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Dagher Explains Brutal Syrian Regimes In 'Assad Or We Burn The Country'


Journalist Sam Dagher spent years in Syria reporting on war. He also reported on the lives of ordinary Syrians caught in the middle of the fighting. His new book is called "Assad Or We Burn The Country." It tells the story of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar and their rule in Syria. The story is told in large part through the Assad family's friendship with another Syrian family, the Tlass family. The Tlasses had helped the father and son keep their grip on power for decades.

I talked to Sam Dagher, and I first asked him about the book's title.

SAM DAGHER: I saw this slogan on the walls of destroyed and deserted towns and neighborhoods. The Assad regime besieged a lot of these towns and neighborhoods in Damascus and elsewhere around the country that had risen up against the regime. The regime forces would go in and do what the regime calls the cleansing of this area. So they would sometimes execute whoever they find in these places, loot all the homes down to the tiles and the copper wire in the wall and burn these homes. And after they're done, they would spray this graffiti on the walls, Assad or we burn the country.

KING: Sam, in this book, you're telling the story of the Assad family, but you're also telling the story of another Syrian family. Tell me about this lost family and their relationship with the Assads.

DAGHER: The relationship goes all the way back to the early '50s when Mustafa Tlass and Hafez al-Assad were in their early 20s. They were cadets at the Homs Military Academy. And they basically rose up together to the pinnacle of power until - you know, Mustafa Tlass was up by Hafez's side all the way through. I mean, he was willing to kill for him by his own admission in his own memoirs. He played a crucial role in the passing of power from Hafez to Bashar.

KING: So you have these two men, Hafez and Mustafa. And then they both have sons. And their sons are Bashar al-Assad and Manaf Tlass. Tell me about the relationship between those two men.

DAGHER: So Hafez al-Assad had four sons and one daughter, and the eldest was Bassel, and he was the one being groomed to take over power from his father, but he died in a car crash. So Bashar was summoned to Damascus to basically fill Bassel's shoes. I mean, initially, members of the family, even Bashar's own sister, felt he was hopeless. You know, Bashar was not equipped to inherit power.

Initially, Manaf was very close to Bassel. I mean, he was his childhood friend. But when Bassel died and Bashar became the heir, obviously, the friendship and the loyalties were transferred to Bashar. And Manaf was by Bashar's side, you know, from the get-go.

You know, in 2011, when the uprising started, here, Manaf made the break and said, you know, I'm not going to be like my father, Mustafa; I'm not going to kill, you know, to preserve this regime. So he stepped back and eventually had to leave the country.

KING: When you talked to Manaf Tlass, who was a loyalist for so long, what does he say is the moment when he said, I got to get out of this - this friendship, this country?

DAGHER: Initially, when the uprising started, Manaf was trying to convince Bashar not to use violence, not to actually shoot protesters. But the problem is, you know, Bashar was surrounded by these hardliners - his brother Maher al-Assad and his cousin Hafez Makhlouf. So this is very much a family affair ruling Syria. These people were for actually shooting people from the first day. And the idea was if you shot enough people from the first day, you would scare them off the streets. That was the logic.

KING: That had worked in Syria before.

DAGHER: Exactly.

KING: How did Manaf Tlass end up getting out of Syria?

DAGHER: I mean, it's like a Hollywood thriller. I mean, he began plotting his exit with his wife and the French, and while, you know, continuing to send to Bashar signals of the family's continued loyalty to the regime. He was smuggled out of Syria by a smuggler that works for the French. And then he was taken out to France. But everybody had to leave. I mean, the wife, the children, his father, Mustafa, and anybody, you know, close to the family.

KING: Did you think at all about whether it was problematic telling the recent history of Syria through this man who is not entirely unproblematic, given his long relationship with the regime?

DAGHER: His insights into the regime's mindset and methods were absolutely invaluable. I don't think I could've been able to describe the regime the way I did without his contributions. Everything he said was cross-checked and verified with others. And in a lot of instances, he was very unhappy with me coming back to him and saying, well, look; other people describe this incident this way, and you described it that way. He would get furious with me. I mean, one time, he kicked a table - a coffee table - and just walked out.

KING: Wow.

DAGHER: I do have other characters in the book. Mainly, I decided to focus on the people who resisted the regime peacefully. The story has a rich tapestry of characters, of other voices in there.

KING: Do you think fundamentally, we understand Syria? Your average Westerner who's been following the war, who is sympathetic toward the Syrian people - do we understand well enough what's going on?

DAGHER: Sadly, no, because we see it through the prism. I mean, at least now, we see it only through this prism of ISIS and the refugees.

KING: What's missing from that?

DAGHER: I mean, a deeper understanding of why Syrians rose up in the first place. I mean, this is a regime that's been in power for 50 years. It has outlasted eight U.S. presidents since Nixon. Think about that. And Bashar's organizing elections again in 2021, and he intends to run. So there's a chance he will probably outlast Trump, even if Trump wins a second term.

KING: Sam Dagher is author of the book "Assad Or We Burn The Country." He also contributes to The Atlantic. Sam, thank you so much for being with us.

DAGHER: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.