This volume, edited by Raymond Hinnebusch, professor of international relations and Middle East politics at St. Andrews University, and Tina Zintl, lecturer at the University of Tübingen, is not solely a last-minute update of the Syrian civil war. Instead, it brings the reader back into a reassessment of the "recent past" of that country, providing detailed insights into the political and social dynamics before the 2011 uprisings that, arguably, would form the roots of the ensuing war. Firmly grounded in the scientific fields of political and social sciences, Syria from Reform to Revolt is set to be a must-read for those scholars and policy makers who long for a better-informed understanding of Bashar al-Assad's regime and its relations with Syrian society.
Outlined in the long introduction and final chapter, the main thesis of the editors is based on the "authoritarian upgrading" of the Syrian regime during the 2000s. This was an attempt by Assad to place the regime in tune with global and regional standards of neoliberalism and "post-populism," while retaining ultimate control and positioning the country within the so-called "axis of resistance" to Western interference in the Middle East. Reformist policies scored some limited results in the short term but fueled discontent among large sections of the population, including regime elites and provincial, traditional constituencies. Such "grievances" were never dealt with seriously and became those "vulnerabilities" of the regime that later could arguably be labeled the "seeds of the revolt" to come (pp. 29, 293).
The first chapter, by Hinnebusch, focuses on the struggle for power between Bashar al-Assad and the Baath party during the 2000s. The young president is credited here with a determination to reform the country along some kind of neoliberal pattern. As long as he tried to elaborate and enforce reforms, he had to face resistance from the Baath, which he won by marginalizing or dismissing Baathist "barons" and appointing new reformist-oriented "loyals" (p. 32). By deconstructing the party and de facto dismantling the public sector, Bashar concentrated powers in the presidency and relied on the intelligence services and the army. In the process, he lost contact with the traditional social constituencies of the party, which were mainly located in provincial and rural areas as well as among public employees (pp. 39-40). This came at a price: now "he could not evade responsibility for discontent" either for the slow path of implementation of neoliberal reforms or the rising social exclusion these involved (p. 40).
Apart from the security services and the army, Assad had almost exclusively to rely on the instruments of coercion. He could exert dominance but not hegemony.
In the second chapter, Sameer Abboud argues that the term "social" in the so-called "social market economy," adopted by the presidency since 2005, was void of any actual meaning. The "social" side of the neoliberal reforms was aimed to shield the more vulnerable segments of society from the heavy impact of marketization. The author combines laws and regulations adopted by the governments in the last decade with their consequences on people's incomes; he concludes that, actually, there was hardly any evidence for the investment in the construction of a social safety net that would compensate for the restructuring of public services (p. 60). The "social market economy" was indeed a "public narrative" (p. 54) meant to appease opposition to the fundamental "reversal" of the Baathist social contract of "plebeian corporatism" (p. 62).
Aurora Sottimano explores the changing nature of the regime's legitimacy in the last chapter of Part One. Hafiz al-Assad and the Baath party based policy upon "steadfastness" in foreign policy and domestic "stability" to legitimize their harsh rule over the country. The author argues that Bashar gradually shifted both pillars of the regime's legitimacy. From "steadfastness" it moved to "resistance," with the opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Hezbollah political victory against Israel in Lebanon in 2006 as major turning points that would draw Damascus nearer to Teheran, Moscow or Beijing. In the economic realm, the slogan "social market economy" redirected the social constituency of the regime from the working classes to a new wealthy and internationalized elite. This was one more argument for the destruction of the "social pact" upon which the regime was built (p. 86).
The second part of the volume focuses on the changes in the social base of the Syrian regime. Najib Ghadbian traces the ups and downs of Syrian dissent and the regime's responses. Three waves are outlined: 2000 with the so called "Damascus Spring" (p. 92); 2003-05 centered on the "Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change" by opposition forces (p. 96); and 2008-10, with the jailing of the last remnants of dissent (p. 98). All these forces featured a reformist agenda based on civil liberties, liberalism, representative democracy, human rights and nonviolence. In all instances, the regime opened a few spaces of discussion and then systematically repressed any dissent. Despite its limits in mutual mistrust and fragmentation (p. 106), Ghadbian supports the idea that the "old" dissent contributed to framing the "early" phase of Syrian uprisings by giving it international resonance, and showcasing renowned public figures and an early democratic agenda for change (p. 111).
Tina Zintl addresses an original topic, namely the presidency's strategy to co-opt foreign-educated Syrians and foreign experts for its reformist policy. Willing to nurture his image of a "modernizer," Bashar al-Assad exploited the competences and the symbolic value of Syrians who had studied and, more important, had worked with international institutions. They were meant to assist in sidelining the "old" statist officials and to enforce neoliberal reforms (p. 113). The support of private, foreign-oriented universities since the mid-2000s was another avenue toward cultivating a new ruling elite. However, those who attended proved to be mainly the offspring of local, "crony" capitalists; they had little interest in liberal reforms that might thwart their family or personal assets (pp. 124, 131). Foreign experts from UN agencies, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union entered the corridors of Syrian state ministries to provide economic feasibility studies and policy recommendations. Co-option and counseling were made on an individual basis in order to channel them into the regime's "desired fields" (p. 113): mainly trade and finance, and education and media. These techniques also served to contain their influence when it did not fit well with the dynamics of political struggle inside the regime (p. 113).
Closely connected to the cultivation of a new social base for the regime, the chapter of Mandy Terc focuses on the promotion of the values of "volunteerism" and "entrepreneurship" among the youth of the rising private-oriented social class. The author argues that strategies to promote such values contributed to the reproduction of class cohesion among the wealthy, urban, English-speaking elites — all this in stark contrast to the marginalization of the rural or peripheral poor (pp. 138, 152).
In "God and Nation," Paulo Pinto explores the regime's strategies for exploiting Islam to broaden and enhance its legitimacy, banking on the symbols, rituals and vocabulary of both Sufism and conservative quietist Islam. As a matter of fact, it was an attempt to mobilize Islamic authorities for nationalist goals (p. 157), with special attention to the Sunni religious authorities whose appointment procedures were increasingly filtered and concentrated in the hands of a restricted circle of regime loyalists and religious actors (p. 160). Such a strategy generally succeeded in rallying the top Sunni authorities behind the regime against foreign threats and militant political Islam. However, there was a backlash at the medium and grassroots levels, where doctrinal autonomy and legitimacy based on local origins were jealously defended against external intervention, whether from the "modernist" Baathists or the political Islamists (pp. 163, 175).
The interaction between the predominantly secular regime and Sunni authorities is further investigated by Rania Maktabi through the debate on the reform of the personal-status law. A conservative new draft was elaborated by the minister of justice with senior Sunni clerics in April 2009 and, strangely, was leaked to the public later in May, unleashing an outcry over the "Talibanization" of Syrian law (p. 177). After a powerful public campaign by NGOs, women's associations, secular public figures and liberal religious authorities (pp. 184-86), the government withdrew the first draft and adopted a new one, milder in tone and content (p. 191). The debate, the author argues, showed the weakness of liberal reformism in Syria as far as women's rights were concerned, but also the strength of public mobilization through the Internet as well as traditional media (p. 196). It exposed the tacit tug-of-war between politicians and religious leaders and, finally, the regime's success in finding a solution that would guarantee, first and foremost, its security. Indeed, it basically agreed on liberal reform, but not up to the point of endangering the support of conservative Sunni clerics (p. 198).
The final chapter, "The End of a World," by Myriam Ababsa focuses on the impact of the 2007-10 drought, which devastated several rural areas of Syria, particularly the northeastern provinces of Raqqa, Deir-er-Zor and Hassaka. Roughly one million poor people were affected by the drought in Jezira, accelerating a migration toward the urban and suburban areas. Ababsa argues that political factors were just as relevant as natural ones in radicalizing the impact of the drought. First, the regime did not prevent the mismanagement and overexploitation of water resources; second, with Law 56 of 2004 it exacerbated the vulnerability of peasants by supporting the concentration of landownership in favor of larger private entrepreneurs, mostly loyal to the regime (p. 211). Ultimately, Bashar al-Assad presided over the reversal, or "counterrevolution," of Baathist and nationalist agrarian policies dating back to the late 1950s. It was no surprise that those people still in the rural provinces or shanty margins of the main cities, were generally responsive to calls for change and opposition to the regime (p. 222).
The third part might have dealt with the "regional and international challenges" faced by the Syrian regime. Yet, it also focuses on domestic dynamics of dissent or the impact of social and political actors, both internal and external. Carsten Wieland connects the strategies of relaxation and repression adopted by the Syrian regime to the foreign-policy crisis the latter faced during the 2000s (p. 226). His analysis confirms that, whenever Damascus felt threatened, it cracked down on every kind of dissent, especially the liberal, democratic type in 2001 and 2005-06. However, the last wave of repression came about after 2008, when the Syrian regime had reemerged from isolation at both regional and international levels — thus there was no external threat at all (p. 231). This reversal of the previous pattern, Wieland argues, is further evidence of the ultimate unwillingness of Bashar al-Assad and the regime to move towards democracy (p. 243).
The last two chapters focus on the impact that two "external" factors — the huge influx of Iraqi refugees, and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas — had on Syrian politics. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people took refuge in Syria after the U.S. invasion, and as long as civil and sectarian war engulfed the country after 2006. Their "temporary" arrival often became "permanent," devastating the social and economic development of urban areas, like the Jaramanah or Saida Zaynab districts in Damascus (p. 252). Valentina Napolitano focuses on the development of Hamas among the Palestinians, in particular those living in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. On the rise since 2000, after the decline of relations between Syria and Fatah with the Oslo peace process (p. 269), the author analyzes how the initial positive encounter was mainly due to the Hamas militant and "alternative" stand in the second Intifada as well as the provision of social services for a "cohesive" community (p. 272). However, Palestinians grew disillusioned as long as the Islamist movement proposed to participate to the elections in 2006; refugees were thereafter marginalized in the political agenda of Hamas, not least because they could not cast their votes in the balloting (p. 280). The political fracture between Damascus and Hamas since 2011 has put an end to the latter's presence in Syria and, in the opinion of the author, there were few chances for Hamas to recover its status. The widespread sentiment among Palestinian refugees was that of being once more exploited by political forces for partisan or parochial interests.
The third part of the volume concludes with the analysis of Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl of the early period of the uprisings in Syria. The authors agree on the reformist, democratic and nonviolent features of the early phase of the protest movements, which faced a regime that moved along traditional lines of violent repression while making a few, partial reforms. This process would eventually pave the way for jihadi movements to take the upper hand in the armed conflict, both from within Syria and from the neighboring "open wound" of Iraq. The authors discern this change from the previous "authoritarian upgrading" to the so-called "authoritarian resistance at all costs" (p. 309). As such, both camps are entrenched in an existential struggle for survival, a vicious circle in which no force is strong enough to get the upper hand over their enemies. However, such a stalemate does not lead to a compromise, because all parts frame their struggle as an existential one.
Some general critical observations are addressed within the volume in terms of integration. The first concerns the absence of a more detailed and cohesive analysis of the international relations of Syria under Bashar al-Assad. It would have been interesting to know in the first place how regional and international actors, such as states, businesses and NGOs, intervened in Syria and engaged with their Syrian counterparts. Secondly, more details would have been helpful on how regional and international factors constrained and influenced events in Syria. Once the domestic perspective of the volume is assumed, we still lack an in-depth analysis of the resilience of the "old," marginalized institutions, like the Baath party and the National Front as well as trade unions. One might ask for more information on the transformations that occurred to both the Syrian army and the myriad intelligence and security agencies. Apart from changes in the appointment of the top echelons, there is still only scattered information on the structure and actual functioning of the backbone of the regime in Syria.
This volume deserves close attention. First, for students and scholars, it is a highly informative analysis of the origins of the uprisings in Syria, and it provides a coherent and effective interpretative framework. Second, this book represents quite a good reference source for those scholars and policy makers engaged in discussions on what might be done in Syria once the guns are laid down: namely, the high risks involved in any pattern of reform that excludes and marginalizes large sections of society. The people of Syria will be not be the same after so many years of material, social and symbolic devastation, but it is highly unlikely they would accept either a return to the status quo or even a more violent upgrading of authoritarianism, should this manifest itself, under either the banner of radical Islam or a security-based regime.