In the years between the 2003 Iraq War and the 2020 Covid-19 crisis, the international system faced a number of stresses: renewed geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia, waves of refugees rivaling the numbers displaced during World War II, the rise of authoritarianism and terror networks, and the collapse of states into war. Syria’s conflict was an epicenter for these pressures; it continues to reshape the Middle East and the world. Sam Dagher’s Assad or We Burn the Country is a riveting account of the early years of the human and geopolitical toll of Syria’s war. Dagher, a journalist who reported on the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times for more than 15 years, offers an accessible snapshot of the early part of this conflict in all of its complexities.
When historians look back on the unraveling of the international system in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, Syria’s war will be one of the most obvious examples of a fracturing regional and global system now facing additional pressures from coronavirus and climate change. Dagher’s book is one of the best accounts of the first several years of a war that continues to be a vortex drawing in outside forces and reshaping global norms about force and power. His readable narrative stresses four key aspects of the war’s devastation and its impact on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy.
The human impact: First, Dagher’s book bears witness to a number of the devastating brutalities inflicted on the Syrian people by the Assad regime. They continue to this day. He brings to life the grim conditions and choices facing ordinary Syrians, introducing activists like Sally Masalmeh, a youth involved in organizing the early popular protests in southern Syria, and Khaled Al-Khani, an artist whose abstract paintings depicted the suffering inflicted by the regime (even as some regime supporters who bought his art missed the point he was making).
By giving voice to these Syrians, Dagher tells a tale that isn’t listened to enough in policy circles in the United States and Europe: how the conflict’s harrowing circumstances turned thousands of ordinary Syrians into extraordinary people. Readers interested in hearing more should watch three remarkable documentary films, all nominated for Oscars, to broaden their perspective. Last Men in Aleppo (2017) tells the story of the White Helmets, a group of civilians who claw through the rubble of buildings destroyed by air attacks by Assad forces — the act of literally picking up the pieces and searching for signs of life, symbolizing the task that many Syrians will face for years to come. For Sama and The Cave, both released in 2019, focus on two different women in Syria working to save lives and tell the human stories often overlooked in policy debates.
Dagher analyzes the societal dynamics in motion and generational tensions of the struggle for freedom and dignity: “From the first moment, the struggle against the regime was a standoff between a younger generation that wanted to challenge and break free from fear and tyranny, and the older generation that still remembered Hafez and the heavy price he made Syrians pay for defiance.” The book offers useful background on the legacy and impact of Hafez al-Assad’s iron grip over the country for nearly three decades.
Updating authoritarianism: The second key insight, Dagher’s most distinctive contribution, concerns the internal workings of the Assad government and how it adapted its authoritarianism to new circumstances. Assad or We Burn the Country benefits from a number of primary-source interviews with regime insiders and defectors, offering a look at how a small group of families maintained their hold on power and the economy. Much of this material is drawn from Dagher’s access to Manaf Tlass, a former army general and close childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad. The gripping account of his 2012 defection to France reads like a spy novel. It is through Tlass, whose family was interlinked with the Assads for decades, that the book provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the regime, the feuds within the security services, and how Assad changed course as more people turned against him. At an early point in the uprisings, Tlass claims that he personally argued for a more accommodating approach to the protesters. Assad responded, “Your problem is that you’re too soft.” An unnamed source describes how Assad changed: “He became someone who lied and looked you in the eyes. … he dared you to call him out. He was not like that before.”
The book digs deeply into how Syria’s ruling elite expanded its grip by manipulating class, religious and generational divides and by adjusting its control of the country’s political economy. Regime insider Rami Makhlouf’s private holding company, Cham, became involved in a broad array of sectors, including oil and gas, manufacturing, real estate, retail, tourism and aviation — which provided sources of patronage and power for the elite families. As Dagher describes it, “In effect, Bashar modernized and corporatized the mafia-like Hafez-era crony business networks which produced so much corruption by regime insiders that it drove the economy into the ground several times... When it came to business and the economy, Bashar was thinking big — on a scale Hafez had never envisioned.”
An ingredient commonly seen in many Middle East countries — state-organized mass intimidation and murder — is an important part of the formula. The title Assad or We Burn the Country comes from the slogan Dagher saw on the walls of towns and neighborhoods destroyed by regime forces and their allies. After driving people out and looting their homes, this threat was scrawled in graffiti, as a warning that more devastation would come in reaction to opposition.
In responding to the protests sweeping the country, the Assad regime committed mass murder and disappeared thousands into its secret prisons. Humiliation and the denial of basic dignity became institutionalized.
But the prime example of how the regime adapted to the new information era was its blending of age-old domination with new technology, media intimidation and disinformation campaigns that spread beyond Syria’s borders. Pro-Assad soldiers and thugs posted videos on YouTube of themselves torturing protesters and bragging about it. Official media used Palestine to deflect attention from domestic discontent. Syria got advanced internet filtering devices from Iraq, made by a California-based company, to block and restrict web content. The regime used the internet to methodically mow down the opposition. The technologies that were used by protesters in Egypt and Tunisia to connect opposition protestors and bring down regimes were turned against the people. The Assad regime looked to allies in Tehran to get training on cyberwarfare and surveillance, and its efforts were abetted by media and technology companies from many countries.
Dagher also details the soft-power, propaganda and information-warfare efforts targeting open societies like the United States. Before the war started, the regime hosted celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Francis Ford Coppola. Assad’s wife, Asma, was the “embodiment of soft power,” making and deepening the connections with the West.
After Syria’s conflict accelerated, the propaganda and misinformation campaigns by the regime shifted into overdrive to create more confusion in debates in America and Europe. Dagher describes how these media campaigns were designed to paint all of the opposition as Islamist terrorists while reinforcing the narrative that Assad was a secular and tolerant leader and protector of minorities, especially Christians. Dagher describes how Tlass’s wife, Thala, encouraged Assad to use the media to alter the facts about the bloody crackdown. At one point, a French-language website, INFOSyria, was established by a French neo-Nazi figure who had founded a public-relations firm funded by the Tlass family in the 1990s. In this new type of war, information became essential ammunition. The regime intentionally targeted journalists, like U.S. reporter Marie Colvin, who was killed in a 2012 rocket attack by Syrian forces while reporting the government’s atrocities in a scorched-earth campaign in Baba Amr.
Geopolitical implications: Dagher compares some of the Assad regime’s manipulation of facts and aggressive media campaigns to dynamics that would soon overtake America and Europe in their own internal politics. Writing about a particular conspiracy theory that one Assad ally propagated first in Syrian media outlets, then in Western ones, Dagher points out that “the lie had all the elements of the massive Russian disinformation campaign that would target the U.S. presidential election three years later.” This aggressive propaganda effort helped the regime to stay in power for years after President Barack Obama called on Assad to step down. It confused and paralyzed debates in open societies about Syria. These efforts also enabled the Assad regime and its backer, Russia, to move the goalposts on global norms, obliterating concepts such as the responsibility to protect and the inviolability of borders and openly using access to food as a weapon of war.
Russia’s backing of the Assad regime was one way it chipped away at the international system and challenged America’s position in the world. As Dagher writes after the 2013 chemical-weapons incident, when the Obama administration did not live up to its own red lines: “Putin wanted to erase memories of the humiliation and weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As far as he was concerned, Obama had flinched over enforcing his redline in Syria and now was his chance to showcase the strong, new Russia.” Just months later, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and other seized territory it still holds.
Syria’s impact on U.S. policy: A fourth aspect that Assad or We Burn the Country covers is the role Syria’s civil war had in rendering U.S. foreign policy impotent for many years and the broader message this sent geopolitically. Dagher pinpoints the false choice that came to dominate the Obama administration’s private deliberations and public narratives about Syria: that America had to either stay on the sidelines or risk repeating the mistakes of the 2003 Iraq War. Barack Obama came to office arguing that the war was a disastrous unforced error and that he was going to “end” it and turn America’s attention to Asia and other parts of the world. Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, just as Syria’s civil war was becoming increasingly vicious and popular uprisings toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and led to conflict in Libya and Yemen.
Eventually, the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq drew the United States back more deeply into the Middle East in Obama’s second term. But Obama’s Syria approach suffered from major gaps between its rhetoric about ending the war through diplomatic and political means and America’s capacity to back up its diplomatic and political efforts with a clear strategy for using all elements of U.S. power. Dagher notes, “To average Syrians, the Western approach to defeating Bashar seemed cynical if not complicit with the regime that was murdering them day after day.”
Obama’s desire to stay above the Middle East’s fray, combined with some naivety over the power of diplomatic engagement with Syria and Iran to reshape the regional landscape, left a vacuum. It was filled by countries like Russia, which had a different idea about the rules of war, bombing hospitals and backing Assad’s campaign of mass murder against his own people, driving millions into Europe and around the world. This wave of refugees — along with millions from other conflict-ridden countries — helped spark the rise of right-wing populism and the re-emergence of “us versus them” identity politics.
In a March 2018 event not covered in the book, Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, on an occasion organized to highlight the Syria conflict. Citing “Never Again,” the lesson the world was supposed to have learned from the Holocaust, McMaster said, “We must also act to protect victims and to hold all responsible parties accountable.” He continued with this vow: “Today, I want to tell you how the United States is taking action to protect innocent Syrians, defeat ISIS, and hold the Assad regime, and its sponsors, accountable for their crimes.” As McMaster uttered these words, the Assad regime was engaged in a brutal military offensive in Eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, targeting civilians — some of these actions caught on camera in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cave. The campaign ended weeks later with Assad regaining the territory and paying no cost. The gap between rhetoric and action in Syria continued to grow.
Flash forward to 2020: Syria’s war rarely gets attention these days in broader American policy debates. When President Donald Trump announced a series of confusing U.S. moves in fall of 2019 that essentially sent the message that he wanted to wash America’s hands of Syria, it prompted some concern, but mostly shoulder shrugs and indifference. Trump’s political opponents in the Democratic presidential primary had little of consequence to say. Many — even candidates who pretended they were going to make countering autocrats the centerpiece of a new U.S. foreign policy — essentially agreed with the Trump effort to cede the field to Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.
The consensus these days is that the 2003 Iraq War was a major unforced error borne out of bad strategic thinking, intentional twisting of the facts and overreach. But if the Iraq War is where U.S. foreign policy lost its mind, Syria is where U.S. foreign policy lost a bit of its soul and humanity. The strategic costs of America’s indifference and incoherence continue to mount, but not many people are paying attention. Sam Dagher’s Assad or We Burn the Country serves as a reminder of the major strategic and moral costs of Syria’s ongoing conflict.