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Katharine Whittemore

Selected books on the civil war in Syria

Kurdish residents protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and celebrate Newroz in Hasaka earlier this month.

REUTERS/Saypan Houta/Shaam News Network

Kurdish residents protested against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and celebrateed Newroz in Hasaka earlier this month.

Two years ago, before the Syrian civil war, back when demonstrators literally carried olive branches, President Bashar al-Assad gave a speech once again insisting the unrest was the work of foreign conspirators. “Conspiracies,” he said, “are like germs, which increase every moment.” The protesters ate this up. “We the Germs!” one Syrian blogger cracked.

Many remembered how, in Libya, Moammar Khadafy hectored protesters, calling them “rats” that he would hunt down. Germs, rats, anything but citizens with rights smothered by two Orwellian regimes.

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More unrest kicked up after Assad’s speech and some choice banners appeared on the streets. “We Need a New Doctor,” read one, a play on the germs comment, plus how Assad is a trained ophthalmologist. And my favorite: “The Syrian Germs Salute the Libyan Rats.”

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is gone. Khadafy is gone. But Assad is still in power. Why has Syria been such a different story in the Arab Spring? Why did the protests escalate into civil war? Why hasn’t the West intervened as with Libya?

I can’t say these books completely explain what has gone on in Syria — events are changing too fast — but they go far. “The Syrian Rebellion” (Hoover Institution, 2012) by the award-winning Middle East commentator Fouad Ajami deftly lays out the country’s curious socio-geography.

Syria is full of fault lines, with a 74 percent Sunni majority, and significant minorities of Alawites (a Shiite sect that some Orthodox Sunni consider heretic), Druze, Kurds, and Christians. Assad is an Alawite, and the son of Hafez al-Assad, who came to power in 1971. Because Alawites are only 12 percent of the population, Bashar has had to shore up his bets by protecting the other minorities, while co-opting the Sunni elite in what Ajami calls a “squalid kleptocracy.”

So that’s the first head-scratcher: Add up the numbers and half the country wants Assad to stay. If he goes, the minorities will be at the mercy of the majority, like “Sarajevo on the Orontes,” writes Ajami, citing the large river that runs through Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Now consider that Assad is shrewd. He’s young (age 47), Western-educated, and modern. Before he became president, he was the head of the Syrian Computer Society, and takes pride that Steve Jobs has Syrian roots (Jobs’s birth father was from Homs). He even explains that the West can’t truly understand his country because the two are as different asa Mac and a PC: “You cannot analyze me through the Western operating system. You have to translate according to my operating system.”

Some horrors of the Syrian “operating system,” then, from Ajami’s book: If government soldiers don’t fire into crowds, they will be executed. Security forces have taken over the hospitals, so the wounded brought there are interrogated and tortured onsite; as a result, the rebels have rigged up their own mobile hospital units.

The death toll is up to 70,000. In one village (Kafr Oweid, on the Turkish border) they beheaded the local imam and hung his head at the entrance to the town mosque.

Learn of such atrocities,
and you see why “fifty people on the streets of Damascus are more brave and courageous than 5,000 on the streets of Cairo . . . ,” as one Syrian tells the Irish journalist Steven Starr in “Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising” (Columbia University, 2012).

This book is one of several rushed out before the Assad regime went after reporters. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that “Syria was by far the deadliest country in 2012” for journalists, with 28 killed in combat or targeted for murder by the government or opposition forces. Starr does a string of powerful interviews. One source says, “Syrians think in tribes” and despairs of the likelihood for democracy. Another explains how the rebels try to outsmart the authorities online by using proxies, tunnels, and VPNs (virtual public networks). They also talk in code on their cellphones.

Speaking of phones, Samar Yazbek says that most activists now keep theirs 10 meters away from their bodies to skirt surveillance, believing the secret police monitor them whether in use or not. Such are the chilling details from “A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” (Haus, 2011). Yazbek, a journalist who won the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize for “international writer of courage,” is an Alawite who is nonetheless against the regime, and thus a pariah within her tribe. Fear practically pulses off these pages. She writes how “murderers sprout up from the streets like trees.” And people have become “[afraid] to show even a little bit of sympathy for one another,” since the whole culture has become polarized. You are either for or against Assad, and both choices can be lethal.

How should the world react? Andrew Tabler, cofounder of Syria’s first English-language magazine, provides the recent backstory with “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria” (Lawrence Hill, 2011). It’s already dated (though an epilogue helps) but still spot on for spelling out Syria’s strategic importance: its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, its border with Israel, its sworn vengeance for the loss of the Golan Heights.

US policy has lacked “focus and creativity,” says Tabler. But things are sharpening up; yes, we have battle fatigue from Iraq and Afghanistan and, yes, intervention in Syria has more potential downsides than did involvement in Libya (see: ripple effects in Iran and Israel). But if Assad is found to have used chemical warfare — there are unconfirmed reports — President Obama concedes that’s a “game-changer.”

For insight into Assad the man, turn to “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad” (Yale University, 2012) by David W. Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio. Lesch also wrote the earlier “The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria” (Yale University, 2005). He got to know Assad for the first book — or got to know the persona Bashar wished him to know.

Indeed, “Syria: The Fall” achingly recalls “The Hope,” as the first chapter is titled, when this Lion was lionized by Madeleine Albright and visited by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — a leader who, a decade ago, conducted open forums with Syrian citizens (who were arrested thereafter). Those days feel scorchingly naïve now.

I’ve said that half the country wants Assad to stay. The truth is, much of the world does, too. Syria is Russia’s seventh-largest buyer of arms, and it houses a pivotal Russian naval base — the Russians are reportedly guarding Assad and his circle on a warship off the Syrian coast. China habitually props up other totalitarian states, and it’s also Syria’s third-largest importer.

Assad, says Lesch, has “engaged in a Machiavellian calibration of bloodletting — enough to do the job, but not enough to lose what international support remained.”

That medical metaphor reminds me of Assad’s speech. Words can play many ways though. Log on to thesaurus.com, for instance, and type in “germ.” Now note these synonyms: bloom, blossom, heart, spark, genesis.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.
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