To most Americans, Syria is a dark and unfamiliar place. Attitudes about it have been influenced by almost half a century of confrontation and mutual antagonism, interrupted by brief periods of uneasy accommodation. Even as Washington and Damascus enter a new phase of engagement under the Obama administration, guarded language and limited expectations accompany the diplomatic outreach. Syria matters, Americans are often reminded, not because of its economic or strategic importance but because of its outsized capacity for mischief, its relationship with Iran, and its ability to frustrate U.S. diplomacy across the Middle East. Outsiders' understanding of Syrian politics and society has been constrained by the authoritarian character of the Baath regime and the murkiness of its inner workings. A small but growing cohort of authors, however, has provided solid foundations for an informed discussion of the subject, even while disagreeing among themselves about the nature of the regime, its potential for reform, and the intentions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Political Economy of Syria Under Asad. By Volker Perthes. I. B. Tauris, 1995.
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Syria: Revolution From Above
. By Ray Hinnebusch. Routledge, 2001.
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Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. By Patrick Seale. University of California Press, 1989.
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As the tenth anniversary of Assad's accession to power approaches, Syrian politics and society continue to bear the heavy imprint of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who succeeded in establishing a stable system of rule in a country notorious for political unrest instability and frequent coups. These three volumes provide insight into different aspects of Syria during his long reign. The first and most important is by the German scholar and policy analyst Volker Perthes, who pays particular attention to the ways Assad stabilized Syria's political system, secured his own grip on power, and revitalized the Syrian economy. As Perthes notes, "The state as it emerged after 1970 was more than an instrument of brute force. Over the Asad years, regime institutions were developed, the bureaucracy was expanded, and corporatist structures bringing large parts of society under the organizing umbrella of the state were set up and consolidated. Though flawed in some respects, a comparatively stable authoritarian, or authoritarian-bureaucratic, state came into being." Also useful for its insights into the formation of the contemporary Syrian state is Ray Hinnebusch's Syria: Revolution From
. Currently director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews University, Hinnebusch extends Perthes' account in a number of ways. He moves further back in time to the pre-Assad era to explore the social origins of the Baath Party and also takes a wider view, placing Syria's experiences in the context of other cases in which powerful, centralized regimes imposed "revolutions from above" that coercively transformed state, society, and economy. Hinnebusch's account is a helpful reminder that populist authoritarianism in Syria did not result simply from the will to power of a few military officers but as a solution, however flawed, to pervasive social inequities, political exclusion, and persistent instability -- a solution that in its day had significant popular support. Assad himself was remote, reserved, and in his later years almost entirely absent from the public arena, yet he comes to life in the veteran journalist Patrick Seale's comprehensive biography. Seale devotes particular attention to Assad's management of Syrian-U.S. relations, providing insight into the worldview of the younger Assad and his associates today. He also highlights the senior Assad's conceptions of Syria's role in the Arab world, and these, too, embody a mindset still very much in evidence among the nation's current leaders.

The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations. By Itamar Rabinovich. Princeton University Press, 1998.
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In recent decades, one all-too-stable strategic factor influencing Syria's behavior has been its conflict with Israel. The dense literature on the Syrian-Israeli relationship includes the memoirs of American, Israeli, and even some Arab diplomats and statesmen, and there is also a significant body of relevant academic and journalistic literature, including work by Hinnebusch, Helena Cobban, Moshe Ma'oz, Muhammad Muslih, Anthony Cordesman, and others. On the Syrian side, the literature is far sparser, with the writings that do exist
usually available only in Arabic, such as Radwan Ziadeh's study of Syria's negotiations over the Golan Heights. (Ziadeh's book is banned in Syria, it is worth noting, both because of its frankness regarding the country's foreign policy and the author's status as a leading dissident now in exile.) One diplomatic memoir worth singling out is Itamar Rabinovich's The Brink of Peace. With decades of experience as both scholar and analyst of Syria, Rabinovich brought an exceptional background to his work as Israel's lead negotiator with Syria during the Yitzhak Rabin-Shimon Peres years of 1992-96, something that shows clearly in his balanced and candid account of Syrian-Israeli efforts to hammer out a settlement of their conflict. American diplomats, in particular, would be well served by revisiting Rabinovich's insights into the centrality of the U.S. role in the talks and how it was managed under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Rabinovich's summary of why negotiations failed remains especially timely. Ultimately, however, the author acknowledges that without a parallel account from the Syrian side, "it is difficult to understand why Asad, despite his suspicions, reservations, and inhibitions, failed to take the steps that would have produced an agreement on terms that should have been quite acceptable to him."

Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire. By Flynt Leverett. Brookings Institution Press, 2005.
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The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria. By David W. Lesch. Yale University Press, 2005.
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Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power. By Eyal Zisser. I. B. Tauris, 2006.
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July 17, 2010, will mark an anniversary that many Syria-watchers never expected to occur: Assad's tenth anniversary as Syria's supreme leader -- its president, its chief of staff of the armed forces, and the secretary-general of the Baath Party. His ascension was virtually seamless, defying alarmist predictions about the chaos that might follow his father's death. Yet his rise to power was accompanied by considerable uncertainty and skepticism, and these, too, have proven remarkably durable. Was he anything more than a figurehead acting on behalf of his father's chief associates and the commanders of Syria's notorious mukhabarat (secret police)? How serious was his commitment to bureaucratic, political, and economic reform? Did his years as a student in London presage an openness to the West that his father never allowed?

In the past five years alone, three full-length studies have appeared to offer responses to these questions. Inheriting Syria, by the former CIA and National Security Council analyst Flynt Leverett, and The New Lion of Damascus, by the historian David W. Lesch, appeared in 2005; Commanding Syria, by the leading Israeli scholar Eyal Zisser, followed a year later. All three provide well-informed and thoroughly researched accounts with appropriate historical context and a shared preoccupation with the question of whether Assad's rise to power could have led to a change of direction for Syria. Yet they pose this question from distinct perspectives and arrive at divergent conclusions. Leverett sees Syria through the lens of U.S. foreign policy, Zisser centers on Syria as a regional actor, and Lesch focuses on Assad as a transformational leader.

Of the three, it is Lesch's account that has been most fully overtaken by events. By the time it was published, Assad's tentative interest in anything resembling political reform had already run its course. Nevertheless the book remains important as a window into the thinking of a still-enigmatic leader. Lesch based his impressions of Assad on extended personal interactions with him, including a number of long interviews conducted in 2004 and follow-up meetings in early 2005. Lesch's sympathetic perspective is balanced by his convincing portrait of an earnest, somewhat diffident young leader who is chastened by the scale of the challenges he confronts but perhaps not entirely aware of the choices they would impose on him.

Leverett and Zisser, in contrast, offer more measured assessments. Leverett views Syria under Assad as a tractable if difficult case rather than as an inevitable and permanent adversary. Like Lesch, he sees Assad as hemmed in by a system he inherited, possessing only limited room for maneuver, and more pragmatic than ideological in his pursuit of Syrian interests. But Leverett does not see Assad's approach, whether to domestic reform or to relations with Washington, as set in stone and concludes that "the Syrian president is, for U.S. purposes, 'engageable.'" Zisser gives Assad credit for consolidating his grip on power and navigating his way through treacherous domestic and regional events, but ultimately he finds him wanting as a leader, driven more by events than a vision of Syria's future. Zisser avoids making policy recommendations but usefully distinguishes between Assad's ability to survive and his capacity (or that of the regime he governs) to address daunting economic, social, political, and strategic challenges that Syria confronts. Although all three volumes are useful, it is worth noting they all focus heavily on political elites and the view from the top. What is lacking is a full-fledged account of the significant social and economic changes Syria has experienced over the past decade, including the growing religiosity of Syrian society and the deepening of inequality, trends that have potentially significant implications for Syrian politics.


  • STEVEN HEYDEMANN is a Vice President at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an Adjunct and Research Associate Professor in the Government Department at Georgetown University.
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