“It is as a mirror of rival interests on an international scale that Syria deserves special attention,” a young Anglo-Irish journalist wrote in 1965. “Indeed, her internal affairs are almost meaningless unless related to the wider context, first of her Arab neighbors and then of other interested powers. It is no accident that Syria should reflect in her internal political structure the rivalries of her neighbors since, as I hope to show, whoever would lead the Middle East must control her.”
These brash, authoritative and never more pertinent words appeared on the first page of a book entitled The Struggle for Syria. The author, Patrick Seale, was The Observer’s man in Beirut, a job that had fallen into his lap when his friend Kim Philby escaped to the Soviet Union. Seale, who died on April 11 at 83 of brain cancer, was one of the finest historians of the modern Middle East and, for several decades, the leading interpreter of Syrian politics in the English-speaking world. The biographer and long-time confidant of Hafiz al-Asad, he was a complicated figure and, no doubt, a compromised one. But Seale’s ties to Damascus (and, later, to the Gulf), however much they chipped at his independence, arguably gave him a deeper understanding of the commanding heights of power in the Arab world, always his keenest interest. His charm was seductive: Even the Israelis, whose expansionism he had opposed with Damascene firmness, were won over when he came to Jerusalem in 1999, his first and only visit. He was warm, playful, cosmopolitan in his interests and a sly raconteur. He was also a man of secrets, rumored to have worked for MI6 or the Syrians or both. He cultivated an enigmatic air even as he denied the rumors with a twinkle in his eye. You sensed a certain moral elasticity, and cunning, whenever he spoke, yet even this was strangely winning, maybe because of his magnificently deep voice. I remember thinking when I first met him: Whether or not he’s acting, I don’t want to miss this show.
Seale’s debut, The Struggle for Syria, was an instant classic, at once a profound historical study and an astonishing feat of reportage. It provided an insider’s guide to Syrian nationalist politics from the end of the French Mandate to the establishment of the United Arab Republic with Nasser’s Egypt in 1958, an experiment in Arab unity that collapsed three years later. Seale captured a fractious, often violent milieu of political infighting and backstabbing, conspiracies, coups and counter-coups — a milieu that had been all but invisible, even to the Syrians themselves. It was as if a Syrian mole had been taking minutes at meetings of the Baath Party — and somehow lived to tell the tale. And, indeed, Seale’s footnotes revealed that he had conducted extensive interviews with Syria’s notoriously tight-lipped power brokers.
Too dense a work for a popular audience, The Struggle for Syria found a keen readership among specialists — not least in foreign governments and intelligence agencies. Not surprisingly, Israeli scholars were particularly interested in Seale’s analysis of the country that had been the Jewish state’s most implacable adversary: In 1968, Ma‘arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, had the book translated into Hebrew. To this day, it remains the best book to read on the subject (and scandalously out of print). Since Seale’s death, its praises have been sung by an implausible chorus of admirers including Michael Young, an anti-Syrian Lebanese columnist; Martin Kramer, an Israeli-American conservative; and As‘ad AbuKhalil, a radical Lebanese blogger. As AbuKhalil, better known as “the Angry Arab,” wrote: “Seale had an unusual gift: He knew how to amass a wealth of information on a subject [and] to tell a gripping story in a commanding style. You don’t see that style in writing on the Middle East these days.”
Patrick was a man of considerable style, in all matters. When I first met him in Paris in 2003, he was living in a sumptuously appointed apartment in the Sixteenth. He was immaculately dressed, in a tweed suit. “If you’re considering a place to retire,” he advised me, “you could do worse than Paris.” He took me to an elegant seafood restaurant, ordered a very expensive bottle of Sancerre and, to my relief, picked up the check. He was exceedingly gracious, and could not have been more generous with his insights and contacts. I was on my way to Beirut to do a story about Hizballah. Patrick was enamored of Hasan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s general secretary. Although he had no sympathy for (or interest in) Hizballah’s religious fervor, he glowed with admiration for its success in driving the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon. Nasrallah had achieved what no other Arab leader had: a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Arab land without a peace treaty. Patrick was also impressed that, like Hafiz al-Asad, Nasrallah was a man of humble roots who had outwitted his social betters, the son of a Shi‘i grocer who had become a leader whom no one in the neighborhood could afford to ignore.
I asked him if my being Jewish — I knew nothing of Patrick’s own not so distant ancestral origins at the time — might present a problem for Hizballah. He replied by telling me a story about taking his friend Eric Rouleau, for many years Le Monde’s correspondent in the Middle East, to meet Nasrallah. Rouleau, an Egyptian Jew who grew up in Cairo under the monarchy, had been an informal emissary for Nasser, just as Seale had been for Asad. Later, he had written the memoirs of the Fatah leader Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf), Arafat’s right-hand man. His friendship with Abu Iyad won him a posting as France’s ambassador to Tunisia, where the PLO had settled in 1982 after its expulsion from Lebanon.
Patrick thought that Nasrallah would benefit from meeting Rouleau, a Jew with long-standing sympathies for Arab nationalism, as part of his crash course in distinguishing between Jews and Zionists. But first that lingering suspicion would have to be overcome. So Patrick planted a little detail when the conversation began. Rouleau, he told Nasrallah, was on the plane with Khomeini, who had been exiled in Neauphe-le-Château, when the cleric flew back to Iran in 1979. “From that moment on, Eric became a little ayatollah,” Patrick smiled. It was his way of telling me I would have no problems. And though I could hardly claim to be a little ayatollah, he was right.
Patrick, unlike Rouleau, was not quite a Levantine Jew: His ancestors were Russian on his father’s side, Tunisian-Italian on his mother’s. But he, too, had grown up in the Arab world, knew its customs, and embraced its aspirations to independence and national sovereignty as if they were his own. Patrick, who unfortunately never got around to writing his memoirs, was somewhat cagey about his background, though he alluded to the fact that the Seales had once been Siegals, apparently from a long line of Russian rabbis. He was born in 1930 in Belfast, but before his first birthday he moved with his family to Syria, where his father, Morris S. Seale, a British Arabist, worked as a Protestant missionary. (His older sister Dorothea would later become famous as the London fashion designer Thea Porter.) Morris, who went on to publish a number of well-known studies of the relationship between Islam and Christianity, was born in Jerusalem in 1896; according to a rumor now circulating on the Internet, he was converted to Christianity as a child by missionaries in Palestine while his father, a Russian-born rabbi, was traveling abroad. Patrick spent his first 14 years between Damascus and the mountains during the twilight years of the French Mandate — just like his future subject, Hafiz al-Asad, who was also born in 1930.
Patrick attended Balliol and St. Antony’s College, Oxford, but his imagination never wandered too far, or for too long, from Syria. An abiding attachment had been formed in his childhood, along with an enduring fascination with the men from the rural hinterlands who rose to power after independence, waving the banner of Arab unity. After his studies with Albert Hourani at St. Antony’s, he moved in 1963 to Beirut, where he befriended Philby. (Philby later claimed that Seale worked for MI6, which Seale denied.) It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue. The “Arab cold war” was at its height, and there was no better, or more pleasurable, listening post for a foreign correspondent than Beirut. The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day. (These soirées were later the subject of a charming little book, sadly out of print, by the Palestinian journalist Said Aburish, The St. George Hotel Bar.) Seale flourished in this ambience.
It was a populist age, not a democratic one. The “masses,” exalted at demonstrations in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, were expected to rally but otherwise keep their mouths shut. Political decision making was left to men in uniform. Nasser and his “sons,” from Asad to Qaddafi, had been stirred to action by the failures of an older generation of leaders, the men who had promised to defend Palestine and instead lost it to the Jews. Determined to wash away the shame of the 1948 defeat, they were pitiless toward those who stood in their way. Their defining passion — and the great subject of Seale’s work — was the constantly thwarted struggle for unity in the face of Zionism and American imperialism. The case of Syria, Seale showed, dramatized this story with particular force. Nowhere had the division sown by the Western powers been as painfully felt as in bilad al-sham, “the lands of Damascus,” which had suffered various “amputations” after World War I, from Britain’s sponsorship of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine to the establishment, under the French Mandate, of the Maronite-dominated “state of greater Lebanon.” The West may have forgotten “greater Syria,” but the Syrians had not. Yet for all that he said in praise of Arab unity, Patrick never succumbed to the illusion that it was only Western meddling that kept the Arabs divided: He knew that even the most militant defenders of “unity” had been willing accomplices to the Arab world’s division, bickering among themselves, jockeying for influence and attention. He was particularly astute on the tensions between Egypt and Syria, which formed a single state from 1958-1961 — the high-water mark of Arab unity, as it turned out — only to become bitter rivals, particularly after Anwar al-Sadat signed a separate peace with Israel. As Seale wrote in his biography of Hafiz al-Asad, one of Asad’s most persistent dilemmas was that “Syria could do little with Egypt and little without it.”
Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East was published in 1988. Written with the assistance of Maureen McConville, his collaborator on a fine book about May 1968 in Paris, it was no less accomplished a history than The Struggle for Syria. The prose was more fluid and magisterial, the storytelling even more gripping, its intimacy with the austere dictator of Baathist Syria incomparable. But, this time, Seale’s closeness to his subject proved to be more of a liability — particularly for his reputation, which never quite overcame the stigma of being Asad’s official biographer. Seale clearly had Asad’s trust, but Asad had Seale’s ear. “More than any Arab statesman of his day,” he wrote, “Asad represents the Arabs’ aspiration to be masters of their own destiny in their own region.” No one doubted Asad’s shrewdness — he was a consummate survivor, and a masterful tactician — but Seale’s portrait of him as a man of principle, vision and even heroism suggested, to some, that a Faustian bargain had been struck. The judgment was not entirely fair. Admiring as Seale was of Asad’s statecraft, Asad of Syria was no court biography: Seale made no secret of Asad’s ruthlessness toward his opponents, nor did he conceal the horrors that Asad inflicted on the insurgency in Hama in 1982. With his usual cunning, he had burnished the myth of Asad, the “lion” who had made Syria the “one enemy Israel needs to take seriously,” while providing just enough incriminating detail for the careful reader to see through the myth. His conclusion hinted unmistakably at the weakness of Asad’s Syria: His “achievements still have a fragile look about them. Too much depends on one man.”
It was a prescient judgment. No less prescient was his account of Asad’s rise to power, through which he told the story of Syria’s ‘Alawi sect with novelistic verve and a remarkable sensitivity to the politics of family, clan and sect. Ostracized by the Sunni majority as Shi‘i heretics and resented for their collaboration with the French, “the Alawis suffered from an acute sense of grievance, nourished over centuries, which explained the formidable energy, even the frenzy, with which this unfavored community snatched at education, wealth and power once the wheel of fortune turned.” Asad, who grew up in the mountainous village of Qardaha in northwestern Syria, belonged to a generation of ‘Alawis who shook off their “sectarian grudges,” made their way to the cities and found a home in the Baath, “the most pan-Arab of parties.” Even so, “the inescapable Alawi label was to be his burden. He had to work hard to convince his skeptical compatriots that he had left minority complexes behind him, had committed himself body and soul to the nationalist mainstream, and was indeed fit to lead them.” He developed a base of support well beyond the ‘Alawi community, reaching deep into the Sunni urban bourgeoisie, but the inner circle, the men who protected him (and would later protect his son), remained largely ‘Alawi. And though he was willing to forge an alliance with Iran’s revolutionary mullahs, religion was banned from politics inside Syria, where the Muslim Brothers represented a dangerous threat to the regime, and to the ‘Alawi minority in particular.
Seale’s feel for this story, I think, had roots in his own. He had no trouble grasping secularism’s attraction — indeed, its existential necessity — for members of minority confessions. (The Baath party’s version of pan-Arabism was itself the creation of a Christian Syrian intellectual, Michel ‘Aflaq, whom Seale interviewed in The Struggle for Syria.) By establishing a reasonably supple foundation for the “Arab nation” on the basis of shared language, secular pan-Arabism seemed, in its early days, to guarantee inclusion for anyone who spoke Arabic. That, at least, was the promise.
After publishing his Asad biography, Seale settled into a comfortable life in Paris. Grub Street had never been more than a rite of passage for him. An art dealer and literary agent since the early 1970s, he became a columnist for a Saudi-funded newspaper, and a “consultant” in the Gulf, where he increasingly traveled. He had a weakness for lucrative ghostwriting assignments, notably Desert Warrior, the Gulf war memoirs of the Saudi prince Khalid bin Sultan bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, for which he was reportedly paid a half million dollars. He published a very dubious book, Gun for Hire (1992), about the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, claiming that he had been an Israeli agent, rather than an Iraqi one. His only source for this claim was Eric Rouleau’s old friend, the Fatah leader Abu Iyad, who was himself assassinated by Abu Nidal in 1991. No one took Seale’s theory very seriously. Even Seale seemed to have his doubts, cheerfully describing it as a “potboiler,” as if he knew it to be a work of fiction. He married into a Syrian dynasty when he took as his second wife Rana Kabbani, the niece of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and the ex-wife of Mahmoud Darwish. (They had two children.) And he remained close to his friend in Damascus, close enough for the Israelis to roll out the red carpet for him when, at Ehud Barak’s urging, he visited the Jewish state in June 1999. He had private audiences with Barak, Shamir and Peres; gave a widely publicized talk at the Moshe Dayan Center; and took a tour of the occupied Golan with Uri Saguy, a former head of military intelligence, who gave a tearful speech to a group of settlers, hinting at the “painful concessions” to come. The Israeli press reported on Seale’s trip as if it were an official visit from the Asad family — which Patrick denied with his usual exuberance, no doubt relishing the attention.
As his profile grew, his writing suffered. Whether out of complacency, or from having marinated too long in Damascus, his voice took on some of the wooden, hectoring inflections of regional polemic. His journalism had little of the subtlety, or literary grace, of his books on Syria. Perhaps that was the price of doing business in the region, at least in the circles in which he moved. But in conversation he remained alert, informed and often ahead of the curve. In 2008, for example, I asked him if he thought there was a story to be written about the Mubarak regime, which most “experts” considered to be stable, even calcified. He replied:
There is indeed a REAL story in Egypt — and it is awaiting the Shatz treatment! The country appears to be in a pre-revolutionary situation, although no one dares say so. The aged Mubarak has been in power since 1981 and is, by all accounts, greatly diminished. The question of the succession has by no means been settled, in spite of the attention being given to Gamal. No one knows whether, when the time comes, the army will accept him — a man with no military background, little popular appeal, and mediocre personal talents. No one knows to what extent the army has been penetrated by the Islamists, and whether there is a “free officers” movement in the making among junior officers, who have not enjoyed the pampering enjoyed by senior ranks. Most people agree that the Muslim Brothers are a formidable, if still latent, force. Above all, the economic and social situation of the masses is catastrophic…. Egypt has to import 50 per cent of its grain at great cost — especially this past year when grain prices soared. This is where the revolutionary potential lies. Cairo is always vulnerable to an effet de foules — that is to say, a vast angry mob pillaging and setting fire to buildings as has happened in the past. One last point, the peace with Israel is hugely unpopular, among both intellectuals and common folk, because of the continued oppression of the Palestinians. But you know all this…. It really is a great story, not least because of the impact on Israel, on the US and on the region of any revolutionary change in Egypt.
When it came to Syria, Seale could never quite break with the old regime, although, in private, he was increasingly contemptuous of Asad fils. When I saw him in February 2011 at his son’s apartment in Shepherd’s Bush, he offered a penetrating analysis of the rural roots of the rebellion. The Syrian countryside had been ravaged by drought, while economic “reforms” had allowed Bashar’s friends to enrich themselves. Patrick seemed frustrated that the regime had responded so brutally to the uprising, but in his columns he expressed little sympathy for its victims. Less than a year after our meeting, he wrote: “No regime, whatever its political coloring, can tolerate an armed uprising without responding with full force. Indeed, the rise of an armed opposition has provided the Syrian regime with the justification it needed to seek to crush it with ever bloodier repression.” I e-mailed him: “Isn’t this what the Israelis said during the second intifada? I suppose the distinction here is that the Palestinians were trying to liberate their land, not overthrow the Israeli state within the Green Line. But how far are we — who care about Syrian civilians, whatever their sect — willing to tolerate the regime’s response? Where to draw the line?”
Patrick never replied. Perhaps Syria’s violent disintegration — and the prospect of its dismemberment — was too painful for him to contemplate. Perhaps he understood better than others just how potent and radical a force Syria’s Islamists remained; how determined they were to settle scores with the regime that had crushed their rebellion three decades ago. (Western observers who were caught off guard by the increasingly Islamist — and sectarian — nature of the Syrian insurgency plainly had not read his account of Asad’s battle with the Brothers, led at the time by a red-bearded rabble rouser called Marwan Hadid.) He initially insisted that it was the ruling clique, not Bashar, who opposed reform, and only much later admitted that Bashar himself was incapable of it. Even then, however, he shied away from calling for Bashar to step down — or, perhaps, never succumbed to the illusion many of us had that Asad’s days were numbered. Neither the regime nor the rebels could win, he argued; only a regional agreement, including the Russians and the Iranians, could restore peace in Syria. This view was grounded in a well-earned understanding of the regime’s power — and of its obstinacy — but it provoked the wrath of those who insisted on Asad’s removal as a precondition for negotiations, including Patrick’s estranged wife, Rana Kabbani, who, as he lay dying, tweeted: “Last of the Orientalists, Patrick Seale knew no Arabic, was racist and preferred Arab dictators to their people.”
Spectacularly vulgar (and mendacious) though this tweet was, Kabbani had a point. Seale, the dazzling chronicler of the struggle for Arab unity, had never lost a sense of the plot, but the plot changed with the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, and, when the spirit of revolt spread to Syria, Seale found himself adrift. He seemed more at home in the era of the one-party state, when paternalist leaders stood in for the masses; when unity against the (Israeli or American) enemy, not popular democracy, was the order of the day. He sometimes gave the impression of being more concerned with Syria’s territorial integrity than with the suffering of its people. Many of his Syrian admirers turned against him. “For many Syrians,” Faisal Al Yafai writes in a measured appraisal of Seale’s work, “the bitterness is that a man who so loved the country didn’t feel it was necessary to save it from the Asad regime at all.” But as Al Yafai himself acknowledged, Patrick “may even have recognized, more quickly than some of us, that the time for even a surgical strike to end the conflict had passed.” If he refused to get on board with the uprising, it was not out of love of Bashar Asad and his regime, but out of sober realism. Patrick, who had written the definitive autopsy of the “United Arab Republic,” knew the difference between words and things, a difference often lost on observers of the region.
Fortunately, Patrick lived just long enough to complete his last book, The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad al-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (2010), the prequel to his first book. A biography of Lebanon’s first post-independence prime minister (and yet another account of the Arabs’ “struggle” for sovereignty), it was a return to form, and he considered it his best book. The magic, the commanding, muscular style, was back. Patrick luxuriated in the recreation of the vanished world of Lebanon and Syria under the Mandate, the world in which he grew up. It was a more genteel place than bilad al-sham today: more ethnically diverse, less violent, less authoritarian and, in spite of the lack of Arab unity, less fractured. Seale’s death has been particularly saddening for those who still carry a memory of that world, before it began to collapse in the Lebanese civil war. Perhaps the most moving tribute to Seale came from a man who knew as well as anyone that politics in bilad al-sham is made up of cruel choices: Walid Jumblatt, who has been on almost every side in the dangerous game of Lebanese politics since he took over the leadership of Lebanon’s Druze community from his father, Kamal Jumblatt, who was killed in 1977 for his defiance of Syria. Seale was a close friend of Jumblatt’s parents. In his Asad biography, Seale writes that when Jumblatt paid a visit to Asad after the 40-day mourning period was over, the man who ordered his father’s murder greeted him by saying: “How closely you resemble your father!” Three decades later, Jumblatt broke with Damascus. Seale never did, but Jumblatt had no interest in pursuing a petty quarrel. Patrick’s death stirred something deep in him, as it did in many of those who knew him: “I would say it is a relief for Patrick to have departed this life, at this moment. He no longer has to witness the agony of Syria and its ultimate destruction…. I will miss Patrick Seale. And I will miss the Syria we both knew. The Syria that was a fulcrum of stability and defiance in the Middle East is no more; a Syria that is crumbling into anarchy and chaos is the Syria to which Patrick Seale said farewell. The passing of Syria reminds us that a whole generation of distinguished, precious Arabists is being lost forever.” The trouble with Seale was not that he was the “last Orientalist,” but that there aren’t enough Orientalists like him.
CORRECTIONS: The original version of this article said that Rana Kabbani is the sister of Nizar Qabbani and was divorced from Seale. She is Qabbani’s niece. And though estranged from Seale, the two were never divorced. We regret the errors.