In this comprehensive history of Syria, John McHugo compares the police state erected by the Assad family "with a crumbling block in a curved arch that is held in place by the adjoining rocks." The "tremor" of the uprising that started in 2011 has "loosened the Syrian block so that now it hangs precariously. We still do not know if or when it will come crashing" (p. 241). This analogy neatly summarizes what McHugo achieves in this book. He explains how the Syrian state first emerged under the French Mandate after World War I, then endured two-and-a-half decades of instability following independence in 1946, and finally was brought under control by Hafez al-Assad (who formally seized power in 1970) and his son Bashar, who succeeded him upon his death in 2000. It has been a bumpy road; Syria has enjoyed neither internal nor external security in its first century.
The process of state development in Syria has been heavily shaped by international and regional forces. As McHugo writes, "Throughout history, Greater Syria has been vulnerable to invasion from all points of the compass" (p. 36). Indeed, part of what is now Syria was conquered by the Arab armies in the seventh century, occupied by the Crusaders from 1089 until 1261, devastated by Tamerlane's forces in 1400-01, and later subsumed by the Ottoman Empire from 1516 until the end of World War I.
Following the carving up of the Levantine provinces of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious powers of World War I, the region entered the brutal age of European imperialism. Modern Syria thus began the first 26 years of its existence as a French Mandate. To control its restless province, France attempted to turn it "into a patchwork quilt of semi-autonomous but dependent territories" (p. 75), seeking to discourage the emergence of Syria-wide resistance. Worried that rising Arab nationalism could fuel opposition to its colonial possessions in the Arab world, Paris thus regularly favored minorities, especially the Alawites and Druze. It is in this context, in particular, that Paris privileged the recruitment of minorities into the military, a policy that contributed to the eventual rise of the Alawite-dominated Assad regime.
For the first decades of its existence, Syria was a weak state, stumbling from one fragile government to another military coup. As the era of French and British domination of the Levant came to a close, Syria thus rapidly became penetrated by new layers of great- and regional-power ambitions. By the 1950s, "two tugs of war" (p. 135) were taking place. Damascus, first, emerged as a key regional player in the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Syria was also the object of penetration by its Arab neighbors — the victim of competition for influence between radical states led by Nasser's Egypt and pro-Western conservative monarchies.
The civil war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 to some extent reversed this situation. Damascus had for decades feared that a collapse of the fragile ethnic and sectarian balance in Lebanon would spill over its own borders. To keep a lid on the situation, Syria's answer was to invade and impose hegemony over its warring neighbor. Occupation had its benefits, especially by reinforcing Syria's position relative to Israel. Yet it also proved costly. Arab nationalists grew disillusioned towards Hafez al-Assad, not forgiving his invasion of another Arab state. Decades of meddling in Lebanon also empowered, and often corrupted, military commanders and intelligence officials. In today's Syrian civil war, they essentially behave as warlords.
The Arab-Israeli conflict also had a corrosive effect on Syria's development. As a frontline state, it actively participated in the 1948-49, 1967 and 1973 wars. Israel's continued occupation of the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967, in particular, has been used as a justification by the Assad regime to push for the further militarization of Syrian society and politics. At the same time, authorities in Damascus have viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict primarily through the lens of rivalry with their Arab neighbors; the welfare of the Palestinian people was not a primary consideration.
On the domestic front, McHugo shows how the emergence of the Assad regime — its structures, strategic culture, sectarian make-up and main policies — sheds much light on current dynamics. The French colonial power, for example, relied extensively on a patronage network to try to control its Syrian possession, building a fragile balance among minorities, along with notable Sunni families from large cities and rural landlords. This marked the beginning of the institutionalization of sectarian differences in modern Syria.
Multiple ideologies competed in post-independence Syria to fill the political and institutional vacuum left by the hastily departed French. Imported approaches — communism, the political Islam of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Arab nationalism and Baathism, which combined Arab renewal, secularism, socialism and anti-imperialism — all found support among different sectors of society. On March 8, 1963, a coup led by Baathist, nationalist and independent military officers formally sounded the death knell of the old order dominated by Sunni notable families. The rest of the 1960s then witnessed the consolidation of Baath power. At the same time, an Alawite air-force officer, Hafez al-Assad, ruthlessly eliminated his rivals until he formally took control in 1970.
Yet, as McHugo rightly argues, it is inaccurate to refer to the Assad regime as Alawite. The Assad family has certainly surrounded itself with Alawites, promoting members of its clan to the highest echelons of power and forming alliances with other Alawite clans. But other minorities are strongly represented, while the regime still relies on the support of prominent Sunni merchant families. At the same time, segments of the Alawite community have been as neglected by the regime as other communities. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that, since the rise to power of the Assads, minorities have been disproportionately represented, while Sunnis have been partially displaced.
These domestic, regional and international trends have converged into an orgy of violence since 2011. This historical context allows McHugo to rightly point out that, even though the civil war has acquired a sectarian hue, its origins lie in local social, political and economic circumstances, not in doctrinal differences. The war is, in many ways, the product of a revolt of the underclass: the rural poor, who suffered through one of the worst droughts in decades after 2006, and the growing number of slum dwellers, who faced very limited job opportunities and suffered from a lack of state social services while living under heavily repressive conditions. Frustration also steadily grew as timid economic reforms under Bashar failed to improve living standards; they instead led to rising inequalities and the emergence of a new clique of crony capitalists.
The regime's heavy-handed response significantly contributed to the escalation of what was initially a patchwork of local uprisings into an entrenched and regionalized civil war. McHugo draws interesting parallels here with the revolt against French colonial power in the 1920s, which was also driven by a mix of social, economic and political causes. The excessively violent French response similarly poured oil on the fire. Like Assad today, they used aerial bombardment and partly contracted out the violence to thuggish militias recruited among minorities.
McHugo also carefully explains how the current confrontation between the Assad regime and Sunni Islamist groups — from moderates to the extremist Islamic State — must be seen as but the latest stage in a historical thread going back decades. Tension between the Baath party and the Sunni community started in the 1960s, when the old Sunni urban and rural notables were displaced by a new elite hailing mostly from minorities and the countryside. Strikes and skirmishes grew more frequent, escalating to a full-blown insurgency by the late 1970s. This culminated in the 1982 battle of Hama, when Hafez al-Assad's forces pulverized the historic city center, where the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had found refuge, killing thousands of people. Assad never forgot that indiscriminate and overwhelming force had quelled the revolt, a lesson his son Bashar has tried to replicate since 2011.
John McHugo's overview of the history of Syria in the past hundred years is well-written and easy to read. It successfully covers key events of the period and includes a useful chronology and glossary. The reader familiar with the country's history will mostly find ground well-covered elsewhere. However, the book's approachable style and balance of political, diplomatic, military and social history make it a valuable introductory history of Syria, as well as a concise explanation of today's civil war.