Assad or We Burn the Country by Sam Dagher

“Assad or we Burn the Country” was a slogan sprayed in big, bold, and black letters in the city of Homs during a critical juncture of Syria’s modern history. Sam Dagher was one of the few western reporters who witnessed Syria’s systemic transformation from bellicose authoritarian rule to bloody civil war. This became the title of his book, which documents how the Assad clan stayed in power for 50 years, outlasting eight American presidents since Richard Nixon.

This book is an informative and comprehensive review of Syrian developments in the past decade through the lenses of personalities inside and outside Assad’s presidential palace. Even though the reader knows the story does not have a happy ending, one is captivated by Dagher’s storytelling, intimacy with the subject matter, and attention to detail. For those who need a crash course on Syria, this book is a multifaceted journey depicting why the Syrian conflict erupted and how it evolved.

Reading Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria is an excruciating exercise because it brings back to life the heavy price Syrians have paid for standing up to the Assad regime. Dagher reminds us at the outset that “the death meter has not stopped” (p. xx)* since the repressive measures taken in March 2011 against protesters in Damascus’s Marjeh Square. As the Arab Spring unfolded across the region, the book recaps how the young boys of Daraa in the south spray-painted the words, across their school walls, “You are next, doctor” (p. 18)—referring to Bashar al-Assad—and how their torture by the security agencies (the Mukhabarat) could have triggered the Syrian version of the Arab Spring.

After serving as the only foreign correspondent permanently based in Damascus for nearly two years, Sam Dagher was expelled from Syria in 2014 and put on the infamous “Mukhabarat watch list.” An American-born Lebanese journalist with a background in finance, Dagher was easily mistaken for a Syrian national, which helped him blend into the society and learn how to find access to a repressive regime without jeopardizing his journalistic integrity.

The book links Syria’s past—starting with the emergence of the late former president, Hafez al-Assad—to its present, with Assad’s son, Bashar, following to the letter the regime’s manual for survival. The advice Bashar received from his mentors was noteworthy: 1) “Time is on your side, Syria has no election”; 2) “maneuver, stall, and lie, but use force, extreme force, when necessary. Westerners will ultimately admire your toughness and perseverance. They love strong people and winners”; and 3) “make sure you have leverage and the right cards to play and hit them where it hurts. They will eventually come crawling on their knees to deal with you” (pp. 121-122).

Dagher delves into the central question regarding the magnitude of control Bashar al-Assad wields over his regime. He portrays two sides of Bashar’s character: the reserved person who initially believed in reform but was outmaneuvered by the Mukhabarat, and the buoyant person who “commanded and directed” all the Syrian regime’s decisions. Once, when Bashar was playing tennis and the wind cracked the flag overhead violently, he dropped his racket. This was just weeks before the protests began in 2011. However, the book argues, Bashar “had remarkably changed in the last few years as he grew confident in his strength and the seeming limitlessness of his power” (p. 129). In the first five years of his rule, he “learned very quickly that to preserve the power he had inherited from his father, he had to crush any aspiration for genuine political reform and all challenges to the system” (p. 129).

The primary character and source of information for Assad or We Burn the Country is Manaf Tlass, a controversial figure who defected from the Assad regime but never joined the opposition, hence was disliked by both sides. Manaf was a commander in the Syrian Republican Guard and the son of Mustafa Tlass, the former defense minister and Hafez al-Assad’s enforcer. There is a sense of acclaim for Manaf who “looked more like a movie star than an army general in a despotic Middle Eastern state” (p. 7). But Dagher occasionally questioned his primary source’s motivations and shortcomings. The objectives of Manaf’s words throughout the book are to reiterate his family’s loyalty to Hafez al-Assad and to assert that he personally did not have any blood on his hands since 2011 and that he completely disagrees with Bashar’s approach to dealing with protests.

Manaf wanted the regime to stay on good terms with the West, Russia, and Arab governments (instead of Iran). The Tlass family also grew apart from Bashar when he did not give them enough access to power and financial resources in a regime known for cronyism and corruption. Manaf’s defection did not seem voluntary; he had to choose either to become a killer or to get killed, as Dagher points out in the book. Manaf believes that Bashar was “lost and uncertain what to do” (p. 180) and that Bashar’s brother Maher, his cousins the Makhloufs, and the Mukhabarat hardliners had pushed for “maximum force” (p. 181) against protesters since the beginning.

Manaf conveys his frustration several times as he seemingly was hesitant to defect and was later disappointed that western governments did not receive his exit with a red carpet or give him a leadership role. “They said the regime’s days were numbered when I left Syria,” (p. 438) stated Manaf, who wanted to emulate the model of Libya’s Khalifa Haftar but was not on the battlefield before or after leaving Syria. Manaf’s illusory objective was a US-Russian deal to form a military council, chaired by him, to manage the transition away from Assad. Just before the 2016 US presidential elections, the Central Intelligence Agency pulled the plug on Manaf’s project of a transitional military council.

The book eloquently addresses the “game of nations” (p. 390) and the local dynamics of the Syrian conflict. It shows how the Gulf countries’ rivalry over Syria as well as western disunity and weak resolve had enormous impact on events in the country. There was also the decision to divide the rebels on the battlefield into five fronts, which further fragmented their already weak organization. Rebel commanders soon turned into “greedy warlords” (p. 413) and became more radicalized. In 2012, the Syrian National Council—the main opposition body—was already beset by “infighting, schisms, and the conflicting agendas of regional states” (p. 294). Even before the rise in 2014 of the so-called Islamic State, the western goal in Syria since 2013 “was not to topple Bashar but weaken him significantly and boost the fortunes of the opposition camp” (p.  381). With enemies like these and with the help of Russia and Iran, it is no wonder that the “burn the country” approach had the edge over that of removing Bashar from power.

The book highlights the new generation of bright and ambitious young Syrians who dared to dream of a better country such as human rights lawyer Mazen Darwish, who worked relentlessly to organize a civilian opposition, and Sally Masalmeh who was excited in 2011 about the potentials of a Syrian revolution. Dagher notes that these “advocates of peaceful resistance, not the gunmen or Islamist fanatics, posed the gravest threat to Assad family rule” (p. 268). However, by the end of 2011, members of the Assad regime were “a step closer to the fulfillment of the claims they had made at the uprising’s onset. There were no peaceful protesters, only armed groups and terrorists waging an insurrection against the state” (pp. 270-271). It is notable that Hafez al-Assad gave his brother Rifaat $200 million and an honorary title in return for leaving Syria after the latter’s 1984 coup attempt. If Bashar had been similarly generous and lenient with these Syrian dissidents, one wonders how the Syrian conflict would have unfolded differently.

Assad or We Burn the Country contains many stories that overlap in one book. There is a sense that Manaf Tlass is omnipresent and given more importance than warranted, which reflected at some point the Tlass family’s version of the Assad clan’s history. It is difficult to discern the full picture of the Assad regime’s internal deliberations, and Manaf apparently was not fully an insider and had lost access to Bashar’s inner circle even before 2011. It was as if Sam Dagher had a camera following Manaf until his defection in July 2012; after that it was Dagher’s own reportage until 2013 before a general overview of the Syrian conflict begins post-2014.

The story of Mazen Darwish, the human rights lawyer, is as captivating as that of Manaf Tlass, but Dagher gave it little attention. It is remarkable that both men’s lives were spared by the Assad regime—Manaf because of his family’s loyalty to Hafez al-Assad and Darwish for his Alawi background (as Syrian regime security officers told him). The reader of this book will crave more information about Mazen Darwish, Sally Masalmeh, and Abu Alaa (a  smuggler connected to the French and a middleman between the regime and the opposition who helped Manaf defect); one would want to understand how they became who they are , how they battled the idea of Assad staying in power, and how their aspirations for a new Syria have crumbled. In the end, Assad and his regime have “won” by preventing their opponents from fulfilling their aspirations. Mohammad Nassif, known as Bashar’s mentor in the security sector, puts it well: “it’s either us or them, we are going to fight until the end” (p. 250).

* All page numbers in this review refer to Sam Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.