Book Review: Demystifying Syria

I just came across another book review that I have written earlier — in 2011, in fact, when I was doing an internship at USAK, in Ankara. It is a quite elaborate review, making it a bit longer than usual. Countries are more complex than they seem.

Demystifying Syria (SOAS Middle East Issues Series)

Fred H. Lawson (Editor)

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Saqi Books (February 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0863566545
ISBN-13: 978-0863566547

This book, published in 2009, is a project by the London Middle East Institute of the renowned School of Oriental and African Studies. It is a collection of academic essays aimed at unraveling the mysteries that surround Syria’s internal and external structure. In the introduction, the editor, Fred H. Lawson, advertises the book as a tool to “gain a clearer understanding of the political, economic, social and diplomatic dynamics that shape one of the few countries that continues to resist the ‘end of history.’” And he is right. This is a selection of very informative studies, going in-

depth into the different components of the Syrian state.

The authors in this ten-chapter book are all academics from Europe, North America, and the Middle East, some of whom have done field research in, or are frequent travelers to, Syria. This offers insights into Syrian society which one will not find in many other books.

Many books on Syria do not deal with its legal structure, societal and religious complexities, and development of the opposition. Another merit of the work is that one need not read it in its entirety to be able to understand the context of any of its chapters. However, that does not mean that it does not broaden one’s ability to better put everything into perspective when surveying the whole book.

Salwa Ismail presents a very valuable chapter on the changing social structure in Syria and the influence that might have on the viability of the regime. With Hafez coming to power in 1970, Syria initiated a new policy of economic liberalization which led to a rising merchant middle class with whom the regime established a social political alliance, a step central to the consolidation of its power. Since the 1980s, the rise of a new elite oligarchy was part of al-Assad’s further economic opening. These Alawite families have large enterprises and enjoy close ties with the regime. The other important economic force is the traditional Syrian bourgeoisie. These two economic power blocks are economic rivals and oppose each other in terms of their sectarian and clan backgrounds. The national bourgeoisie is politically inactive but they are a large source of foreign capital flowing into Syria. They are crucial in that “their actions and strategies could well shape the direction of future change.” The middle merchant class with its structure of informal networks has diminished its dependency on the regime and the state. The regime is facing a growing threat from the national bourgeoisie and the traditional merchant class who are gaining influence together with their religious emphasis and enmity toward the Baath Party.

Bassam Haddad delves into an analysis of the “political conditions under which the Syrian private sector has developed, the tradeoffs the Syrian regime has made in the process, and the institutional context that frames the stunted development of the private sector.” Much of the private sector is financially dependent on or connected to the state. The new bourgeoisie favors the status quo while the rest of the private sector is largely disadvantaged by the situation in their sector. The regime has an animosity toward private capital and focuses rather on security and decision-making autonomy. Many of this new bourgeoisie would act as business ‘representatives’ because they are members of parliament. Their economic power translates into political influence. However, to prevent too strong a role of some in the private sector, the regime does business with businessmen and ties them to the state. Private sector institutions have little influence. The lack of representation has two outcomes: (1) a sectoral, political and geographical fragmentation of the larger business community and (2) the fact that the private sector, due to this fragmentation and lack of credible institutions, remains family-oriented.

The first two chapters are very much related to each other, in that both focus on groups within society and their relations with the regime. However, the difference lies in the level of analysis. In the first chapter, the general role of social structures is analyzed, whilst in the second, the role of specifically the private sector is scrutinized. Nevertheless, there is a significant overlap, since both pay much attention to the economic players of society and the role or behavior of the state toward them. These essays could have been merged together, adding to the clarification of the message of both chapters.

Third, Zohair Ghazzal discusses Syria’s legal system together with Baudouin Dupret and Souhail Belhadj. 1949 was the year of the “foundational framework” of Syria’s core civil and penal codes. The major political events after 1949 did little to that foundation. Only under President Hafez did a few legal changes affect the status of private property. The first section of this chapter deals with economic laws. It turns out that the state, on paper, protects private civil settlements while it in fact follows some kind of ideological political collectivism which applies rules rather arbitrarily. The second part illustrates, with a practical example, the state’s arbitrary and unjust treatment of individuals. Also private, property became the victim of the consolidation of state control over nontransferable property. The state equates private property with national security threats. The third section analyzes “the passing of a law to demonstrate how the assembly is embedded within the institutional framework and political game.” The President legislates when the Parliament is not in session, which it most of the time is not.

The role of Sunni clerics in the Baath Party is the subject of Thomas Pierret’s essay. Sunni clerics have a central role in the Syrian religious sphere, but conversely, Islamic activists face harsh repression. This study focuses on the religious elite in Damascus and Aleppo, rivals in the religious scene. State control in smaller cities like Homs and Hama prevent the study of those. Most ulama stick to a text-oriented version of Sufi Islam, because state interference sought to marginalize its more radical Salafi rival. Due to a large fragmentation of religious movements in Syria, religious scholars managed to create more cohesion; movements known as jam’iyyat. Some groups developed good relations with the regime, while others were repressed and forced into exile. The state has not managed to set up credible state-sponsored religious elite; and clergy/ulama remain a complex and informal process of social recognition inside the religious scene.

Since the early 2000s, a limited liberalization of the regime’s religious policy led to the increased representation of Islamic trends in educational institutions and media. Heads of the religious administration are elected by the Syrian regime on the basis of their reliance on their most loyal partner; though there is a slow opening toward clerics less directly close to the regime. In Syria, the main route through which religious actors can access the authorities is by becoming private advisers to the ruler, which requires actively supporting the regime. Concluding this chapter, “official religious policy can only be conceived in terms of selection: compliant actors have been rewarded, neutral ones tolerated and hostile trends suppressed.”

There is also a shorter chapter by Myriam Ababsa on the narrow topic of the complex nature of the symbolic structures of the Syrian city of Raqqi. The author surveys the meaning of the Shiite mausoleums Iran finished in 2005 for the Syrian population. The construction of these Shiite mausoleums created strong symbolic ties with Iran. The rise of the Shiite influence in Raqqa poses conflicts between the intellectual Sunni population and the regime. Contrastingly, the majority of the population welcomed the Iranian presence. This analysis lacks elaboration on the greater relevance of Iranian influence on the Syrian regime and the population. Ababsa rather deals with the practices of the Sunni and Shiite in Raqqa. Perhaps this interesting analysis would better suit a book on religious practices in Syria.

Julie Gauthier thoroughly studies the growing influence of Kurdish political activists over the last years by examining a number of events that have positively impacted their influence. She begins with a short historical overview to show that after the Cold War and the Gulf Wars the regime became more aware of and less soft on the Kurdish political (and militant) groups. Since then, the Kurdish groups have also become more united and active in organizing for their rights. 2003 was a year of coordinated efforts that gave rise to frequent gatherings where Kurdish political groups, Arab political parties, human rights activists, and students came together on different occasions, depending on the theme of the gathering. The Kurdish element was gaining predominance.

A football match in al-Qamishli in March 2004 was the starting point of a prolonged escalation of tensions between Kurds and the regime. The violent crackdown by the regime led to deaths, many injured, and many more arrested. The possibility is postulated that the al-Qamishli events were a “deliberate attempt to create a schism between Arabs and Kurds in order to tighten Arab ranks in defence of the regime.” The events broke the status quo and introduced a new Kurdish national awakening.

Gauthier persuades readers to revise their perception of the relevance of the Kurdish question in Syria, an issue which for most people is related to Turkey and the PKK. He clarifies the importance of this issue for Syrian opposition movements over the last decade.

“The Syrian Opposition: The Struggle for Unity and Relevance, 2003-2008” is the name of Joe Pace’s and Joshua Landis’ study. It starts with Bashar, who officially recognized the need for reform, coming to power. This openness gave rise to the intellectuals of Syria to discuss reforms. This spilled over to other groups of Syrian society. From then on, a new awareness arose and “the language of reform was injected into political discourse.” Nonetheless, no human rights groups, civil society forums, or political parties have been successful in gaining any considerable results for the broad opposition. The Iraq War and the al-Qamishli events fueled Kurdish ambitions to a new level. While the Arab and Kurdish opposition hoped to benefit from each other’s positions, many groups put aside their differences and formulated the Damascus Declaration so as to gain the most support. It did receive some substantive criticisms concerning the role of religion, cultural values, and Kurdish rights. In late 2005, Vice President Khaddam left his office and openly criticized the Assad regime, and established, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Salvation Front (NSF). Despite wariness, most of them did not side with the NSF nor denounce it, in order to keep the Declaration in force. A harsh crackdown followed, imprisoning the leaders of the opposition groups. Also, Syria broke out of its diplomatic isolation in 2008, paralyzing the opposition.

This is an excellently written chapter with much relevance in light of the 2011 unrest in Syria, since it profiles the different actors of the Syrian opposition. It can serve as a basis for future analysis of the most contemporary political unrest.

Anja Zorob reviews the economic relations Syria has with the EU. Syria is the last of the Mediterranean Partner Countries (MPC) which does not have an Association Agreement with the EU. Political motivations are the cause of this. The author goes on to discuss some statistics regarding Syrian exports to the EU. Exports have been decreasing over the last years, despite the non-reciprocal duty-free trading position it has had since 1977. Reasons for Syria’s weak economic performance are (1) low competitiveness and (2) the anti-export bias of the Syrian economy. Syria has received several EU loans to cope with economic problems, but they were significantly less than those planned for the other MPCs, such as Morocco. Syria has faced difficulties in establishing an Association Agreement with the EU due to the U.S. threat that Syria might be next in the ‘War on Terror.’ This fear led it to accept provisions for more stringent measures in negotiations over an AA. Generally, the AA may bring short-term economic losses, but this will be compensated for in the longer term. However, the author argues that whether or not the benefits weight up to the losses in, for example, tariff revenues, would depend on the EU’s dedication to “establishing a common space of shared prosperity around the Mediterranean Sea.”

Zorob could have used a more holistic approach to the Syrian-EU relations. Focusing only on the economy might do injustice to the relevance of the political relations between Syria and the EU. It goes into too much detail regarding the Association Agreement. Also, putting the Syrian-EU relations into perspective with the trade Syria has with other countries could have been highly informative.

Bassel F. Salloukh postulates that most widely-held explanations of Bashar al-Assad’s foreign policy wrongfully denote Bashar’s considerations. These are (1) balance of power, (2) religious, (3) political economy, (4) regime legitimacy (empirically not supported), and (5) idiosyncratic (personal) explanations. However, Salloukh offers his own explanation for Bashar al-Assad’s foreign policy choices, based on balancing and regime security calculations. The existence of the Assad regime was at stake due to the U.S. intervention in Iraq and the credible threat that Syria would be next. “Damascus sabotaged the US occupation with a mix of classical and asymmetric balancing in order to protect its regional interests and regime security.” Since 1990, Syria had control over Lebanon but the events in late-2003 jeopardized Damascus’s hold over Lebanon. Hariri’s rise in Lebanon, with the help of the U.S., became a growing threat to Syria’s position in the country. With the assassination of Hariri in 2005, Syria was forced to fully withdraw its troops. However, Damascus was determined to use Lebanon to regain its regional influence and used pragmatic policies to achieve this.

Syrian-Turkish relations since 1998 have been aimed, mostly, at rapprochement. This is the statement which the author, Fred H. Lawson—also the editor of the book, offers. Reasons for Syria’s attempts at closer ties with Turkey took root in several developments, including (1) a Turkish-Israeli military alignment, (2) increased dependency on water supplies from Turkey. On the other hand, unfavorable developments also haunted Turkey—internal ethnic activism, Armenian-Syrian state visits, and a Kurdish crisis in northern Iraq. ‘Accelerated rapprochement’ since 2002 consisted of joint military exercises, bilateral economic projects, and both opposing U.S. intervention in Iraq. These cordial relations triggered Israel to become ever more vocal against Syria. However, Turkey did not move away from Damascus. One reason might be the increased activism of Israel in northern Iraq, which could lay the foundation for full Kurdish autonomy. In 2004-2005 relations worsened, but strengthened in 2006. “Whenever Syria has good reason to expect that Turkey will take advantage of any overtures it might make, the leadership in Damascus has refrained from offering accommodations or concessions to Ankara. By the same token, when Turkey finds itself too vulnerable or preoccupied to be able to exploit Syrian overture, Damascus has ventured to leave itself open to Ankara, not only economically but with regard to security matters as well.”

It is striking that Lawson focused on Syrian-Turkish relations and not Syrian-Iranian relations, since Iran has been Syria’s closest ally over the last three decades. However, it is true that the Syrian-Turkish relations had become increasingly relevant for Syria’s regional influence over the last decade.

Throughout the book, it becomes overly clear that the Syrian regime follows a highly authoritarian rule, curbing the influence of every sector on the state. The private sector, individuals who have an active religious life, the Kurdish minority, Arab activists and human rights organizations, all of them face some sort of repression in their interests. However, at the same time, there seem to be forces within those factions of society which are increasingly challenging the rule of the Baath Party—wealthy businessmen being represented in parliament and an ever-more united “Kurdish awakening.”

Many chapters, but especially Joe Pace’s and Joshua Landis’ chapter on opposition, offered insights of what was to happen in 2011. It seems that a domino-effect did take place, however the fragile consolidation of the regime seems to have greatly contributed to the opposition’s mass uprising.

Such a collaboration of academics from different backgrounds and diverse specialisms makes the book an enjoyable and worthwhile allocation of your time. Demystifying Syria is definitely a must to read when researching the Middle East, or international relations in general, given that it offers insights into the complex nature of society of a country in one of the most turbulent regions in the world. Furthermore, one realizes that other Middle Eastern countries are also sure to have very complex internal structures. A book as comprehensive and elaborate as this one would be a valuable asset when attempting to ‘demystify’ those other countries as well, especially in light of the very tumultuous times the Middle East is facing.


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