Posted by Joshua on Thursday, June 19th, 2008
NIKOLAOS VAN DAM, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Bacth Party London: I. B. Tauris, 1996). Pp. 240. $24.50 paper.
REVIEWED BY JOSHUA LANDIS, Department of Near East Studies, Princeton University
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Aug., 1998), pp. 447-449
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Only a handful of important books have been written on modern Syria; and Nikolaos Van Dam's The Struggle for Power in Syria is one of them. When it first appeared in 1979 with the subtitle, Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics, 1961-1978, it rapidly set the terms for future debate on Syrian politics. With the recent publication of a revised edition, Van Dam, who has served as the Dutch ambassador to Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, has conscientiously updated his book. He has re-worked the original six chapters and the footnotes, and added three new chapters covering the last twenty years of Assad's rule. The bibliography is the best of its kind and should be the starting point for any student wishing to research Syrian politics. Although the book is twice the length of the original, it contains only a merciful 140 pages of text, making it ideal for serious undergraduate classes and indispensable to any Middle East collection.
The passage of eighteen years has only confirmed the intelligence of Van Dam's original thesis. He has demonstrated elegantly and simply that the coups and factionalism in Syrian politics of the 1960s must be understood in terms of identity politics rather than of class. At that time, Bacthist regimes were trumpeting their elimination of sectarianism and tribalism as meaningful social referents in Syria.
Arab nationalists, inclined to accept such claims, theorized about Arab unity and socialism as if an age of liberation were at hand. Ac-ademics, too, were swept up by the post-revolutionary optimism. Many deployed such Marxist categories as the "rural middle class," "Bonapartist state," and "bureaucratic authoritarianism" as if to suggest that the military dictatorships that had become so commonplace in the Middle Eastern landscape were not as bad as they seemed. Some even argued that they were a pre-requisite to economic development and offered a way out of the destructive embrace of inter-national capitalism. Van Dam took a more sober view.
For Van Dam, dictatorship in Syria was not as much a product of economic necessity as of social fragmentation. Culturally, Syria was too divided to support a pluralistic state. "A clear relationship existed," Van Dam writes, "between political stability and the degree of sectarian, regional and tribal factionalism in the political elite" (p. 139). When the power centers of the state, such as the upper ranks of the security forces and the military, have been divided among diverse sectarian and regional factions, as they were in the 1960s, Syria has been unstable. When "one all-powerful political faction" dominates, as has been the case since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, Syria has experienced stability (p. 137). Almost all of Assad's closest lieutenants are not only 'Alawis, they are also members of his family or tribe, or they come from his hometown of Qardahah. Relying on primordial ties for political loyalty has been a simple necessity of power politics in Syria-and the root of Assad's success. That is to say, it takes a village to rule Syria.
The original chapters in The Struggle for Power in Syria remain the most compelling, for they explain how a complete re-shuffling of Syria's social and political hierarchy followed the cAlawi-led Bathist coup of March 1963. 'Alawi officers, with the assistance of other minority officers from the Syrian countryside, broke the political monopoly held by the Sunnis in a series of purges that led up to the second Bathist coup of 1966. The minority factions could not preserve their alliance following the downfall of the Sunnis. Neither their shared Bathist ideology nor their common background of rural poverty was enough to stem the tide of sectarian distrust sweeping through Syrian politics.
In 1966, the `Alawis purged Druze officers following a dramatic standoff, which was re-solved only after Assad surrounded the Jabal Druze with artillery and threatened to level the region. Next, the Ismailis were swept from senior military positions. By 1970, most senior non-'Alawi officers had been dismissed or arrested for having supported abortive coup at-tempts. As Van Dam points out, "this did not mean that hardly any" non-`Alawi officers were left in the army; rather, "it meant the end of their role as significant power groups" that could threaten the 'Alawi domination of the state (p. 61). The last episode in this decade of upheaval was a battle between two cAlawi factions, one led by Assad and one by Salah Jadid. Assad's superior ability to cultivate regional and tribal loyalties within the military secured his victory. In these chapters, Van Dam demonstrates to the satisfaction of this reviewer that sectarian politics and primordial loyalties are the keys to understanding the major stages in the devel-opment of the contemporary Syrian state.
That said, it should be noted that a number of fine academics remain unconvinced, most notably Raymond Hinnebusch. He insists that "class provides the crucial key that drives change" in Syria, and that sectarian politics are secondary, surfacing only "when class conflict recedes" (p. 141).
The three new chapters continue the story of Syria's sectarian struggles up to the present. Two of the chapters deal with the rise of Syria's Sunni Islamic opposition, and its demise following the fateful Hama massacre of 1982. The final chapter, titled "The Power Elite under Hafiz al-Asad," touches on a number of topics, not the least of which is the question of what will happen when Assad dies.
Little of this material will be new to those who have read Patrick Seale's biography of Assad. Many episodes of Syrian history under Assad are not discussed in any detail, in particular those relating to public and foreign policy such as the 1973 war and Syria's involvement in Lebanon. The reason for these omissions, Van Dam explains, is that "Syrian policies as such had nothing to do with the sectarian composition of the power elite" (p. 137). What is included is prescribed by Van Dam's original thesis.
In his analysis of the Hama massacre, for example, Van Dam explains that the troops who destroyed the Sunni city were largely cAlawi in composition and that their commanding of-ficers were CAlawi almost to the man. He notes that the choice of Hama for the regime's bloody showdown with its opponents was not coincidental, for Hamawis had been responsible for much of the past mistreatment of 'Alawis. Revenge provided the motive for some of the ex-cesses of Hama. If Hama is the yardstick by which scholars and statesmen continue to measure the brutality of Assad's regime, it seems that Van Dam is critical but understanding. He does not try to clear up the controversy over the number killed, but repeats that somewhere be-tween 5,000 and 25,000 perished. If the Muslim Brotherhood had toppled the regime, or if Syria had slipped into civil war as Lebanon did, Van Dam suggests, matters might have been much worse. He points out that the majority of Syrians may well have supported Assad, even if grudgingly, in light of these bleak alternatives. Assad succeeded in breaking the back of the opposition at Hama, we are told, even if he may have "sown the seeds of future strife and revenge." It is clear that like many Western and Israeli statesmen, Van Dam respects Assad for his ability to survive and for his mastery of Syrian politics.
All the same, Van Dam is not optimistic about the prospects for meaningful economic re-form in Syria, or about the possibility of a Velvet Revolution in the future. He points out that Assad's anti-corruption campaigns have been ineffectual because the president refuses to dis-cipline his security chiefs, many of whom are the worst offenders. He doubts that the country can make a peaceful transition to a post-Assad government, because Assad has allowed his re-gime to become ossified. No purges have been carried out, and few top personnel have been changed in the last twenty-five years. Consequently, no new generation has been groomed for power or schooled in the art of government.
Only the president's son, Bashar, seems to be in line to inherit authority from his father. Other members of Assad's inner circle have likewise been grooming their sons to succeed them. He notes that the Sunni majority has not given up its "negative attitude towards 'Alawi religion and 'Alawis in general," and adds that he finds it "very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the present narrowly based, totalitarian regime .. . can be peacefully transformed into a more widely based democracy." The key to Assad's success has been his ability to rule through his metaphorical village. Whether the dynastic principle that Assad and his men have been pushing will catch on in Syria is an open question. Van Dam gives us little reason to believe that Syria is developing the political institutions or broader national identity that may someday replace the parochial loyalties and narrow prejudices that now define politics in Syria.