One for the grave­yard of Mid­dle East pre­dic­tions

‘The New Lion of Da­m­as­cus’ gets Syria’s dic­ta­tor em­bar­rass­ingly wrong

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Daniel Pipes Daniel Pipes is pres­i­dent of the Mid­dle East Fo­rum.

“The Mid­dle East is the grave­yard of pre­dic­tions” notes the left-wing writer and edi­tor Adam Shatz. That’s partly be­cause it’s so volatile (no one in 2014 imag­ined the re­vival of an ex­ec­u­tive caliphate af­ter 11 cen­turies) and it’s per­verse (Turkey’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan started a near-civil war against the Kurds to win con­sti­tu­tional pow­ers he al­ready en­joys).

In part, too, pre­dic­tions fail be­cause of the gen­eral in­com­pe­tence of the spe­cial­ists in the field. Too of­ten, they lack the com­mon sense to see what should be self-ev­i­dent. Case in point: the col­lec­tive swoon upon the ac­ces­sion of Bashar al-As­sad to the pres­i­dency of Syria in 2000.

Some an­a­lysts of Syr­ian pol­i­tics ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about a 34-year-old oph­thal­mol­o­gist’s abil­ity to man­age the “des­o­late, re­pres­sive sta­bil­ity” that he in­her­ited from his dic­ta­to­rial fa­ther, who had ruled for 30 years. They sug­gested that the “deep ten­sions in Syr­ian so­ci­ety … could ex­plode af­ter the long-time dic­ta­tor’s demise.”

But most ob­servers di­vined in the young Mr. As­sad a de­cent fel­low if not a closet hu­man­i­tar­ian. David W. Lesch, an aca­demic who re­joices in the ti­tle of Ew­ing Halsell Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle East His­tory at Trin­ity Uni­ver­sity in San An­to­nio, Texas, led this par­tic­u­lar pack. Mr. Lesch be­friended the young strong­man, en­joy­ing what his pub­lisher calls “unique and ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­cess to Syria’s pres­i­dent, his cir­cle, and his fam­ily.”

Those long hours of con­ver­sa­tion led to a 2005 book, “The New Lion of Da­m­as­cus: Bashar al-Asad and Mod­ern Syria” (Yale Uni­ver­sity Press) plus a cas­cade of praise from fel­low aca­demics: Moshe Ma’oz of the He­brew Uni­ver­sity found it “very in­for­ma­tive and per­cep­tive.” Cur­tis Ryan of Ap­palachian State Uni­ver­sity called it “re­veal­ing.” James

L. Gelvin of UCLA praised it as “an ex­traor­di­nar­ily read­able and timely ac­count.” A pres­ti­gious Wash­ing­ton think tank hosted a dis­cus­sion of the book’s find­ings.

But the pas­sage of a dozen years, half of them con­sumed by Mr. As­sad’s mon­strous bru­tal­ity in the re­gion’s most lethal civil war of mod­ern times, pro­vides a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive from which to gauge Mr. Lesch’s schol­ar­ship.

Mr. As­sad re­sponded to the peace­ful demon­stra­tions against his regime that be­gan in March 2011 not with re­forms but with vi­cious force. The to­tal num­ber of dead is about 450,000 out of a pre-war pop­u­la­tion of 21 mil­lion. Mr. As­sad’s per­sonal bar­barism has through­out been the key to this con­flict. For ex­am­ple, ex­ploit­ing his con­trol of the skies, Mr. As­sad’s troops have per­pe­trated an es­ti­mated 90 per­cent of the war’s fa­tal­i­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, more than 5 mil­lion Syr­i­ans have been in­ter­nally dis­placed and about 6.3 mil­lion have fled the coun­try. Their large num­bers have caused crises in such dis­parate coun­tries as Jor­dan, Le­banon, Turkey, Greece, Hun­gary, Ger­many and Swe­den.

In light of this ap­palling record, Mr. Lesch’s ac­count con­tains many pas­sages of ex­treme gulli­bil­ity and poor judg­ment. He as­sessed Mr. As­sad roughly as he might a uni­ver­sity col­league, de­ploy­ing such ad­jec­tives as “com­pas­sion­ate,” “prin­ci­pled,” “unas­sum­ing,” “in­no­cent” and “morally sound.” He de­scribed Mr. As­sad as “a man of great per­sonal in­tegrity” with “ap­peal­ing sin­cer­ity” with “a vi­sion for the fu­ture of his coun­try.” He tells us that those who meet Mr. As­sad are struck by “his po­lite­ness, his hu­mil­ity, and his sim­plic­ity.” Turned around, “The thug­gish be­hav­ior that … was as­so­ci­ated with his fa­ther is not in Bashar’s char­ac­ter.”

On the pri­vate level too, Mr. As­sad is an ex­em­plar: “He changes di­a­pers, gets up in the mid­dle of the night to calm a cry­ing child. … Dur­ing the en­tire first year of [his son’s] life, Bashar did not once miss giv­ing him his daily bath.”

He’s also a cool cul­tural fig­ure for Western­ers: “As well as lik­ing mu­sic by Phil Collins, he en­joys Kenny

G., Van­ge­lis, Yanni, some clas­si­cal pieces, and 1970s Arab mu­sic. He loves clas­sic rock, in­clud­ing the Bea­tles, Su­per­tramp, and the Ea­gles, and he has ev­ery al­bum by the Elec­tric Light Orches­tra.”

As for his wife Asma, she “cer­tainly seems to share her hus­band’s call­ing to do ev­ery­thing in his power to make Syria a bet­ter place for their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.”

To his credit, Mr. Lesch rec­og­nizes the pos­si­bil­ity of an im­plo­sion, “with regime in­sta­bil­ity lead­ing to a po­ten­tial civil war.” But he re­jects this sce­nario be­cause “The op­po­si­tion to the regime within Syria … is di­vided and rel­a­tively weak.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, “New Lion,” a mon­u­ment of schol­arly hu­mil­i­a­tion, has gone out of print and has van­ished from Yale Uni­ver­sity Press’ web­site.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY KEVIN KRENECK

Bashar al-As­sad

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