John F. Devlin, Syria: Modern State in an Ancient Land (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983).

Robert Olson, The Baath and Syria, 1947-1982 (Princeton, NJ: The Kingston Press, 1982).

Umar F. Abd-Allah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria (Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1983).

John Devlin’s is much the best of these books in terms of its perceptions, its accuracy and its style. The author of The Baath Party (1976) is no newcomer to Syria. He was a Middle East analyst for the CIA, although he carefully avoids mention of CIA activities in Syria, especially around the time of the first military coup in 1949. Nevertheless, this is the best available short introduction to the history of twentieth-century Syria.

Because he does not consider the residue of Ottoman influence in the interwar period, Devlin’s account of Syria under French Mandate is quite unconventional. He does convey that power in Syria has historically been an expression of urban processes: The Syrian peasantry has borne the weight of centuries of oppression, first by ruthless tax collectors and eventually by an even more rapacious urban-absentee landowning class.

Devlin gets better as he approaches Syria under the Baath. His clear account of Syrian domestic political life through the breakup of the UAR synthesizes his own work and that of Patrick Seale. He then examines the way the political system has worked since the Baath seized power in 1963. Devlin provides a lucid, concise explanation of the structure of the Baath Party apparatus, and the influence of government at the national and provincial levels. He pinpoints the military and security services and, in particular, an “ideological” officer corps penetrated by ‘Alawis as the most important but least understood element in the “governmental triad.” Within this context, he is able to sift through the confusion surrounding Hafiz al-Asad’s consolidation of power by taking control of the party apparatus, stripping it of much of its ideological content, and then broadening the political process and hence his personal base. Devlin correctly points to domestic factors as the source of the regime’s unpopularity: “bureaucratic flabbiness,” growing corruption and heightened tensions between the rural-based, ‘Alawi-dominated ruling elite and a Sunni majority in the towns, deprived of its traditional access to government and power.

By contrast, Devlin’s analysis of the Syrian economy and its problems is neither illuminating nor complete. He does not view Asad’s “pragmatism” as the product of an ideological struggle within the Syrian ruling elite and its allied classes, a struggle compounded by the growing pressures of international capital seeking to reshape the Syrian economy to accommodate its demands and interests. Devlin describes with remarkable precision the major shifts in the course of modern Syrian history, but he rarely probes below the surface of that history to examine the complex interaction of forces giving it movement.

Robert Olson’s book is an expanded version of his two-part article in Oriente Moderno (1978-1979). It spans the entire history of the Baath Party, but concentrates on the period after 1966, and especially Hafiz al-Asad’s regime. The most glaring weakness is Olson’s failure to place his study in an identifiable explanatory framework. He begins abruptly with a somewhat stale analysis of Baathist ideology, abstracting it from the social context in which it emerged. Olson would have done well to consult Hanna Batatu’s sharp analysis of the syncretic and contradictory aspects of Baathist thought in The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978). The reader must wait until the final chapter for a clear statement of Olson’s perspective: Asad’s minority ‘Alawi regime took to “modernization” more readily than the Sunni urban elites, in particular the early Baathist leadership; while some political development did accompany socioeconomic modernization, an authoritarian system of rule eventually won the day. There is not much new here.

Olson does emphasize that the Alawi ascendance was linked to the fortunes of other economically and politically disenfranchised rural communities. Olson’s major contribution is his synthesis of the recently published research in English of van Dam, Hinnebusch, Drysdale and others on the political economy of Syria in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately Olson seems unaware of the equally important published research, mainly in French, of Longuenesse, Picard, Seurat and Carre, some of which is collected in La Syrie d’aujourd’hui, ed. Andre Raymond (1981). He also fails to use Longuenesse on state and society, in MERIP Reports 77. Based on the work in English, Olson concludes that:

  • The Baathist seizure of power in 1963 was not simply a military coup, but had a pronounced class dimension. The officers were of petty bourgeois and rural origins and many of these same officers helped to form the neo-Baath which ousted the original urban-based leadership of the Party in 1966.
  • The main thrust of neo-Baathist rural policy was to destroy the social and political power base of the old landowning classes by land redistribution, and to but- tress the positions of small and middle-level peasants. Since the mid-1970s, there seems to have been a reversal of this trend.
  • Although the Baath Party has a strong minority component, especially in its military wing and Regional Command, ‘Alawi leaders did not necessarily favor members of their own sect when it came to political advancement or the distribution of goods and services before the mid-1970s. In the first five years of his regime (1970-1975), Asad actually broadened his base of support, mainly among the Sunnis of Damascus (though not in Aleppo and Hama, two major seats of opposition).
  • The growth after 1975 of an urban-based “Islamic opposition” composed of middle-income Sunnis, while posing a serious challenge to Asad’s regime, may not achieve its aim of toppling that regime. It appears less patriotic than the Baath, minorities fear a government based on Islamic principles, and the Muslim Brothers have not been able to build a firm base in the countryside or the military.

Apart from the absence of a framework, Olson’s book contains other weaknesses. His contention that the regime’s role in the Lebanese civil war forced Asad to turn more and more to ‘Alawis in order to survive is highly debatable. One would do better to look, as Devlin does, at a number of domestic pressures in the mid-1970s that contributed to a decline in the regime’s popularity and effectiveness. Another questionable assertion is Olson’s claim that Aleppo was “traditionally” a more “Islamic” city than Damascus. Aleppo was less homogeneous than Damascus and it had a significantly larger minority component, giving it a “Levantine” coloration (in Albert Hourani’s classic definition of the term), but Damascus was a more important seat of Muslim religious learning, more revered in Islam, and the major gathering point for Muslims from the east and north making the annual pilgrimage to the holy cities. Finally, Olson’s study is the inaugural volume of a new publishing venture. Unfortunately, the text is marred by a number of printing and orthographic errors which easily could have been avoided.

Umar Abd-Allah aims to present to a Western audience the Syrian Muslim Brothers’ reasons for wanting to topple the regime of Hafiz al-Asad, and to criticize the unholy alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran — “the only state to have emerged in recent times from a revolutionary Islamic struggle” — and the Asad regime — a “state engaged in the brutal suppression of a similar struggle.”

Despite Abd-Allah’s largely uncritical account of Muslim Brother ideology and politics, his book is of some value. His reconstruction of the Brothers’ early history leans heavily on Johannes Reissner’s groundbreaking but not readily accessible Ideologic und Politik der Muslimbrüder Syriens (1980), and the critical reflections on this history by several unnamed members of the Syrian Brothers whom Abd-Allah has consulted. He provides biographical sketches of the Brothersrsquo; leading personalities, charts the development of the Islamic Front (of which the Brothers are the major component) after the mid-1970s, and examines, in somewhat excessive detail, its ideology and program. Finally, he provides as an appendix a translation of the Front’s Proclamation (Bayan), a useful document if only because it offers yet another vision (this one Sunni-inspired) of how a “revolutionary” Islamic state and society ought to behave.

Abd-Allah makes little effort to examine the structural weaknesses of the Syrian Muslim Brothers — their failure to penetrate the countryside and army, and their unattractiveness to Syria’s various minorities. He is long on ideological abstraction and programmatic exegesis and short on social analysis, despite some efforts to emphasize the urban base of the Brothers in Syria, in contrast to the rural foundations of the Brothers in Egypt. For this, one must turn to Hanna Batatu’s “Syria’s Muslim Brethren,“ MERIP Reports 110, and, if possible, to Reissner.

How to cite this article:

Fred H. Lawson "Books on Syria," Middle East Report 125/126 (July-September 1984).

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