus parliamentary elections. By 1980, these had flourished into general strikes and mass protests against the regime spanning Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Idlib, and Deir al-Zor. In a foreshadowing of what was to unfold 31 years later, Assad sought to smear these diverse opponents as dangerous Islamist zealots. Yet “it was not just fanatics, as Hafez kept insisting,” writes Dagher, “but a wide and varied front of diplomats, doctors, engineers, filmmakers, intellectuals, lawyers, secularists, students, workers, and everyone else who rejected his iron-fist rule and scorched-earth methods.” Hafez’s response was a military assault that killed 2,000 in Aleppo alone between April and December 1980, and which ultimately culminated in the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians in Hama in February 1982. Again, like Bashar, “Hafez’s first targets in the spring of 1980 were not Islamists but secular political opponents, human rights defenders, and champions of peaceful resistance to his regime, who he believed posed the gravest threat to his legitimacy and hold on power.”
The infamous Hama Massacre succeeded in suppressing dissent for a generation, but with Hafez’s death in 2000, civil society was emboldened to raise its voice once again, in the form of the “Damascus Spring” that saw peaceful calls for things like the release of political prisoners; free and fair elections; greater freedom of expression and the press; and an end to the official state of emergency; until all this was quashed in turn. As Dagher’s sub-title suggests, he sees the last half-century of Syrian politics as essentially the unrelenting struggle of a single family to hold onto power against the perpetual opposition of the people over whom it rules. It’s a useful notion, one that enables us to see 2011 not as a surprising aberration in a “kingdom of silence” but rather an inevitable new chapter in the fifty-year struggle Syrians have always waged against the Assads since they first laid eyes on them.
The initial chapters also provide an intriguing personal portrait of Bashar, based to an impressive extent on the accounts of people who know or have met him. These pages represent perhaps the most successful attempt yet at answering the question that so often perplexes Syria watchers; namely, how did a mild-mannered eye doctor in London end up becoming the 21st-century’s leading mass-murderer? The picture that emerges is one of a child mercilessly bullied by his own siblings, who grew into an exceptionally cold young man—weeping at neither his brother’s nor his father’s funeral—whose darkest instincts were expertly nurtured by the brutal military and intelligence men tasked by Hafez with grooming him in the 1990s. By the mid-2000s, he had grown comfortably into his role as absolute despot; in the words of one childhood friend, he’d transformed from someone who “never dared look you in the eyes” into one “who lied and looked you in the eyes.” It’s interesting how closely this tracks with the assessment of Jonathan Tepperman, who interviewed Bashar as managing editor of Foreign Affairs in 2015, describing him afterwards as “one of the smoothest liars I’ve ever met” and concluding he was at best a “sociopath,” if not a full-blown “psychopath.”
Bashar’s facility for deception has served him well in his encounters with Western officials predisposed to having wool pulled over their eyes. John Kerry was “totally beguiled” by Bashar and his wife Asma after dining with them in Damascus in 2009, Dagher writes on the authority of France’s then-ambassador to Syria, who met Kerry at the time. Yet the full story of Western courtship, and even overt sponsorship, of Assad’s totalitarianism begins much earlier, as Dagher reminds us in detail. It’s easy to forget that the first US president to meet Hafez was not Jimmy Carter but Richard Nixon, who was received with fanfare in Damascus in 1974. By 1979, Washington had provided over $600m in aid to Hafez’s regime, ostensibly in order “to counter communist influence and spur Syria to conclude a peace agreement with Israel.” A US embassy cable of the same year lauded “the stability [Assad] represents,” adding that “many of his policies have worked to our advantage.” Carter praised him as “strong and moderate.” Bill Clinton cracked jokes with him at a summit in Geneva.
If Washington’s record has been shameful, the French government has arguably been worse. President François Mitterrand went to Damascus in 1984 and publicly denied Assad’s role in a string of attacks including the assassination of the French ambassador to Lebanon in 1981; the killing of 58 French troops in the 1983 detonation of a French barracks in Beirut; and a number of bombings on French soil itself. This was in spite of Mitterand and his government knowing full well Assad was involved in this butchery, as Mitterand’s then-prime minister Laurent Fabius attests to Dagher. In 1998, Jacques Chirac threw Hafez a state dinner at the Élysée Palace, where he would also host Bashar the following year before the latter was even president. Chirac went as far as to award Bashar the Legion of Honour in 2001. Seven years later, Assad was President Sarkozy’s guest at Bastille Day proceedings.
This may at first seem like a lot of old history being needlessly dragged up, but in fact it should be seen as a cautionary tale. Today, with the international community relaxed about Assad remaining in power, and inching daily closer to a formal normalizing of relations, we would all do well to recall how the movie ended last time around. Nor are the lessons about the folly and immorality of “engaging” with murderous dictators applicable solely to Syria in the Middle East of 2019, or indeed the world at large of 2019.
“Assad or we burn the country”
The book’s second half addresses the uprising of 2011 and subsequent bloodshed. Dagher does excellent work establishing the specific chain of command responsible for the killings of peaceful protesters in the early days. Thus, in Daraa, where it all began, “the most powerful man” in the province, Bashar’s cousin Atef Najib, placed a phone call on 18 March, 2011—the date of the first major protest—to another cousin of Bashar’s, the intelligence chief Hafez Makhlouf, requesting assistance dealing with the situation. In coordination with his fellow security czar Jamil Hassan, the head of Air Force Intelligence, Makhlouf dispatched a “strike force” to the scene by helicopter. It was the masked members of this force who appeared out of nowhere that day in Daraa, opening fire on and killing unarmed demonstrators.
Together with Bashar’s brother, Maher—the head of the Republican Guard and the army’s notorious Fourth Division—Makhlouf and Hassan formed a “trinity of hardliners” spearheading the slaughter of civilians across the country in the following months, writes Dagher. Though Bashar was always in ultimate command, overseeing everything from the top, it was these three who worked out the particulars and directed orders to the gunmen on the ground. They “often got together at night to eat dinner and plot the next day’s killing. The troops increasingly resembled bands of killers rather than a conventional force. Those dispatched to rebellious communities were usually a mishmash of forces drawn from various army units and [intelligence] departments, as well as pro-Bashar thugs and militiamen.” Needless to say, information of this kind will be of critical significance to any war crimes prosecutions that may arise in future.
Much of the detail in these chapters, as well as the preceding ones, is based on hours of interviews with Manaf Tlass, the Republican Guard general and son of Hafez al-Assad’s right-hand-man, Mustafa Tlass, both of whom defected to exile in France in 2012. Manaf, who has never before spoken at such length to a journalist, is one of Dagher’s principal sources throughout the book. It’s a bold, and potentially controversial gambit on Dagher’s part. On the one hand, who better in theory to inform us than the most high-ranking regime defector since the uprising began; a lifelong close friend of Bashar who was still regularly playing tennis with him up until the protests broke out? It would be an incurious person indeed who wouldn’t wish to at least hear what such a man had to say. On the other hand, how much credence should be given to the word of someone who still describes Hafez al-Assad as “sacred” to this day; who harbors burning ambitions (not to say delusions) about staging a comeback to lead a post-Bashar Syria; who thus has every incentive to downplay his own wrongdoing; and who, moreover, was evidently never in fact as integral to the regime as his title and surname suggested? Dagher is careful to stress that all of Manaf’s substantive claims have been cross-checked with multiple other sources, including people with low opinions of Tlass. Still, some of the latter’s attempts to portray himself as an innocent naïf ask a lot of our credulity, like when he says he approved of the decision to send the army into the streets in April 2011 on the grounds that they “could act as a buffer” between demonstrators and the death squads firing on them! (In reality, of course, the army and the irregulars worked side-by-side.) One could make a case that, overall, Tlass’ account adds to the record more than it distorts it. One only hopes readers will take none of his words on faith alone, and will always bear in mind who he was, and still is.
It should be emphasized that Tlass is certainly not the hero of Dagher’s story. The passages devoted to the likes of Sally Masalmeh, an eighteen-year-old at the time the army stormed her neighborhood in Daraa; who held up olive branches at protests met with live rounds; who endured siege, war, and the loss of her brother to a regime bullet before eventually smuggling herself in 2015 across 1,000 kilometers of desert—being detained by ISIS along the way—into Turkey, there to take a boat to Greece, trekking halfway across Europe until finally arriving in Germany: these are the true profiles in courage, principle, and sacrifice.
The book’s most harrowing pages are those narrating the unfathomable cruelty visited upon the human rights lawyer Mazen Darwish. A veteran of the Damascus Spring well-known to the authorities, Darwish was arrested and tossed in solitary confinement for a short while in March 2011 after organizing a demonstration in central Damascus calling for the release of political prisoners. A much more serious detention commenced in 2012, when he was taken to the Mezzeh Airbase run by the aforementioned Jamil Hassan, who interrogated him personally. Here Darwish “witnessed prisoners forced to get on their knees and make animal sounds, roll in their own urine and feces, and endure torture until they wrote demeaning confessions.” But that wasn’t the bad part. Later in 2012, he was transferred to an underground dungeon operated by Maher al-Assad’s men. Here he spent six months crammed with dozens of other inmates into a cell measuring three by five meters—that is, when he wasn’t being beaten with batons and cables, having buckets of sewage emptied over him, or being physically forced inside a car tire. But that wasn’t the bad part either. Transferred back into Jamil Hassan’s custody, Darwish’s time was then divided between a tiny rat-infested cell with five other people and another room in which he was repeatedly beaten unconscious. “He lost all his nails,” writes Dagher. “On the fourth day he woke in a room under the stairs. He was on top of a motionless body. It was a dead person. Mazen wanted to scream but it seemed like he had lost his voice.”
Things seemed to be looking up when he was later moved to Adra Prison, nicknamed the “Four Seasons” by inmates for its comparatively easier conditions. Now that his wife was able to visit him, she saw that he “had lost nearly half of his bodyweight” in less than a year. Alas, in 2014 he was transferred to Hama prison, known as an Islamist hotbed (Darwish himself is firmly democratic and secular). In 2015, after losing his cool in a kangaroo court trying him on “terrorism” charges, Darwish was hauled off to another hellhole in Damascus, stripped naked, forced to drink urine, and doused in freezing water to prevent him sleeping. This went on for forty-five days. After yet another stint in Hama, he was finally released following an Eid al-Fitr pardon in August 2015.
Within days, he received word that Maher al-Assad wanted to meet him. Instead, he and his wife paid a $10,000 bribe to a border official to enable them to flee to Beirut, where they were issued travel documents by the German embassy. Since arriving in Germany, Darwish has made use of the country’s universal jurisdiction laws to initiate legal cases against senior regime officials. In June 2018, a German federal prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In February 2019, the German authorities apprehended and arrested two former regime intelligence officials on charges of torture and other crimes against humanity.
These moves won’t topple Assad tomorrow, but they’re a tangible step on a journey that has to be taken if Syria is ever to know peace and prosperity. For the likes of Darwish, precariously exiled in a Europe growing more xenophobic by the day, they’re also quite literally a fight for survival. It feels appropriate to conclude, as Dagher does, with Darwish’s own words, which set out in plain terms the only viable path forward for Syrians and non-Syrians alike: “If they want to repatriate refugees and stop the exodus of new ones, there must be justice and guarantees for people to return. Can we go back if the same organs, regime, and people remain in place? The same police state with the same sectarian, gang-like, and mafia mindset? People—and myself included—won’t return unless there’s change."
- 1. The title is taken from the words often spray-painted on the walls of opposition communities by pro-regime militants following massacres and other so-called “cleansing” operations. (They were also alluded to in the title of an earlier book, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami.) While the slogan is well-known, Dagher is one of few writers to have personally seen it with his own eyes, in Homs in 2014.