Book Review


Samer N. Abboud

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria four years ago, many have looked for reliable academic sources on the subject. For the first few years, only a smattering of journal articles appeared to provide a deeper and peer-reviewed analysis of the conflict ripping Syria apart. More recently, a number of works have been published that provide overviews of the conflict from a number of perspectives. Samer Abboud's Syria is one of them, and readers of all levels of knowledge will benefit from engaging with it.

Abboud walks readers through the nineteenth century in Syria, when it remained under Ottoman rule. The Tanzimat reforms initiated in 1839 and 1856 succeeded in expanding the power of the Ottoman state and helping it penetrate distant territories to exercise its rule while also creating a class of private landowners (p. 15). This new class grew in the twilight of the empire and was well-placed to play a role after the collapse of the Ottoman government. Abboud outlines how the French mandate powers who took over after the end of World War I privatized and distributed lands that were previously held collectively in exchange for fealty to French rule, expanding this landowning class (p. 16). As in many other postcolonial contexts, Syria entered independence with a neocolonial elite and lopsided institutions, especially the army, which had been strengthened by the French. Abboud doesn't draw these connections but focuses on the Syrian context. He mentions but does not sufficiently explore much of the political unrest that Syria experienced not long after its independence. Arguably, for example, the 1949 coup against Shukri al-Quwwatli merits mention, especially given what we know about CIA involvement. Its absence here seems to ignore international factors affecting the dynamics Abboud is attempting to explain. He does explore the 1950s well, outlining how the Baath were already growing in influence in the army and other institutions (p. 22).

Abboud's analysis does explain the dynamics that helped the Baath rise and carry out their revolution from above. He lays out the nature of the regime well, showing how marginalized groups were brought into the coalition and previously dominant classes were not completely ousted but sidelined. The most important parts of the chapter come here, in Syria's embrace of socialist central planning and the liberalization/privatization that followed in the early '90s in response to stasis. Abboud agrees with Hinnebusch: the state had sought to strengthen itself instead of developing the economy (p. 34). This embrace of neoliberal market approaches shaped the period leading up to the war, breaking down corporatist structures and isolating the state from society. It also curtailed the redistributive functions of the state without providing for their replacement, something that portends growing inequality. It certainly led to deteriorating living standards in the 2000s and decreased social mobility (p.37). He also discusses what he calls a "circumscribed civil society," able to exist only inside parameters that effectively neutralized its ability to challenge the regime. This also sets up his later argument about the lack of institutions to help mobilize the uprising. Ultimately, Abboud ties the emergence of the uprising to the rapid transformations in economic, domestic and foreign policy. However, neither the uprising in Hama (1982) nor the drought from 2007 to 2009 finds a place in this historical chapter.

The second chapter explores the beginning of the Syrian uprising, from March 2011 until early 2012, illustrating the weakened nature of the opposition and the resultant dynamics of the first months of the uprising. Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) emerged in the beginning and filled the aforementioned institutional gap to help mobilize protests, disseminate information, and assume governance roles in places from which the Assad regime had withdrawn (p. 49). There was very little opposition inside the country; all dissident groups had been marginalized or exiled. But Abboud emphasizes that this should not be taken to mean there was no discontent with the regime. After Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, a brief political opening of sorts occurred. Abboud highlights the "Statement of 1,000," signed by opposition figures from the five main groups at the beginning of the uprisings: the secular urban middle class, tribes, political Islamists, political activists, and the unemployed, marginalized and urban subalterns. Perhaps most important, this chapter breaks down what Abboud calls the "false periodization" separating a nonviolent mobilization from a subsequent militarization of the conflict (p. 81). Abboud argues that both of these were present from the beginning. This adds nuance to his explanation: different actors had different capabilities and motivations for rising up against the regime.

Abboud then moves into Chapter Three, exploring the militarization of the conflict and the "networks of violence" that emerged and shaped the war: "[E]ven in the early stages of the uprising, there were legitimate fears among many Syrians that the sectarianism dynamics of the uprising — a mostly Sunni-led protest movement against a predominantly minority regime — would lead to a bloody civil war and the fragmentation of the country" (p. 75). The strikingly similar events in Hama in 1982 cry out for inclusion, though Abboud does mention Hama all too briefly on page 50. It is not merely the sectarian dimension that scared Syrians prior to the war; a similar scenario had already happened some 30 years prior, and the regime's brutal response took thousands of Syrian lives. Larbi Sadiki wrote forcefully on Al-Jazeera in 2012 about the buried memory of Hama: "The tumult engulfing Syria today had to happen sooner or later. Why? Because of what happened in Hama 30 years ago." Perhaps Sadiki makes this too deterministic, but Abboud doesn't give it enough importance. The reality lies somewhere between the two.

"The militarization of the uprising began in June 2011," begins Chapter Three, "when army defectors formed brigades under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)." Abboud bases his analysis here on the idea of "new wars" from Mary Kaldor, especially the civilianization of violence, the spread of its social base and how it relates to the political economy of war. Building on the fragmented opposition laid out in Chapter Two, Abboud argues it is likewise a mistake to speak of the FSA as an army. It is rather more accurate to describe it as a network of violence, given its fragmentation and lack of an esprit de corps. It has inconsistent leadership and two main kinds of armed groups under its umbrella: one that is highly localized and made up of civilians and defectors active in their towns and villages, and a second that is larger, more diverse and better armed by international donors (p. 88). Abboud lists the factors preventing their incorporation into a hierarchical command as "infighting, resource and material deficiency, and geographical diffusion of the fighters" (p. 89). He also faults the FSA leadership for basing itself in Turkey rather than Syria, hindering their ability to exercise control over local units. These commanders enjoyed very little legitimacy with the fighters they nominally commanded.

The Syrian Arab Army and its allies receive comparable scrutiny that likewise illuminates much for the uninitiated reader: "Regime violence, much like the violence of the rebel groups, is privatized, decentralized, and increasingly civilianized (p. 108)." Abboud presents the conundrum of the regime: increasingly dependent on regional actors like Hezbollah while less and less able to control decision making and command. Abboud does not mention Iran and Russia explicitly here, but his argument applies to the roles they have played in supporting the Assad regime. He provides a good explanation of the role of the shabiha (pp. 109-110), but readers who don't already know might not grasp that these were an integral part of regime repression for years prior to the uprising. Arguably the most important points in the chapter are Abboud's useful descriptions of which rebel groups have been active in which locations of the country, and explanations of their complex shifting alliances.

Chapter Four, "When the World Wades In," gives a much more nuanced analysis of the motivations and capabilities of various international actors than I have seen elsewhere. Many Western policy makers have struggled to deal with the legacy of the failed invasions of Iraq and Libya, but Abboud highlights the extent to which Russia's frustration with the failure of the invasion in Libya has shaped its approach to Syria. The Russians are presented here as skeptical of any Western claims to humanitarian goals behind regime change; they see them as a ruse for expansionism. If analysts constantly point to the American military-industrial complex as a factor in foreign policy, Abboud finds a parallel here in Russian arms sales to Syria and Libya prior to the NATO intervention there. Two billion dollars in arms agreements between Russia and Libya signed by Qaddhafi were torn up, and the new Libyan government signed deals with France instead.

The fast-changing nature of the conflict comes through here: Abboud's very recent work was finished before the Russian military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime, as well as the tensions between Russia and Turkey over the downing of a Russian jet by the Syria-Turkey border. The attention paid to the question of arming the rebels is especially important and well-written. Less common dimensions like the arming of competing factions by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are detailed as well. There is no consensus by foreign powers on how or whom to arm, and Abboud does a good job of laying out the bases of this complex dimension of the conflict. If there is something missing from the chapter, it is the role governments like Yemen, Turkey, Pakistan and Syria itself have played in sponsoring jihadism in the '90s and 2000s. We learn more and more about the roles played by the intelligence services of these nations with each passing day. Finally, the various attempts to make peace at Geneva and in the Moscow Process are soberly explained here.

In Chapter Five, Abboud explores the fragmentation of the conflict, drawing on the issues of violence and division in the opposition to show how these manifest themselves in new forms of governance on the ground. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the FSA and the PYD are all tied to the territories they control on the ground and analyzed. The section on Rojava is especially useful. Abboud makes the strong point that ISIS has been flourishing under a war economy and that many of its sources of revenue, especially extortion and kidnapping, are unsustainable in the long term. He highlights a noticeable lack of "productive" industries in ISIS territory (p. 173), though ISIS does generate revenues through taxation as would a state. Abboud's explanation of electricity generation illuminates the tacit cooperation between the Syrian Army and ISIS, a confusing aspect of the conflict that is often the subject of conspiracy theories alleging secret cooperation between the two.

Chapter Six on the humanitarian disaster builds well on Abboud's analysis of the fragmentation of the country. One can truly begin to grasp how the war pushed so many to flee. Abboud likewise details the conditions they find in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and, finally, Europe. His addition at the end of the networks of Syrians aiding other Syrians adds a dimension all too often overlooked, where Syria is presented as entirely in need of outside help and intervention.

My only major complaints about Abboud's work are the historical ommissions of the devastating drought in the late 2000s and the 1982 regime massacre in Hama. The drought has been getting more and more attention (even from The New York Times and National Geographic) in relation to the civil war, especially as the politics surrounding anthropogenic climate change intensify. However, we must avoid drawing a causal link between the drought and the uprising. To argue as such can only be done in ignorance of Syrian history and the sociopolitical dimensions outlined well by Abboud. Only the most knowledgeable of analysts and Syrians will fail to find something new here. I certainly learned from Abboud's work.