These two books offer wildly contrasting portrayals of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the hugely destructive civil war that has raged in Syria since 2011. Dagher started reporting from Damascus for The Wall Street Journal in 2012. He interviewed key actors and dissidents, among them Manaf Tlass, once a close friend of the ruling Assad family. Manaf’s father was a regime stalwart, a longtime defense minister, and a key liaison between the Alawite Assads and the majority Sunni population of Syria. Manaf eventually defected from the regime after Assad brutally suppressed the largely Sunni opposition. Dagher tells a story of paranoia and unbridled violence. He is unequivocal in his condemnation of the Assad regime and catalogs the world’s acquiescence in the regime’s brutality, enabled in part by the focus on battling the Islamic State (or ISIS). Dagher interviewed some survivors of Assad’s torture centers, who afford hope for a better future, but otherwise, this book chronicles the triumph of evil.
Some of those torture survivors are the subject of Thomson’s moving chronicle of the four-year siege of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus that was once home to 90,000 people. Thomson, a BBC correspondent, learned that among those who remained in the suburb were a number of young Darayans who collected books to establish a secret, underground library, sheltered from the barrel bombs, snipers, and tanks of Assad’s forces. The library became the embodiment of both resistance and the hope for a more humane future. Thomson never visited Daraya and knew his heroes only through Skype and WhatsApp. Still, he became fast friends with the insurgent librarians. Rebels in Daraya held out for four years, enduring famine and trauma. In the summer of 2016, they were evacuated by the regime to Idlib province, which itself is now under attack by Assad’s forces. Syrian troops unearthed and looted the secret library.