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Syrian Booknotes

For Rina(1)

"Encoded Walk: On Beaten Path in Hama" (2015) by Doris Bitta

by Elie Chalala. Since the 2011 March uprising, scores of books have been published on Syrian politics, with most written by a new generation of scholars with no longstanding background in what might be loosely called “Syrian Studies.” For someone who has devoted years to the study of Syrian politics, first as a graduate student and then as an academic, I admit to not missing many of Syria’s “old guard” analysts. Members of this group have attempted to rationalize regime policies and motivations, trying to bestow legitimacy upon the Assad family. Rather than function as a commentary on the old literature, this essay focuses on the new, aiming to survey new ideas and debates as identified by learned book reviewers of the new literature. 

While Syrian Booknotes survey the new literature by drawing on reviews in other publications, Al Jadid continues its coverage of the Syrian conflict, offering original analysis and reviews like those included in this issue, especially the reviews of “Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present” by Christian Sahner, reviewed by Tim Louthan, and “The Plain of Dead Cities: A Syrian Tale” by Bruce McLaren, reviewed by D. W. Aossey. Four new books, reviewed by Gerald Butt in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) last year (June 20, 2014), debut this new section of “Syrian Booknotes.”

Mr. Butt introduces his review of these four books on Syria by noting that they provide an excellent foundation, despite their limitations. He claims that they lack ideas for resolving the conflict, and that they concentrate on the past more than the future. According to Butt, they detail the failures of authoritarianism, and how repressive  policies and events led to revolution, including the Dera’a demonstrations, the arrest and torture of young protestors, and the opportunities lost when Assad spoke to the Syrian Parliament on March 2011, laughing and giggling on the podium instead of showing remorse and promising reform.

Unquestionably, regime policies have resulted in dire consequences, such as a quarter of a million casualties, the displacement of almost half the Syrian population (internally and externally), and a massive destruction of the country’s infrastructure. The “ascendance of jihadist Islam,” has proven an equally destructive consequence, with its metastasis, from Iraq and Syria to Europe, posing a grave threat, as does the growing strength of the Islamic State, which remains unrivalled by any moderate rebel groups.

Butt’s first reviews Raphaël Lefèvre’s “Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria,” which seeks to debunk the regime’s narrative about the February 1982 Hama uprising, by placing the majority of blame on the Assad regime, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood. During the post-independence era, the Brotherhood participated in the political process, even after the Baathist takeover, and, by comparison, their vision appeared more inclusive and democratic. The bloody events of the 1970s on, including the assassinations of Alawite officer cadets, can be attributed to a splinter group led by Marwan Hadid, and inspired by Egyptian Jihadists and Palestinian radicals, rather than by Brotherhood doctrine. Yet, the regime ignored Hadid’s radicalism as well as the actions of other radical groups who abstained from targeting the Baathists. Instead, Assad used the assassinations as excuses to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Faced with this repressive and violent campaign, the Brotherhood had no choice but to support the Vanguard group, a decision that Butts characterizes as a “catastrophic tactical blunder.”

The “experience of Hama” and its massacre radicalized jihadists who took the fight to Afghanistan and Iraq, with the Assad regime facilitating their travels to and from Iraq after 2003. Now, these same jihadists have turned their attention back to Syria “for revenge and to continue the battle…to bring down the Ba’ath.”

The second book, “Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution,” by Thomas Pierret, highlights the regime’s overarching concern with security versus institution building. This has led the regime to turn away from a tradition dating back to Ottoman times, and still practiced in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, of the state using a religious bureaucracy to control the clerical establishment of Islam. Instead, Assad’s Syria has demonstrated more interest in combating its security threats by using the clerical establishment, cultivating the support of clerics – in effect, leaving Islam’s day-to-day concerns to the private sector.

According to Pierret, this has advantages and disadvantages, placing blame on the Ulama if the situation deteriorates, but also liberating them from the heavy hand of the state. The author observes that during the Hama uprising, most clerics did not embrace the anti-Baathist revolt wholeheartedly, forcing activists to recruit from private Islamic schools. Historically, this also proved the case in Damascus, when the Ulama remained loyal to the Assad state, despite the major external and internal challenges faced by the Sunni establishment. These included calls for reform, the assassination of Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister in 2005, and a division of opinion with clerics in other towns like Der’a and Homs, who supported the protestors in the revolution of 2011.

The third book, “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads,” by Bente Scheller, focuses upon the pragmatism of Assad the father, which Scheller attributes to “political astuteness,” a quality he finds lacking in Bashar. Hafez al-Assad’s pragmatism had a ruthless, Machiavellian character (something I wrote about in 1985), as the regime cynically manipulated foreign policy to generate political and economic returns. The regime worked with the United States and other foreign powers in Lebanon in 1976 and then in 1990-1991, and, starting in 1973, even collaborated with Israel to maintain peaceful borders. Yet, in order to cultivate the support of anti-Israeli and pro-Arabism forces, Assad maintained his rhetorical commitment to the liberation of Palestine, rejecting any peace agreement with Israel, and supporting Hezbollah resistance against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Despite this rhetorical commitment, Assad the father, as Defense Minister in 1970, refused to provide Syrian air support for Syrian troops on their mission to aid the Palestinians in Jordan’s Black September. Nor did it hinder his support for the right-wing Lebanese Christian attacks on the Palestinians in 1976.

The fourth book, Diana Darke’s “My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution,” though a travelogue and personal memoir, also offers political analysis. Darke has familiarized herself with Syrian history, Arab culture, language and architecture to the extent that Butt calls her a “learned encyclopedia.” She has also befriended many Syrian intellectuals who provided her with enough evidence to identify regime repression as the cause of the revolution.

Darke states that the majority of Syrians stand neither with Assad nor with the rebels, which partially explains why so many have fled the country. The author adds: “Had there been a moderate alternative…a carrot…obviously juicier and bigger than the others, all parties would surely have chosen it long ago.”

In lieu of a conclusion, Darke has “imagined a second revolution to secure the middle ground and to emerge from the nightmare.” For this to succeed, the impossible must happen, and much that seems unforgiveable must be forgiven. This leads the author to observe that she “might be a hopeless dreamer.” Ultimately, Butt agrees with Darke’s assessment that a resolution to “the Syrian crisis still resides in the realm of dreams.”


This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine (Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015)

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