Graeme Wood

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Playing Nice with a Tyrant

The New York Sun

Review of The New Lion of Damascus by David Lesch

Among hereditary dictators, Bashar al-Assad is remarkable not only for once having held a real job, but also for having been, by most accounts, fairly good at it. An ophthalmologist training in London, he abandoned a promising career only in 1994, after his elder brother Basil wrapped his Mercedes-Benz around a road fixture outside Damascus. Basil’s airbags deployed, according to official accounts, but the car rolled over, leaving his younger brother to inherit the family business.

This quirk of dynastic succession is one of the few details commonly known about Mr. al-Assad, who remains enigmatic even five years after taking over Syria’s presidency at 34 in 2000. David Lesch’s “The New Lion of Damascus” (Yale University Press, 276 pages, $30), a preposterously positive history of Mr. al-Assad’s life and reign, is among the first book-length attempts to fill the black hole of information surrounding the man.

Mystique thickens around a public figure for reasons both banal and bizarre. Mr. Lesch suggests that banality is likelier in Mr. al-Assad’s case. He describes a surprisingly modest Damascene upbringing – it would be termed bourgeois had the father not been the center of the most vigorous Middle Eastern personality cult this side of Saddam Hussein. Mr. al-Assad’s teachers, who like the subject himself and many of his ministers submitted to interviews for Mr. Lesch’s book, report that he was an able student but no prodigy, and that the fanfare surrounding him was unusually muted considering his father’s eminence.

In London, he pursued his medical training with similar modesty and awakened to the joys of the West – music, cars, the liberating effects of technology on a free society. (His computer hobby blossomed later into leadership in the Syrian Computer Society, the government body that censors subversive Web sites such as Yahoo and Hotmail.) Supervising surgeons in London report that Mr. al-Assad was competent. Were it not for his brother’s lead foot, he could have gone on to a reasonably normal existence as an ophthalmologist, his dictatorial pedigree a curious bit of trivia for a lucrative stream of cataract patients.

Mr. Lesch’s treatment of the political years is more troubling. After Basil’s death, Mr. al-Assad was groomed for the presidency with six years of military training and an expanding political portfolio that eventually included Syrian-occupied Lebanon. He appears to have accepted his waxing powers with some reluctance. In Mr. Lesch’s analysis, Mr. al-Assad’s robust sense of noblesse oblige led him to accept the the stability and continuity of another generation of Assad leadership. Mr. al Assad, he claims, has a strong devotion to his people and a conviction that openness and technology, tentatively pursued, will lead them out of their economic wilderness – “perestroika without glasnost,” Mr. Lesch says all too sunnily.

At this point it is necessary to submit a protest on behalf of those who believe credibility and credulity are mutually exclusive qualities in a biographer. Mr. Lesch’s book is so pro-As sad that I suspect that it could be sold openly on the streets of Damascus or Aleppo. It portrays the dictator as tender soul in a quiet fight against en trenched forces, when all evidence suggests that Mr. al-Assad is as en trenched as anyone else in his country Even if his years in politics are few, he clearly has been successful in packing the security apparatus with family and loyalists and encouraging the retirement of those not beholden to him. Any signs of moderation are belied by the persistent and public support shown for Hezbollah and rejectionists of every stripe.

In his most embarrassing passages, Mr. Lesch wonders whether Mr. al-Assad’s greatest liability might not be an excess of gentleness and kindness, qualities Mr. Lesch says will hinder the young dictator as he tries to uproot malignant forces in the Syrian bureaucracy. “Perhaps he will succeed in spite of his gentleness and compassion,” writes Mr. Lesch, who also comes close to absolving Mr. al-Assad for complicity in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, even as the Mehlis investigation is narrowing its focus to Syrians in the dictator’s closest circles.

Whence this gullibility? Mr. Lesch favors stability and continuity, and – parroting the Baathist line – he apologizes for what Syria lacks in democracy by saying, in essence, that authoritarianism is the price of stability. But this profoundly cynical excuse, very much a relic of the realist diplomacy of the 1970s and 1980s (in which Syria was a vital counterweight in the balance of terror), does not explain Mr. Lesch’s outrageous omission of any serious discussion of opposition to Mr. al-Assad’s rule. He says little about the repression of political dissidents and minorities such as the Kurds, nor much about the abysmal state of Syria’s press, which allows little more than hagiographies of the late al-Assads and tiresome repetition of Baathist propaganda. There exists no excuse for this: Realism may demand that we ignore such niceties in our choice of alliances, but it does not demand that we withhold comment entirely.

Even putting moral issues aside, Mr. Lesch provides little insight into the pragmatic issues that matter most to observers of Syria. What does Mr. al-Assad have to do with the wave of murders of anti-Syria journalists and politicians in Lebanon? To what extent is Mr. al-Assad hamstrung by his father’s old security apparatus? These awkward and sinister questions are not often asked of a sitting dictator, and they are certainly not asked here. If Mr. Lesch’s access to his subject has cost him the liberty to raise these points, then it has defeated some of his own goals, and has rendered his book worthless indeed.

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