The Syrian Rebellion, Fouad Ajami, Hoover Institution Press, Pp 240, £ 14.95
“Fouad Ajami, a senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a prominent Middle East scholar, presents a detailed historical perspective on the ongoing, though less reported, rebellion in Syria, while focusing on the similarities and differences in the former Baath ruler Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad, the current ruler and their handling of their country’s dissent.
Thirsting for liberty from autocratic rule, first of the father Hafez al-Assad and subsequently of his son Bashar al-Assad, the Syrians, long silenced, yearn for political debate and argument as had been a prominent feature of their political life before the Assad years. These proud people wanted something more than the drab regime of dictatorship and plunder.
After describing Hafez al-Assad’s rise to the summit of political power despite being born in an Alawi peasant family and how he goes on to dominate the military/Baathist party, pushing aside its founder Michel Aflaq, the author tries to capture the complex political and cultural history of Syria. He describes how the Syrians began seeing light at the end of the dark tunnel following President Hafez al-Assad’s death. But their hopes were short lived.
Hafez is succeeded by his son Bashar, an eye doctor, who has been schooled at the best academies in Damascus, as well as in London for a while and has known no hardships. The author describes Bashar’s “coming out” in February 2005, “highlighting the succession that Hafez rigged for his son” while shedding light on the ways that Bashar’s rule emulates his father’s.
The author pierces the wall of secrecy around Bashar al-Assad by describing how this Syrian leader gets neighbouring Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri killed in a car bombing on Beirut’s seafront.
Syria’s political and military class and Hafez al-Assad believed that “Lebanon was their rightful claim, while the Lebanese feuded among themselves.” It was Bashar al-Assad who was particularly averse to Hariri, a Sunni politician. The latter’s death antagonises the rich Arab country, Saudi Arabia, as Bashar has frustrated them in Lebanon by breaking the code of rulers by describing his counterparts in the Arab world as “half men”.
After Rafik Hariri’s assassination, rebellion comes Syria’s way and this is very vividly described, especially how it takes shape and how Bashar al-Assad earns the title of saffah (blood shedder). Bashar sends the shabiha (security forces) to converge on a neighbourhood in Baniyas and makes the mistake of saying that “conspiracies are like germs, which increase every moment” and to which the Syrian people respond by asking for a new doctor.
The shame of India, the world’s larges democracy, was all its own. India is forever thinking of Kashmir, and the principle of unfettered national sovereignty must be maintained at all cost. There was not much to say about Brazil and South Africa…”
This narrative ends but the “Syrian regime” still stands and the “suffering of the Syrian people has not drawn to a close,” says the author. Here this reviewer is tempted to ask the author that even if Bashar al-Assad were to go, how would peace be ensured in Syria or how would the ordinary Syrian’s plight improve? Is it not ironical that the author himself admits in the Afterword, “It is not pretty in Libya: the militias fight over the country’s direction, even though the sordid chapter of the Muammar el-Qaddafi’s tyranny has closed. Egyptians may not think that the brilliant revolution of Tahrir Square, those magical 18 days that toppled Hosni Mubarak fulfilled all their hopes, but the despised pharaoh is gone.” Another question that arises is has the author forgotten what is happening in Iraq or Afghanistan for that matter, even when their despised leaders were got rid of?
(Hoover Institution at Leland Stanford Junior University, Sanford, California – 94305-6010.)