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By Fred H. Lawson


The Montréal Review, July 2011


"Demystifying Syria," Edited by Fred H. Lawson (Saqi Books, 2010)


"This book shows Syrian studies in the best possible light, has been edited to a high level and can be recommended to everyone interested in the complexities - rather than mysteries - of contemporary Syria."

--Jorg Michael Dostal is assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University (Times Higher Education)


Syria remains poorly understood, despite the pivotal role it plays in the contemporary Middle East. The country's domestic and foreign policies are most often attributed to the proclivities of a single individual-the president of the republic; persistent problems in agriculture, industry and trade tend to be blamed on an inefficient, state-controlled economy; and the political system is usually written off as nothing more than a sclerotic one-party dictatorship. Subtleties in governance, social mobilization and diplomacy are generally dismissed as inconsequential.

This collection of ten essays offers a more nuanced and realistic picture of today's Syria. Salwa Ismail surveys the various social forces that make up the dominant coalition. She shows that influential members of the previously despised 'Alawi minority can be found at the highest levels of the state bureaucracy, military establishment and Ba'th Party, but that it is misleading to conclude that 'Alawis rule the country. The governing elite relies on a disparate collection of allies, which includes prominent merchants and industrialists drawn from the best families of Damascus and Aleppo. The offspring of these powerful actors, the so-called "children of authority", stand poised to chart the country's political and economic future.

Meanwhile, current economic developments reflect the consolidation of a peculiar form of private enterprise. Bassam Haddad points out that key components of Syria's expanding private sector enjoy intimate connections to public sector companies. Tensions between the members of this state-affiliated bourgeoisie and businesspeople who operate more-or-less independent commercial and industrial enterprises diminish the prospects for sustained growth in the local economy. Consequently, the regime has built up intersecting networks of favored economic interests, and has rewarded the constituents of such networks with contracts and licenses that give them a decided advantage in the domestic market. Against observers who claim that the private and public sectors are engaged in a struggle for control over domestic economic affairs, Haddad highlights the ways in which well-established networks of privilege converge to structure Syrian economic development.

Even more eye-opening is the analysis of Syria's legal system advanced by Zohair Ghazzal, Boudouin Dupret and Souhail Belhadj. Laws and regulations that get dismissed out of hand by other scholars are shown to provide resources that citizens can and do exercise in the pursuit of justice, even at the expense of firmly entrenched individuals and institutions. The fact that the authorities tend to prevail in the end does not reduce the significance of routine judicial proceedings, which impose limits on the prerogatives of the rich and powerful and compel even the state and party apparatus to pay attention to rules laid down by the constitution and the legislature.

Serious internal challenges to the Ba'thi leadership have been almost nonexistent since the suppression of the large-scale Islamist movement led by the Muslim Brothers during the early 1980s. Nevertheless, a foretaste of the present troubles confronting the regime can be found in four of the contributions to this volume. Thomas Pierret explores the reappearance of Islamist activism throughout Syrian society. The new activists reject the overtly political platform that was championed by the Muslim Brothers, and concentrate instead on a wide range of social welfare and educational initiatives. Despite the apolitical nature of their activities, it is possible to characterize some of these Islamist groupings as pro-regime and others as inherently opposed to the existing order. Precisely because they avoid raising political demands, the latter pose a threat to the civil authorities and the religious establishment alike.

Joe Pace and Joshua Landis offer a companion survey of the secular opposition, which consists largely of human rights proponents and civic associations. Liberal critics of the Ba'thi regime flourished in 2000-01, and regained momentum during 2005-06. The publication of two detailed proclamations and the formation of the Paris-based National Salvation Front signaled the zenith of this heterogeneous movement, and triggered a wholesale crackdown on anti-regime activists after 2006. Nevertheless, the rhetoric and symbols that one sees in the popular protests that are erupting across Syria today can be traced to the manifestos of 2005-06.

At the same time, Syria's Kurdish community has experienced an unexpected political awakening. Julie Gautier lays out the origins of this awakening, which burst into view in the spring of 2004, and describes the organizations that it engendered. Just how important these parties have become in the current situation can be inferred from the concerted efforts that President Bashshar al-Asad is making to conciliate the Kurds of the northeastern provinces. Heightened Kurdish mobilization has accompanied an unprecedented upsurge in Shi'i identity and activism. Myriam Ababsa demonstrates that the growing prominence of Shi'i practices and symbols in Syrian religious life is partly the result of a campaign sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran to refurbish long-neglected mosques and pilgrimage sites. But it also represents the convergence of two distinct currents inside Syria: assertiveness and pride on the part of disadvantaged communities in the provinces and widespread popular sympathy for the struggle against Zionism led by the Lebanese guerrilla organization Hizbullah.

Syria's relations with Lebanon have always been deeply tangled and hard to unravel. Bassel Salloukh guides the reader through the most salient recent events: Damascus's extraordinary support for Lebanese President Emile Lahoud; the abrupt withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri; and the danger posed to Syria by the rise of pro-Hariri Islamist radicals in the border areas lying between Tripoli and Latakia. The impact that such militants may have had in precipitating and escalating the present crisis in Syria remains a hotly disputed question.

More broadly, Anja Zorob deftly summarizes a major investigation of the consequences for Syria of strengthening commercial and financial ties to the European Union. Eliminating restrictions on European goods and investment is likely to enhance the efficiency and productivity of the Syrian economy, but not without requiring painful adjustments. Policy-makers on both sides have taken into account the damage that is likely to be inflicted on local manufacturing and agriculture, but have ignored the loss of tariff revenues to the Syrian treasury. How officials in Damascus are going to cope with the disruptions that result from opening up to Europe without having these resources to cushion the blow is hard to imagine. The collection closes with an essay that explains Syria's remarkable reconciliation with Turkey. After hovering on the brink of war in the fall of 1998, Damascus and Ankara have taken hesitant steps toward economic and strategic co-operation that by 2008 approached the level of partnership that exists between Turkey and Israel. This crucial turnabout in Middle Eastern diplomacy continues to puzzle outside observers and deserves careful explication.

Several important books on Syria are just about to appear in print. Anyone looking for lengthier treatments of topics covered in Demystifying Syria should look out for Bassam Haddad's dissection of the Syrian political economy, Line Khatib's overview of the Islamist movement and a collection of papers that were presented at Lund University to mark the first decade of Bashshar al-Asad's rule. Until these titles are released, the present volume offers the most up-to-date guide to Syria's enigmatic political, economic and social order.


Fred H. Lawson is Lynn T. White Professor of Government at Mills College, California, USA. Between 1992-3 he was a Fulbright lecturer in International Relations at the University of Aleppo, Syria. He is the author of Constructing International Relations in the Arab World (Stanford University Press) and Why Syria Goes to War (Cornell University Press).


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