Syria’s contribution to the Arab revolts of 2011 began as an uprising, hardened into a rebellion, and has finally exploded into a full-fledged civil war. Taken together, these four books do not allow readers a full view of the Syrian elephant, but they come close. Starr, a journalist who lived in Damascus for five years, records his encounters with ordinary Syrians and with the state’s intelligence apparatus in an unadorned narrative of the Syrian street. Lesch, an American historian, enjoyed unusual access to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other regime stalwarts. But that access does not yield any dazzling insights, instead serving only to highlight just how thoroughly Lesch’s high hopes for Assad have been dashed. Haddad, a Syrian academic, analyzes the business allies of Syria’s Baathist regime, a presumed core of support for Assad’s authoritarian rule. Ajami is a more distant observer than the others, but his stage setting and political sketches are superb: after years of judgmental aloofness toward the Arab world, he has finally managed to get into, rather than under, the skin of his protagonists.
Ajami traces the long transformation of Syria’s Alawite sect, from henchmen of the French protectorate in the first half of the twentieth century to enforcers of Baathist rule in the second half. The Alawites compensated for their minority status by claiming the mantle of secular “Arabism” and using it to batter Syria’s Sunni majority into submission. Hafez al-Assad, the dictator who ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000, cast himself as the standard of Arab defiance of the West, against whom the subservient Egyptian leaders and Saudi monarchs could be measured and rejected.
All four books address the capitalist allies of the Assad regime, attempting to understand their importance to the authoritarian system and speculating about what their hypothetical defection would mean. Initially, this group combined members of the Alawite military and intelligence branches with the old Sunni bourgeoisie. The latter stood by Hafez even when he brutally crushed a rebellion launched by the Muslim Brotherhood, made up of their fellow Sunnis, in the city of Hama in 1982. This became the defining moment of the authoritarian bargain the Sunni elites reached with the regime: stay out of politics and get rich. It follows, as Starr and Haddad argue, that on major issues, Sunni cronies who are not “family” ultimately have no voice. They are not policymakers but policy-takers. Their sole weapons are capital flight and investment strikes.
Over time, according to Haddad, the old bourgeoisie began to wither, replaced by a hybrid business class made up of remnants of the Sunni bourgeoisie and the offspring of regime loyalists who feed off state-generated rents. This decline of the old elite is an interesting phenomenon, but none of the authors offers a clear sense of what it might mean for the civil war. That is partially because the Syrian revolt sprang not from the top but from the rural margins of society, which had been devastated by five years of drought. Crony capitalism and so-called market socialism have created a new elite whose lifestyle is totally at odds with the values of the rural poor, many of whom are Alawites. Hafez came from that traditional milieu; his son, Bashar, is a Damascene in style and taste. At the beginning of the Syrian revolt, Bashar’s vicious and profoundly humiliating assault on Dara’a, a city on the Jordanian border and where the uprising started, sealed that divide with blood and wounded honor.
Starr, who was there at the revolt’s beginning, cannot make up his mind about whether the regime had been expecting this challenge for years or was taken by surprise. Both observations may well be true. In any event, in 2011, the regime was still playing by what the journalist Thomas Friedman, in a reference to the 1982 massacre, had called Hama Rules: “no rules at all.” And in the years leading up to the revolt, the successes Bashar enjoyed blinded him to looming threats. He toughed out U.S. sanctions, un censure, and the forced withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon in 2005. He established close relations and open borders with Turkey, perhaps to remind his allies in Iran that they were not the only ones willing to do business with him.
Bashar assumed that Syria’s opposition to the “U.S.-Zionist” master plan for regional dominance would spare him the fate of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, now-deposed despots who had long allied themselves with the United States. And he must have felt sure that Syrians, having witnessed the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war and Iraq’s unending travails since 2003, would place a high premium on regime stability. The revolt proved those assumptions false. But so far, Bashar has been right to conclude that savage repression would invoke no international response beyond handwringing.
Still, Lesch maintains that the House of Assad has fallen even if Bashar clings to power, and none of the other authors sees a long horizon for him. But they also agree that Bashar is no mere puppet, controlled by shadowy brutes such as his brother Maher. No: Bashar is in control, and he believes in what he is doing.