The book’s first three chapters are somewhat apologetic; Lesch highlights Bashar’s tentative economic reforms, and explains why he saw promise in the Syrian strongman. Less objectionable – but nonetheless embarrassing – is the author’s gullibility regarding a personal image the Assads carefully constructed of themselves, one that was proven to be false after this book had already been written. According to Lesch, “There were no Wikileaks reports detailing the extravagant lifestyle of Assad... because he does not have one.” But thanks to hacked email accounts almost certainly belonging to the Assads, the contents of which were obtained by Britain’s the Guardian newspaper and United Arab Emirates-based Al Arabiya television channel, we now know that Asma Assad has a penchant for lavish and exorbitant designer jewelry and furniture – and that her husband has been only too willing to tend to her desires.
Once the slightly defensive rationalizations are dispensed with, Lesch ably tackles Bashar’s failures. He excels in explaining the underlying economic reasons for the Syrian people’s frustrations with their regime. The author argues convincingly that the “ad hoc liberalization” of the economy launched by Bashar “did not go far enough in terms of effective, broad-based market-oriented economic reform, but at the same time diminished the social safety net to which many Syrians had become accustomed.” Moreover, he points out that limited economic and educational reforms may have whetted the middle classes’ appetite for further change.