In the spring of 2011, Syrian army commander Manaf Tlass advised his friend and boss and Syria’s dictator — Bashar Assad — in favor of conciliation in the face of the Arab Spring protests. Assad decided to go against his advice and for overkill, a policy that resulted in horrible destruction. Assad’s response to the Arab Spring in Syria was the continuation of his and his father’s policies since the last five decades. In Assad or We Burn the Country, Sam Dagher tells the story of the Assads who brought total destruction to Syria. In the West, Assad is known as mild-mannered British-trained former eye doctor who is married to a glamorous British-born former investment former banker. Sam Dagher shows the real, brutal face of the Assads who have been in power for about half a century now.
Sam Dagher argues that while the Islamic State terrorists horrified people everywhere and dictated much of Western policy in Syria, Bashar Assad was responsible for the destruction and human suffering that reverberated across the Middle East and the world from 2011 to 2018. Bashar commanded and directed the army officers and soldiers, the intelligence bosses and agents, and the legions of militiamen doing most of the killing, and he was empowered by the extraordinary support he received from his allies and backers — Iran, the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah and Russia. It is commonly argued ‘Everyone has blood on their hands’ ‘Bashar may be bad but ISIS is worse’ ‘There are no good guys in Syria.” More typically we hear “This is a civil war that turned into a complex multilayered conflict and drew in regional and world powers. Sam Dagher says that there are elements of truth in all these assertions. But, he argues that there is one undeniable truth — Bashar and his family, motivated by their quest to cling to power at any cost, were directly responsible for decisions and actions that turned the peaceful protests of the spring of 2011 into a devastating, year-long war and facilitated the rise and spread of ISIS.
In 2016, the then UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced that the Syrian death toll had reached 400,000. Sam Dagher says that it has not stopped growing since then. Tens of thousands more have succumbed to death or slashed to pieces from the airstrikes, incendiary rockets, ballistic missiles, cluster bombs, barrels bombs, chlorine bombs and chemical weapons launched by either the Syrian regime or the Russian military. Tens of thousands died because of lack of access to food and medicine due to sieges imposed principally by Bashar and his allies. Neither ISIS nor any of the rebel factions fighting Bashar possessed the Russian-made attack helicopters and fighter jets that rained death on civilians in opposition-held areas year after year. Sam Dagher reminds us that thousands of more Syrians who resisted and protested peacefully were hanged by sham military tribunals at the Saydnaya prison near Damascus just as his father had done four decades before.
Sam Dagher is not soft on the West in helping the Assads stay in power. He says that another crucial constant emerges throughout this story — the Assads could not have survived if it were not for the way the Western powers that profess to defend universal liberal values like human rights and freedom, have engaged with this turbulent and strategic corner of the world. Over the decades, the short-sighted and opportunistic bargains that Western powers have stuck with almost all of the Middle East’s despots — not just the Assads — have never taken the interests of ordinary citizens into consideration. Sam Dagher argues that the regional conflicts and West’s reticence and caution gave Bashar — and his backers — ample time to decimate those resisting peacefully and to return the standoff into an armed struggle fueled by sectarian extremists on both sides. He says that the complexity of the conflict has become an excuse not to consider meaningful steps like a limited no-fly zone in parts of Syria which would have saved lives and stemmed the tide of refugees.
Assad or We Burn the Country is an important addition to the existing literature on the Middle East — especially Syria — by an astute Middle East watcher. Sam Dagher gives a detailed account of how the Assad family brutalized Syria over the last fifty years. He discovered many of the crimes of the Assad regime which had remained hidden from the eyes of other journalists and writers. Sam Dagher paid the price of researching his book by being briefly held by the Syrian intelligence agencies and then expelled from Syria. Assad or We Burn the Country is a meticulously researched book that should be required reading for students and experts of the Middle East. It is absolutely indispensable to understand current Middle Eastern and Syrian situation.