Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant

By Emile Hokayem,

Routledge, 211 pages, $15.99

Starting in early 2011, a non-violent uprising in Syria preoccupied global and regional actors, aware that any escalation would spill over into several neighbouring states. As events progressed and Syria fell into the abyss it is in, Western powers hesitated in their differentiations between friend and foe, which empowered the regime to rely on its legendary violence that went from one extreme to the other.

Casualty figures reached obscene levels while conditions for the living, internal refugees as well as those who lingered in hastily assembled refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan — along with appalling non-camp-like conditions in Lebanon — became unendurable.

Syria was condemned to its tragic fate, the product of neglect that developed over five decades, and the result of boastful but entirely skewed military prowess than accumulated defeats, both of which transformed it into a dictatorship.

In this highly readable study, Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the Middle East office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, crosses the t’s and dots the i’s of the Syrian civil war.

In five concise chapters, he describes the key developments that marked Syria, and raises critical questions for putative solutions. Although the study focuses on regional concerns, its strength lies in providing the reader with a superb analysis of the “decay of the Syrian state” (chapter 1) that discusses how Bashar Al Assad consolidated power, failed to introduce real reforms into the economy, and relied on security forces to reinforce sectarianism despite the fact that modern Syria was a relatively secular state.

Naturally, his father and predecessor, President Hafez Al Assad, set the stage for the country’s sectarian preferences and to “attenuate the stigma of heresy attached by Sunnis to Alawites”, went as far as obtaining “recognition of the Alawites as an offshoot of Shia Islam from a senior Lebanese Shia cleric Imam Musa Sadr” (page 32).

Hokayem’s analysis of the post-2011 uprising (chapter 2) highlights the brutality of the Assad government, though it recognises that after two years of intensive warfare, “the shrinking of the Assad regime, politically, militarily and territorially, is likely irreversible” (page 63). Where the author excels is in his discussion of the opposition, and its steady rise, describing in detail various political and military groups (chapter 3).

He tackles the so-called jihadi-takfiri struggle and provides a raison d’être to the Sunni majority determined not to lose this “opportunity to reverse the defeat in Iraq” (page 98). In fact, the author addresses the rising influence of Iran along these lines, which is both correct and existential for Tehran and its Syrian acolytes clinging to power.

The regional struggle over Syria is addressed in chapter 4, which covers in addition to Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and, especially, the Arab Gulf states. Hokayem’s analysis is spot on when he writes that the “prospect of regime change in Syria held much prose” for Gulf governments, not only because the “monarchies were profoundly inimical to the Assad regime”, but also because they understood that “a Ba‘athist, Alawite-dominated, secular, pseudo-republican government that ran a socialist economy, [that] was aligned with Iran and Hezbollah and manipulated the Palestinian cause” (page 120), could not possibly add value to the Arab fold. Moreover, Hokayem affirms that Iran’s dreams of “Islamic awakening” could not be ascribed — as it was by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — to be the “work of criminal gangs, and marginal elements of Syrian society”.

Such a conclusion, avows the author, “betrayed a lack of knowledge of Syrian society, demonstrating that the strong strategic and security bonds had not translated into societal interactions able to inform Iranian thinking” (page 124).

The book’s final (sixth) chapter, “Syria in the international context”, covers critical Western and Russian perceptions of the civil war and its presumed repercussions. Although Moscow stood by its client, insisting that Bashar Al Assad would remain in office until the end ostensibly because he was supposedly the guarantor of the country’s sovereignty, Russian assessments about Assad’s prospects dimmed considerably in late 2012.

Hokayem quotes Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov who told a Russian parliamentary committee on December 12, 2012: “Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition … We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory” (page 177).

Early this year, that is long before the more recent alleged use of banned chemical weapons that was likely to usher in a Western attack as this review was composed, Moscow had warned Damascus that the use of such weapons would not be tolerated (page 181). Still, the only explicit red line drawn by Western countries failed to ensure the promise of a felicitous outcome to Syria’s agony.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the recently published “Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia” (London: Routledge, 2013).