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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book review: The Truth About Syria

The Truth About Syria, by Barry Rubin, effectively illuminates the inner machinations of the Syrian leadership and how the West should act towards that state.

The newly-released paperback edition was forwarded to me by Professor Rubin to review.

Syria is unique in that it is a weak country that has managed to make itself critically important at minimal risk to itself. Using a combination of publicly available articles and MEMRI translations, Dr. Rubin shows many examples to describe the Syrian leaders' mindset and strategy.

Briefly, the overriding concern of the late Hafiz Assad and later his son Bashar is to stay in power, no matter what. At this, they have been remarkably successful.

From the 1940s to 1970 Syria went through many coups and regime changes. Much like Iraq, Syria is a multi-ethnic nation and is always in danger of serious internal conflict. Hafiz al-Assad's takeover of the then-ruling Baath Party in 1970 ushered in a long period of stability, and Rubin examines how he succeeded.

Modern Syria has consciously styled itself in the Soviet mold. As the USSR collapsed, Assad made sure that he would not make the same mistakes, and he and his son remain steadfastly against any internal reforms that they could not keep under control. Through an ingenious combination of rewarding supporters and punishing detractors, Syria has made internal dissent simply not worth it.

The ruling Alawites, Rubin notes, are not even considered Muslims by most other Muslims. Nevertheless, the Assad family has not only styled themselves as Shia Muslims but they have come up with a way to use the new religious fervor throughout the Muslim world to their advantage. While the regime started off as deliberately secular, it has co-opted religious institutions in Syria while carefully limiting their power.

The major way that the Assad father and son have kept internal problems at bay has been to represent Syria as the vanguard of the pan-Arab nation and to externalize all threats to Syria as threats to the Arab world. The regime thrives on crises that are outside Syrian borders, as it uses them as excuses to avoid reform and preach Arab unity to bring together Syria's disparate communities.

As a result, Syria has a great interest in fomenting instability in the region around it. As long as there are external problems, Syria can avoid dealing with internal ones. This appears to be a deliberate policy, and Westerners who try to argue that Syria would be better off it it would reform itself miss the point entirely - Syria's leadership is not interested in improving the lives of its citizens but only in self-preservation.

More than any other nation, Syria excels at exporting terror. Between Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Iraqi terrorists and others, Syria has managed to fight its enemies entirely by proxy - in others' lands - since the 1973 war with Israel. Syria maintains deniability as to its own part in these battles, and the West is eager to believe it. At little cost to itself it can maintain a battlefront against Israel, basking in "victories" while paying nothing in terms of damages. The 2006 Lebanese war is a perfect example of this - even though Syria was not necessarily behind the specific fuse that lit that particular event, it set up the atmosphere for it to happen at any time.

Syria's effective takeover of Lebanon is Syria's way to improve its economy. Friends of the regime - specifically Sunni Muslim middle class merchants - profit from the captive Lebanese market, and this has become such an important part of the Syrian economy (as well as Syria's traditional worldview that Lebanon, as well as Palestine, are really a part of Syria proper) that any Western incentives for Syria to abandon Lebanon are foolhardy.

More recently, Syria has managed to co-opt the the pan-Islamism of its internal Muslim Brotherhood into traditional Syrian pan-Arabism.

All the while, Syria manages to manipulate the West into offering more and more concessions at little cost. Syria's tiny contribution to the Gulf War gave it a bonanza of Western benefits, and more than once Syria gained praise from gullible Americans - including the State Department - by simply lying about closing terrorist offices in Damascus. The baldfaced lies about their involvement with Hezbollah and their control of their borders multiply, yet Westerners stricken with terminal wishful-thinking are ready to believe them.

Bashar, who was given plenty of slack by the West as being a Western-educated reformer, has done nothing of the sort, and his rhetoric often surpasses that of his father. He has made some major mistakes, though, in subsuming Syria's self-image as the pre-eminent Arab leader by showing an immature enthusiasm towards Hezbollahs' Nasrallah as well as turning Syria into a client state of Iran.

Rubin shows that Syria does have the ability to act more responsibly, but only when it feels that the alternative is much worse - namely, the threat of an invasion on its own soil. Although he doesn't say it, if Israel would have made clear that it considers Hezbollah to be a part of Syria and that any attack from Lebanon will result in retaliation against Damascus, then the Second Lebanon War would probably never have occurred.

The book itself, I am sorry to say, is not as well organized nor as easy to read as it should have been. There is a large amount of repetition; the same speeches and examples are cited multiple times throughout the book, as are the conclusions. Dr. Rubin is at a disadvantage as there really isn't that much source material available in the West, and the Assads do not make that many public speeches, but this should mean a shorter book. Also, even though the book itself was written from the perspective of late 2006, I was disappointed that the Iranian/Syrian relationship was not expanded nearly as much as those of Lebanon, Israel and even Turkey.

Even so, it is an important book and worth having for reference. I wish I would have read it before my brief conversation with a member of Congress on this topic last month.