The price of impunity

Sunday 25 July 2021

First posted at Syria Notes.

Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria
Sam Dagher, Little, Brown & Company, 2019

Sam Dagher’s history of Assad rule tells of how Western governments accommodated and even rewarded the criminality of the Syrian regime, with disastrous consequences for Syria and the world.


Khaled al-Khani’s paintings have a visual tension built on contrasts, between crisp outlines and the shadowed and blurred forms they contain, between monochrome faces and figures and bright overpainting of strong pure colour, between sombre moods and bursts of frenzied movement.

As a young boy in the early 1980s, when Syria was under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, Khaled al-Khani was a witness to the Hama massacre, where the regime deliberately killed thousands of civilians in response to an armed uprising.

In February 1982, as regime forces shelled the city, he was together with his mother and siblings hiding in a bedroom in the family home, the house packed with women and children from the neighbourhood looking for shelter behind its solid walls, and the courtyard converted into a field hospital for both fighters and civilians.

Journalist Sam Dagher puts the number of people who had joined the 1982 armed uprising in Hama city at nearly 2,000. The insurgency was being fought by Tali’a al-Muqatila, the Fighting Vanguard, a splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Assad regime’s response had been to target all political opposition including members of other parties and members of the Muslim Brotherhood who opposed the militants, and in Hama city the regime targeted the civilian population as a whole.

The Assad regime’s power base was rooted in Syria’s Alawite population, while Hama’s population was overwhelmingly Sunni. Hafez al-Assad’s commanders on the ground were mainly his own kin and other members of the Alawite minority. They included his brother Rifaat, later referred to as The Butcher of Hama.

While Khaled and his family were sheltering inside, the top floor of the Khani home was hit by a shell, and Khaled’s mother took him and the other children to a neighbouring basement. The assault went on for days with tanks, rocket launchers, snipers. His mother took her children and joined other families fleeing the neighbourhood. His father and aunt stayed behind with friends and neighbours still trying to defend their homes.

By mid-February, the regime had crushed remaining resistance and began massacring survivors, with torture, mass rape, mass executions, and murder of children and babies. Regime forces looted devastated neighbourhoods, taking anything of value.

Khaled, with his mother and siblings, were amongst the many civilians rounded up and detained. They threatened with death. Eventually they and some others detained with them were released and forced to leave the city. They later learned that Khaled’s father had been captured, tortured, blinded and murdered.

‘Assad or we burn the country’

In his book, Assad or We Burn the Country, Sam Dagher tells Khaled al-Khani’s story over the length of a whole chapter. The chapter is titled The Hama Manual, so named because the 1982 Hama massacre by Hafez al-Assad’s forces served as the model for this century’s destruction of Syria by the son of Hafez, the current president Bashar al-Assad. The book’s title comes from the slogan Bashar’s forces sprayed on the walls of neighbourhoods that they looted and burned in one city after another.

Like Khaled al-Khani’s paintings, Sam Dagher’s book builds tension from the contrasts in Syria’s recent history. Out of its complexity and confusion, he gives us a coherent picture of state criminality, international complicity, and Syrians’ ongoing fight for justice in the face of mass murder.

A decade after the start of Syria’s 2011 revolution, no single volume can give the whole story. Sam Dagher’s 2019 book, though rich in its telling, has to choose which parts of the story to render in detail, and which to leave as outline sketches. As the title indicates, his focus is on the regime as the cause of the conflict, and on how others responded to the regime, Syrian activists, civilians, fighters, and importantly also on how Western leaders responded.

Syrians took to the streets to protest the regime’s oppression, violence, and corruption. What Western leaders saw in that were risks to their allies and themselves, of social, economic, and political destabilisation, of terrorism, regional conflict, and the strategic threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Western responses were often less about saving lives and ending suffering than about preserving their alliances, containing disruption, and maintaining regional influence, while avoiding political responsibility. The US government in particular, while repeatedly expressing concern over the suffering of civilians, prioritised WMD and terrorist threats to the West in its response.

A virtue of the book is the range of viewpoints Sam Dagher draws on to put together the story, while still maintaining a clear narrative thread. He has interviewed a number of people deeply involved in the regime, most notably Manaf Tlass who up to his defection in July 2012 had been close to the top of the regime. His father, Mustafa Tlass, had been a friend and co-conspirator to Hafez al-Assad in his bloody ascent, using the military and the Baath party as their means to gain power in the 1960s. Mustafa Tlass had also played a lead role in preparing the way for Bashar al-Assad’s succession in the year 2000.

Sam Dagher follows the path of Mustafa Tlass alongside Hafez al-Assad from companions in military academy in the early 1950s, to taking part in a failed military coup in 1962, followed by a spell in jail, to a successful coup in 1963. “We were like wolves,” said Mustafa Tlass. “We turned each military base that we took over into a citadel of the Baath.” In 1964, Mustafa Tlass was on the ground when the new Baath regime put down an earlier revolt against them in Hama city, ordering one of his armoured vehicles to smash down the door of the historic mosque where protesters had barricaded themselves, and presiding over a military tribunal handing out death sentences.

By the late 1960s, Hafez al-Assad with his brother Rifaat had violently disposed of hundreds of rivals within the Baath party and the military, by gun battles, purges, executions, and assassinations. Hafez al-Assad became defence minister, and Mustafa Tlass a key enforcer against possible rivals, using torture to force confessions of foreign conspiracies, and presiding over executions. By the end of 1970 he had helped Hafez al-Assad rise to the very top. Mustafa Tlass continued his central role in regime repression through the 1970s and early 1980s. Sam Dagher reports Mustafa Tlass saying that he signed so many death sentences that he eventually lost count.

A childhood friendship between Manaf Tlass and Hafez al-Assad’s first son Bassel was encouraged by their parents. Manaf Tlass had followed his father’s path into the military and the regime’s leadership. After the death of Bassel in a car crash, Manaf Tlass had taken on the role of one of Bashar al-Assad’s companions, helping prepare the next in line to inherit the throne.

When the 2011 demonstrations began, Manaf Tlass seems not to have had the same stomach for slaughter as his father, and he argued against the violent options that were advocated by others in the regime. He came to learn however that Bashar himself was committed to the path of bloody repression. His position became untenable, and Manaf Tlass fled with his family to France.

In contrast, Sam Dagher also follows the fates of several opponents to the regime. Prominent amongst these is the story of Mazen Darwish. The book retraces his role in civil society organising prior to the first protests of 2011 along with other activists such as Razan Zeitouneh, and then his imprisonment, trial, relentless torture, and incredible defiance. Eventually Mazen Darwish and his wife Yara Bader also escaped into exile.

Once in exile, both Manaf Tlass and Mazen Darwish continued to try and change the course of events. Both came up against the limitations of Western political imagination and will on Syria. But while both were opposed to the regime’s mass murder, their ideas for a future path for Syria were very different. Manaf Tlass hoped to align with the desire of Western governments for some kind of negotiated outcome that would include both regime and opposition elements, and that would elevate himself to leadership, while Mazen Darwish sought accountability and justice for crimes by the regime and by other parties.

What was the West’s role in Syria?

Throughout the conflict, an often simplistic argument has played on loop between advocates of Western military intervention and opponents of military action. Many advocates have portrayed Syria’s tragedy as a case of Western inaction with dreadful consequences—of the West doing too little. Several opponents believe it to be the consequence of a failed regime change war by the West—so of the West doing too much. Advocates point to Obama’s failure in 2013 to enforce his own red line on chemical attacks as evidence of his weakness, while opponents point to the Obama administration’s CIA-run covert programme to arm Syrian rebels as evidence of US culpability for the entire disaster. These two narratives can seem so contradictory as to be irreconcilable.

Sam Dagher explores the more complex history of Western policies towards the Syrian regime going back to the time of Hafez al-Assad. Prior to 2011, Western governments had repeatedly sought to engage the Assad regime and to entice it towards a path more aligned with their interests. But the Syrian regime ran foreign policy like a protection racket, facilitating armed groups operating via Syrian territory, notably Lebanese Hezbollah but also at different times Palestinian armed groups, the Turkish PKK, and even Al Qaeda in Iraq, aka Islamic State in Iraq. The Syrian regime then used the threat of these armed groups to gain leverage with neighbouring governments and with Western powers, insisting that their cooperation was necessary in any attempt to combat terrorism or to negotiate peace in the region.

In Hafez al-Assad’s time, there was significant collaboration between French and Syrian intelligence services, and Hafez al-Assad made his regime indispensable to the old colonial power in forwarding any French agenda in Lebanon. This leverage helped prepare the way for Bashar, who was hosted by French President Chirac for lunch at the Élysée Palace in 1999, before he even became president of Syria.

After the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks in the US, Bashar al-Assad wrote to President Bush offering to join in fighting terrorism by sharing intelligence, and the CIA and FBI were allowed to run intelligence gathering operations in Aleppo, northern Syria. Bashar al-Assad wanted the US to stop treating Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. But at the same time, the Syrian regime continued to deal with Saddam Hussein to buy Iraqi oil, bypassing UN sanctions, a trade worth about two billion a year to the regime, according to Manaf Tlass. And the regime continued to act as a conduit for Iranian military support to Lebanese Hezbollah.

Then when the US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003, Assad’s regime gave passage to fighters from across the Arab world to cross the border and fight against the US. After Saddam Hussein was defeated, the Assad regime gave its active support to the insurgency. This had the double benefit for the Syrian regime of undermining the US-led project for democracy in Iraq, while also sending abroad many young Syrian men who otherwise might act against the regime at home. Khaled al-Khani recalled to Sam Dagher that friends of his from Hama who had opposed the Assad regime eventually joined those going to to Iraq.

Those recruits who survived their time in the Iraqi insurgency and tried to return home to Syria were imprisoned. And when popular demonstrations against the regime filled the streets in 2011, and Assad wanted to paint the uprising as the work of terrorists, he released these veterans of the Iraqi insurgency held in his prisons. This helped to radicalise and militarise the opposition, and to make real the regime’s earlier propaganda linking demonstrations to a terrorist threat.

Despite the transparency of the regime’s game of arsonist playing firefighter, foreign governments kept coming back for more. There were always some amongst Western political and military leaders who saw cooperation with the Assad crime family as the ‘realist’ option. Even after the brutality shown by the regime in response to the popular demonstrations of 2011, Western governments remained fearful of the prospect of regime collapse, fearful that Syria without the regime could be more chaotic and harder to manage. So as the regime started losing control of territory, the US and its allies sought to press the regime into a negotiated settlement rather than see it collapse further.

In mid-2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta backed a proposal by then CIA Director David Petraeus to vet, arm, and train Syrian rebels, in order to at least maintain US influence in the situation, but President Obama was resistant. By then, US allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were competing against each other to fund and influence opposition armed groups. Hillary Clinton later wrote that the proposal to get the US involved aimed to responsibly control the flow of arms.

By acquiring clients within Syria’s varied opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their allies were competing in order to be in a position to shape the aftermath of what seemed a likely end to the Assad regime. In this, Qatar and Turkey seemed to see the overthrow of the regime as the priority, while the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, although wanting an end to the regime’s destabilisation of the region and to limit Iranian expansion, worried that a successful and independent-minded Syrian revolution might come to threaten their own rule.

By December 2012, the US was involved in training rebels in Jordan, and in organising flights of arms by its regional allies. “The idea was not to give them the means to win the battle; it was to give them the means to be more structured in order to show the regime that there was no military victory possible and a need to go to the negotiating table,” a Western official explained to Sam Dagher.

The Obama strategy of pressure not overthrow was repeatedly signalled in public, as US and other Western diplomats adopted the mantra of “no military solution,” and promoted a series of diplomatic initiatives via the UN. It seemed that Assad read that policy of no regime overthrow as effectively a licence for regime preservation. The West might prefer the regime had a different leader, but they wouldn’t act to remove him for fear the rest of the regime would fall with him. And so the Assad regime played along with UN-centred diplomatic processes to a degree, but treated them with contempt.

At one point Sam Dagher quotes a line Bashar al-Assad spoke to journalist Barbara Walters in December 2011, where he claimed, “if they isolate Syria, Syria will collapse and it's going to be domino effect, everybody will suffer, so they don't have interest to isolate Syria.” In the same interview he also said of the United Nations, “it's a game we play, it doesn't mean you believe in it.”

The one point on which Obama seemed to promise action in 2012 was chemical weapons. The US had long been concerned about Assad’s WMD programme. In the aftermath of overthrowing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration also tried to pressure Bashar al-Assad on the Syrian regime’s stockpiling of nerve agent, but without success. Israel’s 2007 airstrike on an incomplete nuclear facility in the Syrian desert seemed a more effective counterproliferation action than US diplomacy.

Sam Dagher relates how in Summer 2012, the US received intelligence that the Assad regime from some of its sites. Syria was known to have stockpiles of mustard gas, blister agents, and nerve agents including sarin and VX, and had the rockets and shells to deliver them. Obama publicly warned of “enormous consequences” if the regime used chemical weapons.

At that same time, the Assad regime was beginning its barrel bombing campaign, targeting civilian neighbourhoods with cheaply made bombs dropped from helicopters. Unlike chemical weapons, Obama offered no threat to deter these high explosive weapons which would kill thousands upon thousands of civilians in the following years. Calls for even a partial no-fly zone in northern Syria were rejected.

In December 2012, the first reports of chemical attacks began. Six people were reported killed by a chemical attack in central Homs. More small scale attacks followed in early 2013, in Aleppo and in several locations around Damascus. Under pressure to follow words with action, in June 2013 the Obama administration responded to these chemical attacks by announcing a package of “nonlethal aid” the the Syrian opposition and reiterated the aim of “achieving a negotiated political settlement.”

Just over two months later, in the early morning of 21 August 2013, the Assad regime large rockets filled with Sarin nerve agent at the town of of Zamalka in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Before dawn, more rockets struck the town of Moadhamiya southwest of Damascus. “I saw people dead in their beds, and those who tried to escape from their homes collapsed at the front door or on the stairs—it was as if someone just pressed a button and people froze in their place,” a rescuer in Zamalka told Sam Dagher.

For a brief period then in 2013, it looked like the US and its allies might strike Assad. But after British members of Parliament voted against UK participation, Obama turned away from action. The US and Russian governments negotiated a chemical disarmament deal for Syria. It meant no punishment of Assad, no protection of Syrian civilians. Instead the regime was to give up its chemicals and carry on bombing with high explosive instead. Assad had read Obama correctly: The policy of pressure not overthrow was a licence for regime preservation.

The Assad chemical weapons deal, which removed enormous amounts of chemical material from Syria for destruction, but which didn’t stop the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and which was never intended to put any limit on Assad’s slaughter of civilians by other means, was echoed a couple of years later in the Iran nuclear deal, which likewise focused only on WMD proliferation while leaving Iran and its proxies free to continue killing civilians and crushing civil activism in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and at home in Iran.

This cynical form of realism showed its limitations as the consequences of giving licence to mass murder increasingly affected Western interests, with the large scale flow of refugees to Europe, the rise of ISIS, and destabilisation and overt state criminality spreading amongst Syria’s neighbours.

Western states led by the US were forced to intervene against ISIS in Syria, as the regime’s former client terror group rose amid Assad’s destruction of the country. And even after this, the US and its allies left the Assad regime free to continue killing. Over time, the US ended even limited military aid to Syrian rebels, investing instead in the PYD militia with its history of accommodation with the regime. Rebels in the south were forced to cede territory to the regime, while the US sought to freeze conflict lines in the east, and Turkey increased control of opposition-held areas in the north, aiming to negotiate a fixed buffer zone along its border.

Understanding the conditions for mass atrocities

In nature, things exist because it is possible for them to exist. Where there is an opening, a gap in the ecosystem, some life form, be it scavenger, predator or parasite, will evolve to exploit it, and it will thrive until it is countered by some other form of life, or conditions otherwise become inhospitable to its existence.

In politics, tyranny exists because it is possible. The majority of people may be good and kind, but if there is nothing and no-one to prevent it, the few who are not will rule. Where a state depends on the consent of the country’s population, tyranny is unlikely, but where the rulers are supported economically and militarily from outside the country, tyranny can thrive. So the rulers of the Syrian state and of its neighbours, in a region of valuable resources and strategic trade routes, can each find the foreign backers to sustain them, and between them squeeze their populations.

The Assad regime exists not for any reason of unique evil, but because the world allows it to exist. Assad’s sponsors are Iran and Russia, nominally enemies of the West, but the regime has for decades been part of an interlocking system of tyrannies, some clients of the West, some backed by the West’s rivals, and the West’s clients may have as much to fear from Assad’s fall as the West’s rivals do.

In his closing chapter, Sam Dagher considers the normalisation of brutality that followed Assad’s counterrevolution: from Putin’s brazenness to the bullying presidency of Trump, the increased authoritarianism of Turkey’s Erdogan, the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi by agents of Saudi’s ruling prince, the deadly war in Yemen, the new military dictatorship in Egypt.

Syria is made a realm outside law, by the Assad regime and also by intervening powers that wish to avoid the inconveniences of accountability. But with the widening effects of the regime’s criminality have come new opportunities to bring some measure of legal accountability for crimes inside Syria.

Khaled al-Khani, the artist who as a boy lived through the Hama massacre, gave his support to a Swiss lawsuit against Rifaat al-Assad, the so-called Butcher of Hama, brother to the late Hafez al-Assad, uncle to Bashar al-Assad. Rifaat al-Assad had left Syria after losing out in a power struggle with his brother in 1984, taking a great amount of wealth with him. He has been tried in Europe for tax fraud and embezzlement, but never for his leading role in the mass murder of thousands of Syrians.

In Berlin, Mazen Darwish relaunched the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in order to work to bring legal accountability for crimes in Syria, not just crimes by the regime but also crimes by other armed groups, such as the 2013 forced disappearance of his friend Razan Zeitouneh and three others in rebel-held Douma. He joined with fellow Syrian human rights lawyer and former prisoner Anwar al-Bunni in working with European organisations, particularly the Berlin-based European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, to present cases against regime officials to European prosecutors.

Mazen Darwish told Sam Dagher of an encounter in Geneva with Staffan de Mistura, then the UN Syria envoy. “There won’t be peace if you want to put the justice and accountability file on the table. You mist choose: accountability or peace,” de Mistura had said.

Mazen Darwish’s view of what constitutes realism is the direct opposite. For him, the only realistic path to stability, to ending the refugee crisis, to defeating terrorism, is through justice and accountability.

“The Americans, Russians, and Iranians can liberate Mosul, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzour and declare victory over the Islamic State, but without justice and accountability, a change in the political system, and coming to terms with the legacy of the past fifty years, come six months or one to two years and you will have something worse than Islamic State,” Mazen Darwish tells Sam Dagher. “Can we go back if the same organs, regime, and people remain in place? The same police state with the same sectarian, gang-like and mafia mind-set? People—and myself included—won’t return unless there’s change. Going back would be like committing suicide.”

‘Assad or We Burn the Country’ is available from your local bookshop or online via the publisher’s page for the book.

Read more about Trial International’s efforts to bring Rifaat Al-Assad to justice.

Read more about the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.

See Khaled al-Khani’s art.