In This Review

Secret War in the Middle East: The Covert Struggle for Syria, 1949-1961
Secret War in the Middle East: The Covert Struggle for Syria, 1949-1961
By Andrew Rathmell
246 pp, I. B. Tauris, 1995

Middle East scholars have always had a hard time dealing with conspiracies as explanations for political turmoil. On the one hand, the political culture is prone to explain everything in terms of conspiracies, and the lack of tangible evidence is never a barrier to the most imaginative of theories. On the other hand, it is clearly naive to dismiss the political role of various intelligence services, particularly in the 1950s. The virtue of this book is that it examines the evidence supporting and refuting covert activity in Syria--an excellent choice since that nation was the target of many covert actions by its neighbors as well as powers outside the region. Participants have been interviewed, declassified documents have been examined, and a picture that is a bit different from the conventional wisdom emerges. For example, the author does not believe that the Husni Zaim coup of 1949 was primarily the work of the cia, despite such claims by cia operatives; he does, however, provide considerable detail on the plotting against Syria by Turkey, Iraq, and the United States in 1957. He concludes that most covert actions failed to achieve their goals; that some were counterproductive, driving leaders further into the arms of the plotters' adversaries; and that with time Middle Eastern regimes learned to fight back, frequently employing the weapon of state-sponsored, though often deniable, terrorism.