Review of The Truth About Syria

[Photo of Syrian Leader Bashar al Asad, courtesy of Flickr poster madmonk, Creative Commons License).

Back in January I linked to a review of a book called The Truth About Syria by author Barry Rubin (review was written by Lee Harris).

Prof. Rubin noticed that post, contacted me, and graciously offered to send me a copy of the book. It arrived about 2 weeks ago and I just finished reading it. This review is only going to deal at the level of ideas, policies in the book.

For background, here is an interview with Prof. Rubin outlining the basic thesis of the book. I should also say that readers of my blog will know that my views don’t line up totally with Rubin’s. That being said, I highly recommend the book. Agree or disagree with his conclusions, it gives an insight into the mindset of the Syrian regime that penetrates through the fog of disinformation often out there on the subject.

The central achievement of the book in my mind (along the lines of what Lee Harris said) is that Rubin understands that the activities of the Syrian regime are rational from the perspective of a clan-based dictatorship that seeks its own survival.

It is instructive in this regard I think to compare Rubin’s work (and its subject Syria) with John Bradley’s recent excellent book Inside Egypt. The takeaway from each is that both countries are mired in economic stagnation, omnipresent corruption & political repression. In Egypt this has translated into a near total de-legitimization of the regime. For Bradley, contemporary Egypt resembles most closely Iran in the final days of the Shah, i.e. it’s poised for a potential revolution.

The Syrian regime however as Rubin demonstrates (though all of the same factors are in play) is gaining strength and legitimacy domestically. How can this be? The answer lies for Rubin in the fact that Syria unlike Egypt did not take a deal with Israel and America. It has positioned itself as the oppositional force of Arab (and increasingly Islamist) resistance against the hated West. Therefore, according to Rubin, it is in Syria’s rational interest (from the perspective of regime maintenance) to continue to play its long running game of cat and mouse with the West, appearing on the one hand rational and open to dialog and compromise and on the other obfuscating and shuttling any such deals. Plus exporting terrorism and de-stabilization abroad.

Because if Syria struck a deal with Israel and the US (the Golan Heights for recognition of Israel) overnight it would become Egypt. If it opens its economy the regime will fall. If it dispenses with its irredentism it will fall. As proof of this argument, the Mubarak regime in Egypt is increasingly using anti-Shia rhetoric which borders on racism (i.e. Shia Arabs are not really Arabs, they are Persian 5th Column) in order in a sense to revive a Syrian-style opposition and garner support for the regime. It however seems not be working and is pretty transparently fraudulent. With Syria on the other hand, it’s legit in a number of ways (esp. support of Hezbollah).

Now I have to say that’s a depressing conclusion, but try as I might hard to disagree with it. Relative to Israel that is.

My principal disagreement with the book however is the larger frame of Syria as part of an Iranian Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis versus the so-called moderate Arab regimes, e.g. Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The moderate Arab regimes are dictatorships as well so I don’t see them as in any way moderate.

Relative to Iraq, Syria has managed to keep relations (often friendly) with all sides. As a country of mixed Shia, Sunni, (Christians) and Kurds, the Syrian regime has connections with the Sunni insurgency, the Kurdish regional government even though Syria has its own fears of Kurdish separatism (and therefore can act as a go-between for Turkey/Kurdistan), the Shia government and even the Sadrist movement, not to mention Sunni and some Christian refugees from Iraq.

Syria and Iran’s games in Iraq overlap in some measure (fomenting anti-Americanism) and in others don’t (Syria is much closer to the Sunni populations than is Iran which is the hated enemy of the Iraqi Sunni. I think on Iraq Iran and Syria are going to have be dealt with like it or not. The installed regime in Iraq consists of a great many former exile who spent years in Syria and/or Iran. (e.g. Dawa party of PM Maliki). They are going to have the kind of influence and relations with these countries that the US does not want them to have and nothing is going to alter that particular reality. Syria is positioning itself to act as a mediator between say Saudi Arabia/Jordan and the Iraqi government.

Whether that difference could actually be exploited in the policy realm by the West is an entirely different question. But as the US withdraws from Iraq, Syria is going to have increased stature (already does but itwill only increase) and a regime clearly more friendly to it than the hated Hussein. In some fashion or another that is going to have to be dealt with and yet to Syria’s West–support of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, resistance against Israel–the basic dynamic Rubin lays out remains it would seem unchanged.

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Published in: on August 1, 2008 at 9:28 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Syria is a unique country, first off in Islamic History it was the seat of power for the Umayyad dynasty (Sunni), which was the principal enemy of Ali ibn Talib (RA) and of the Shia.

    Ironically enough, the former President and the current President of Syria are from a Shiita Sect, the Alawites. It’s through this nexus we have to view the relationship between Syria, Iran and Lebanon, and why so-called moderate Arab States (Sunni) view Syria with suspicion. (by the way CJ moderate Arabs states means, their propensity to be puppets to the US’ foreign policy)

    As far as Syria and so-called Islamism, this is blown out of proportion, Syria gives support to so-called Islamist groups who are not active within Syria but in other states, i.e. Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, as far as within Syria there are no noteworthy movements, that I’m aware of, and certainly not to the level that we see Mubarak in Egpyt. In fact, former President Hafez Al Assad is famous for his actions during the so-called Muslim Brotherhood uprising, killing thousands of Sunnis and suspected MB members. I believe to this day MB is banned in Syria.

    Syria is all over the place and have their hands in everything. I disagree with Prof Rubin as well, as Syria appears serious almost desperate to reach some type peace arrangements with Israel. I think they feel this would give them some type of legitimacy with the West, because if they reach an agreement, the West would be less inclined to pressure the regime in regards to the death of Hariri and their schemes in Lebanon. If the Prof was correct in stating that the Syrians don’t want a real peace and use it as a pretext for a strong military. They had that very opportunity with the recent Israeli bombing in Syria, but Syrian’s rhetoric seemed to be at a minimum with no response.

    My impression is that the regime in Syria is insecure and there putting all of their eggs in different baskets which include Sunni, Shia, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Israel. There is no single plan or blueprint, there is no rhyme or reason, merely survival of the regime.

  2. e,

    thanks for the comment.

    my sense is that Syria is playing a very shrewd game, diversifying their investment portfolio in the region so as to minimize risk as it were.

    we’ll see….there are apparently not so secret (but not formal) talks between Israel and Syria on-going in Turkey. But I”m not sure what if anything comes out of that.

    peace. cj


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