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Wednesday, 11 July 2018 12:48

Régis Le Sommier, Assad, Éditions de La Martinière, 2018

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Régis Le Sommier’s just published book is a highly idiosyncratic contribution to a growing body of books on Syria’s civil war. The author is deputy editor in chief of the elitist weekly Paris Match. Like David W. Lesch’s 2005 book, this one too is largely based on the author’s intimate knowledge of Syria’s President, a number of interviews with him and his entourage, and six trips to Syria in two years. The book is not meant to contribute highly original information on any aspect of the Syrian war. It is rather a knowledgeable insider’s account of a host of events whose wider impact Syria watchers have often missed out on. It’s also an indictment of what has been a woolly French policy vis-à-vis the country. Its originality lies in its angle.

Le Sommier is not a Syria expert per se. By a twist of fate, his inspiration for the book was a late 2010 interview with Syria’s first lady Asma al-Assad, which was supposed to have been conducted by a colleague of Le Sommier’s. The colleague fell sick and it was Le Sommier who was charged with the task. This was his point of entry into the Syrian President’s entourage. Chronologically, the book begins by recounting Syria’s re-integration into the community of nations, during Sarkozy’s 2008 Paris launch of the Union for the Mediterranean. Le Sommier pointedly writes that the Syrian President would later tell him that it was the Americans and the Qataris who pushed for Syria’s rapprochement with France, echoing a late realization of the Bush administration that Syria was too important to either ignore or isolate. As the author trenchantly notes, no other leader has gone so rapidly from having red carpets rolled to international ostracism and back.

Without delving too deeply, Le Sommier recounts the recent history of Franco-Syrian ties. While post-Iraq invasion cooperation on intelligence was excellent, this collaboration came to an abrupt halt in 2012. Alain Juillet, former director of intelligence for France’s external security (DGSE) is quoted as calling this development totally absurd. The absurdity was then compounded by France’s backing of Gulf-armed so called ‘rebels’, who were not much more than Al-Qaeda-ilk groups. Thus, following Obama’s abandonment of the idea of strikes in August 2013, the author derides French regrets on humanitarian grounds. The French were left alone in wanting to carry out retaliatory attacks. Obama’s thoughtfulness was a nuisance for them. In Syria they seemed to be more Catholic than the Pope.

The book’s third chapter, titled ‘The interview’, offers a highly interesting exchange. Taking place in November 2014, it is the Syrian President’s first interview after more than a year’s absence from engagement with the international press. Bashar al-Assad’s responses with reference to terrorism, crisis management, and statistics regarding casualties are mostly along the same lines with preceding and succeeding interviews. But for the keen observer, al-Assad’s famed directness is always interesting to come across; when for example Le Sommier asks the President if his departure would be the solution, the latter reminds him France’s tragic mistake in betting on and significant contribution to Qaddafi’s overthrow. And when the President is asked about his country’s previously good relations with France, he unequivocally responds that these relations were beyond doubt the product of American and Qatari pressure on the French. Pertinently, President al-Assad’s view, not often heard, is that President Obama’s stance vis-à-vis Syria has been much clearer and more rational than that of his Western allies.

In his chapter on Russia’s intervention (‘The Great Game’), Le Sommier refrains from discussing the issue in a wider context. He simply admits Russia’s ‘operational productivity’ (incomparable for him with the American and the French) and its ‘undeniable success’.

The book’s probably most lucid chapter takes place in Aleppo and its outskirts in late 2016. At the time, Le Sommier is the only Western journalist on the ground. Not only is the narration eloquent and witty, but the atmosphere of war is almost palpable; in the Ramouseh outskirt of Aleppo, Le Sommier faces the reality of a conflict where ‘nothing is uniform anymore’. Hezbollah fighters are fighting side by side with the Sunni Palestinian Liwa al-Quds. To his credit, the author is uncomfortable with brazen attempts by many Western journalists and politicians to paint a different picture to the one on the ground, such as that by the French Ambassador to the UN who at the time called the retaking of Eastern Aleppo the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.

Le Sommier is at his best when describing the array of ill-founded prognostications and analyses of the conflict. Many scholars failed to grasp the latter’s evolution, holding the Syrian President as the perennial source of all ills. Others, such as renowned scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu even went so far as to claim that the Syrian President was not a shield against ISIS. Le Sommier affirms that the Syrian rebellion is nothing but a residual force and identifies those who think it extant as simply neoconservatives. He pulls no punches as to the country’s elite’s neoconservative mind frame. Not having learned much from Libya, France is portrayed as wanting to repeat the same missteps in Syria. Whether it is wishful thinking remains to be seen, but Le Sommier regards Emmauel Macron’s presidency as the end of politically expressed neo-conservatism, although by his own admission the latter lingers in media and intellectual circles.

‘Assad’ is not a book replete with new information for the ever-curious researcher. But it is beyond doubt an honest, clear-eyed undertaking in an era packed with all sorts of dubious communication. It is also a level-headed portrayal of a controversial president which manages to remarkably balance between a critical view of his actions and the need to avoid looking at Syrian politics through filters that have been repeatedly tried and proven wrong, to say the least.


For our interview with the author follow this link.

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos