Disintegration of Syria Focus of New Book by History Professor David Lesch

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Sep. 27, 2012

Disintegration of Syria Focus of New Book by History Professor David Lesch

Lesch, who authored biography of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now writes on roots of Syrian Uprising

Syria: Fall of House of Assad book coverSAN ANTONIO - The uprising in Syria, the bloodiest conflict born from last year's Arab Spring movement, started with an incident that was little more than a prank.

In March 2011, school children in the city of Deraa, Syria, wrote "Down with the Regime" on a school wall. Rather than ignore the graffiti, Syrian security rounded up the students, took them to Damascus, and tortured them.

A few hundred people in Deraa, many family members, protested in the streets and were soon joined by thousands of others. The security forces cracked down on the protesters and four were killed. But the heavy handed tactics of the security detail failed. Syrians had finally had enough of the brutal government repression. The next night more than 20,000 protestors took to the streets.

In the 18 months since the start of the uprising, The New York Times reports that more than 21,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed, tens of thousands have been arrested, and more than 234,000 Syrians have left and are now registered refugees in neighboring countries. Inside Syria, more than 1.2 million have been displaced by the fighting.

As the strife continues in Syria, Trinity University History Professor David Lesch chronicles the underlying causes of the uprising and how the leader of the nation failed his people, in a new book titled Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, published by Yale University Press.

"I wanted to examine the decision making of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian leadership, which I got to know quite well in past years," said Lesch about writing the book. "I felt that, because of my knowledge of them and the relationships I developed with them over the years, I could provide some insight into why they made the decisions they did. In particular why they sanctioned what became a brutal crackdown of the protesters."

The promise and failure of Assad

Lesch has traveled to the Middle East for the last 25 years. Using contacts he developed with Syrian officials, Lesch was able to meet with Assad and extensively interview him from 2004 to 2009, the only person from the west to have significant face-to-face access with the Syrian leader.

In 2005, Lesch wrote a book based on his in-depth conversations titled The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria. At the time, Assad has only been in power for five years and many people, including Lesch, had high hopes that Assad would be a transformational leader and guide his country to a new era of openness and prosperity.

However, it was not to be. In the years since, Assad seemed unwilling or unable to deal with Syria's stagnant economy, pervasive corruption, and political repression. "Instead of Assad changing the authoritarian system, the system changed him," said Lesch.

With Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, Lesch writes that though Assad is still president, he has lost legitimacy to rule. Because of the brutal crackdown, "he will never have the level of authority, control, and power again that he enjoyed earlier in his rule."

Along with tracing Assad's rise to power and fall from grace, Lesch also looks at complex nature of the opposition in Syria. He said that the vast majority of people are "everyday Syrians, some more conservative and some more secular." The opposition remains unorganized and divided into several different factions, which is a major reason it has been unable to remove Assad from power.

Lesch also looks at the international response to the uprising, which has some countries, such as Russia and China, supporting Assad and his regime, and others such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey supporting the opposition.

Commenting on the Conflict

Even before the publication of the book, Lesch has spoken frequently on the Syrian uprising, offering his unique perspective on the conflict and criticizing the regime's actions. He has appeared multiple times on BBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR, PBS, Al Jazeera, and every major news network in the U.S. He has also met in briefings with U.S. senators, the State Department, and the United Nations special envoy to Syria.

"Circumstances have conspired to put me in a position where I can help here and there. I think it would be a dereliction of duty not to do so," said Lesch. "In addition, I do have a personal stake. I have friends on both sides of the conflict who have died or been displaced."

"I have a great affinity for Syria. It is a beautiful country with wonderful people who deserve stability, prosperity, and freedom no less than anyone else," said Lesch. "It's just a shame to see the breaking apart of the country that will take, probably now, at least a generation to put back together."

Lesch is not finished writing about the region. In November, The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East, a volume he edited, will be released by Westview Press.

--Russell Guerrero '83


Photo provided by PBS News Hour.