Review Essay

The Ways of Syria

Stasis in Damascus

In This Review

The View From Damascus: State, Political Community, and Foreign Relations in the Twentieth-Century Syria
The View From Damascus: State, Political Community, and Foreign Relations in the Twentieth-Century Syria
By Itamar Rabinovich
Vallentine Mitchell, 2008, 365 pp. $49.95 Purchase

In one of his sweeping insights, Henry Kissinger once captured the forces at play in Syrian history. "Damascus is at one and the same time the fount of modern Arab nationalism and the exhibit of its frustrations," he wrote. "Syrian history alternates achievement with catastrophe. . . . The injustice of foreigners is burned deep into the Syrian soul." A big and commanding new book of history and diplomacy by the Israeli scholar Itamar Rabinovich takes readers deep into the world of the Syrian state -- and into that mix of pride and injury that has shaped its modern history. Rabinovich tracks the twists and turns of Syria's political journey in recent decades, its transformation from the plaything of outside powers into a player of consequence in the Levant. No other writer has dug as deep into such material as Rabinovich has in this book, a distillation of a lifetime of concern with the ways of Syria.

What the great historian Edward Gibbon once called "the most disgusting of pronouns" -- the writer's "I" -- hardly appears in this rich and luminous book of essays. Yet although it draws on historical material, including memoirs and archives, in Arabic, English, French, and Hebrew, it is also enriched by personal experience. In 1993, the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin gave Rabinovich the opportunity of a lifetime: he pulled him out of the academy and appointed him ambassador to Washington and also (and more important for the purposes of this book) chief negotiator with Syria.

To my knowledge, Rabinovich has not walked the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. But his passion for Syria's life runs through this volume. For Rabinovich, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Syrian Baath Party, Syria has always been achingly close yet a forbidden land across a hostile border. His four decades of scholarly and policy work, it could be said, have been a relentless quest to document and understand the puzzle of Syria.


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