on September 6, 2012
The author admits to a bias for the rebellion and appears to write as a Shia or one from a Shia family. I don't feel his bias or religious background were a problem in his interpretation of what has and is happening in Syria. But, be aware that the Shias are a minor player in the Islamic dominated structure of Syria. The Alawis may be an even smaller minor player when looking at population size but their control of the country up till now has been strong. It is basicly a Sunni country with Alawis control. The Assads have, according to the author, controlled the country by playing one religion against another. The influence and actions of the various religious groups dominate the book. After reading the book you are left with the feeling that the future for this country looks bleak regardless of who wins this rebellion.
on December 30, 2012
There is a known story about a man that finds a magic lamp, from which a genie comes out ready to grant him a single wish. The man asks for a bridge from San Francisco to Hawaii. The genie tries to reason with him regarding the structural problems, maintenance, etc. The man relents and then asks for peace in the Middle East, to which the genie responds: "Let's review your first wish. How many lanes do you need in it?"
Ajami is not the genie, but he tells this story a lot better and in great detail.
Nobody can doubt Ajami's impeccable credentials when reading this still evolving conflict. But to cut to the chase, I'll quote a very candid admission in the afterword, where he states: "To state the obvious, I did not hide my sympathies in this book." And to state the obvious, his sympathies don't rest with the Assad dynasty or the Alawites, for that matter.
The book is easy to read and engaging, although he sometimes dwells on too many details. Statements made by Assad and others, banners seen on demonstrations, etc.
There is a very interesting analysis on the fragmentation of Syria, which curiously had a lot to do with geography: People from the mountains as opposed to urbanites. Obviously, religion and sub-religion is as usual the eternal ingredient of dispute.
Ajami explains how the Alawites came to power. Syrians saw the military as a vocation of the uneducated, the people of the mountain, a title Alawites didn't mind bearing. This position eventually became the decisive factor to power. Of course, the political skills and machinations of Hafez Assad (Bashar's father) are and have always been a material of admiration and a decisive factor as well that brought the Alawites to power for over 40 years.
Perhaps the most disturbing element in Ajami's analysis is that this conflict won't be solved without a lot more spilled blood. And consider that his last prognosis was made in April 2012, well before the rebellion metastasized and became uglier with time. Ajami clearly proved to have semi-prophetic powers.
Alawites have had the best positions in government and government-controlled industries for decades. This culture of entitlement has had the seeds of its own destruction. But the alternatives to relenting power to Sunnis are not clear, nor pretty. Alawites, representing 10% of the population, won't go back to the mountains, and the resentment fermented through decades won't fade away. This perhaps explains the tenacity with which the regime is holding to power. They simply don't have another place to go.
The other minorities see with justified apprehension the course of this rebellion. Despite all evil that came with despotism, minorities have had some protection. Now this protection is anything but guaranteed.
Regarding the rebels themselves, Ajami describes some interviews he had with some charismatic leaders living in exile. I wish Ajami analyzed and/or spent more time describing the nature of the rebellion, its leaders, who among those groups is likely to succeed the Alawites and what he thinks a new government will look like.
Most if not all Muslim rebellions have ended very bad. I wish he had added a chapter, despite his stated loyalty, regarding the outlook once Assad leaves, but I guess this is too much to ask, even of a prophet.
Professor Ajami ( born in Lebanon, in a Shia Muslim family of Iranian origin) has presented an honest, non-biased elucidation of a complex conflict within a multi-ethnic country. His frank description of the different ethnic and religious participants in the turmoil that now grips Syria, including the Assad dynasty, is a good primer to begin to understand the genesis of the hostilities.
The tyrannical grip and brutality of the minority Alawites, a sect of Shia Muslims, is described without any whitewash or apology. The work is presented with impartiality and even handedness, even though a reader with an innate bias might perceive favoritism to one group or another.
I congratulate Professor Ajami on tackling this difficult and volatile issue and presenting it to interested reader in a concise, but not simplistic, way.
on May 27, 2013
With thousands of youtube clips and facebook comments, dozens of "top" stories daily and the impossible quagmire of media coverage the Syrian uprising desparately requires an expert "data sorting". I'm one of those who follows the youtube clips (Arabic and English) associated with news outlets, Syrian rebel units and other organizations. I skim the facebook sites and I read all I can from Crisis Group, Small Wars Journal, Institute for the Study of War (ISWJ) journal on the Syrian conflict. It's nice to have a book to consolidate a little more of the information.
Fouad Ajami doesn't claim to be an expert on Syria but he provides an easy to read account from his own viewpoint. Fouad spends four chapters to describe the Baathist regime rise to power, the political and religious history of the Alawites and how the two (Baath and Alawi) came to dominate Syria's government for the past 40 years. The historical account is necessary and informative but it also plays in to the author's thesis.
According to Fouad Ajami, the unleashing of sectarian violence in Syria was inevitable given the minority Alawi strangle-hold on power and the Assad means of repression. The Alawis are already considered heterodox if not heretics in Islam due to their fringe beliefs. Fouad records that even though Hafez al-Assad, Bashir al-Assad's father, obtained a ruling by an Iranian Shi'a cleric citing Alawi's as mainstream Islam, the "act" was never going to last. Fast forward through the 1982 slaughter in Hama, the death of Hafez, the succession of Bashir, the hope for political reform in 2001 and then the violent suppression again in 2011.
Did the Alawi domination determine Syria's future as early as 1970? "The Syrian Rebellion" describes Syria as hopelessly sectarian. Fouad quotes the Salafist preachers like Adnan Arour who accented the line between Shi'a and Sunni. Since the publication of this book, many more Salafist leaders have cried for resistance and Muslim defense against the Hezbollah and Iranian alliance with Assad.
But was the sectarian explosion inevitable? From the start, the Syrian people tried hard to avoid sectarian language. As demonstrations turned to insurgency, many Salafist fighters and preachers were to blame for the sectarian divide. There are more facebook sites with the title "Jabhat al-Nusra does not represent us" than for the Al-Qaida affiliated rebel group itself. As Fouad explains, these dreams of Syrian nationalism were doomed to failure from the beginning.
A whole year has passed since the publication of this book. What Fouad described has only come more and more true. I would like to think that Syria can be stronger than the sectarian monster. But Syria is the epicenter of all that makes the Middle East boil: chemical weapons, sectarianism, violent extremist groups, radicalized rebels, massive forced migrations, Israeli intervention and Iranian power projection. Syria must conquor more than the sectarian threat on its way to future stability.
I'd say read this book... but don't forget youtube and ISWJ.
on July 30, 2013
This was an excellent book. Fouad Ajami is able to present all the parties in the Syrian conflict from their own point of view. That means you get to learn what each side wants and why they want it. You also get this same analysis from all the parties that are not fighting in the conflict but are hoping a particular side will win. I came away with a lot of sympathy for the Syrian people and a feeling that the Free Syrian Army needs to be armed and armed well so that they can destroy the Syrian Regime.
on January 12, 2014
Fouad Ajami is an American of Syrian and Lebanese descent. He is an ideal analyst for a troubled ancient area. The trouble dates from 1919 when diplomats drew lines in the desert on a geographer's map, creating the modern nations of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq from pieces of the Ottoman Empire.
It is no surprise to Ajami that viable self-government eludes those nations. He knows the Alawite minority rules the Sunni majority by military coup. He knows there are a dozen other minority sects, including Christians and Kurds. He knows Iraq's Shia-Sunni-Kurd triangle, and Lebanon's Shia-Sunni-Maronite triangle. He knows Syria's Alawite leaders attack Lebanon with covetous eyes on weakened pieces they would like to pick up.
Ajami explains the meaning of Alawite in Syria, at length. Newspapers briefly say Alawites are a Shiite variety, which suggests Sunni-Alawite in Syria would resemble Sunni-Shiite in Iraq. It doesn't. Ajami gives Alawite history in Syria, in which they were poor, isolated, and scorned for strange beliefs. Since the Alawite coup 50 years ago, they have been settling scores by discriminatory laws, practices, prices, and jobs. For me it explains why Alawite leaders attacked protesting Hama in 1982, and why they now appear willing, possibly eager, to attack protesting Syrians as they have since protests began in 2011. It also explains why Alawite leaders attack rich Sunni and Maronite Lebanon.
Ajami makes it clear that pieces are unlikely to be picked up separately in Lebanon and Syria. He knows the tribal pieces that will need to be picked up after what he knows will be an inevitable breakup. It isn't clear to Ajami, or any others I have read, how all those pieces can be picked up. The pieces seem never to have fitted together, for reasons which Ajami makes very clear. In Ajami's descriptions, the people in the various pieces seem fragmented, lacking both size and depth to become self-governing modern nations. Yet they don't accept as rulers the leaders of any other piece.
Ajami discusses and dismisses a separate Alawite state between coast and mountain. He notes the improbable survival so far of 1919 Lebanon and Iraq. He notes the tenuous position of Winston Churchill's post-war Jordan, between desert and Israel, absorbing refugees from Syria while depending on Syria's ports for its commerce.
Ajami's only hopeful note is in closing. Looking back to the years of his childhood before this long Alawite coup, he quotes from exiles who remember loving their cities. They remember prominent city families who governed between the shorter coups of that period. Ajami offers hope that out of such people it will be possible to recover traces of a nostalgic golden age.
My reaction wasn't hopeful. Gilded memories are dreams with coups conveniently forgotten. Coups of any length are undemocratic, and cities are merely pieces of a nation. Ajami is more an observer analyst than a diplomat arranger. He offers no plan for the suffering pieces. The reader is left to think.
As a reader, I felt cities and tribal pieces across the troubled area could govern themselves under some kind of non-tribal internationally acceptable regional government, an umbrella of shared defense, diplomacy, and treasury. Creating umbrellas which local governments accepted, and made work for them, would be diplomatic coups. All other diplomacy seems doomed after reading Ajami's observations and analysis.
on May 5, 2013
Much of the book was written by Dr. Fouad Ajami's assistants and researchers. His intellect and superb analysis are replaced with a factual rendition of the events over the past two year, which, of course, those of us who are interested in the subject, already know. I was looking for fouad's insights. I hope he does make that contribution soon. all best. youssef Ibrahim
on June 11, 2013
Prof. Ajami again provides the reader a complete context to a difficult subject. This is a serious read for those who want to get beyond simplistic slogans concerning this critical Middle East situation.
on August 9, 2012
This is a succinct and informative book which focuses on: A) the rule of the Assads, the father Hafez and son Bashar, B) their Alawite roots and their trek to power, and C) the Arab Spring revolution that has sprung up against Bashar. It is a timely and much-needed book, and readers will find they have a firmer grasp of Bashar family rule, the Alawites and the revolution. Not the last word on Syria obviously, but an engaging and worth-while read.
on September 19, 2012
Thanks to Mr. Ajami for an absorbing overview of the history behind the Syrian rebellion. It was refreshing to be able to read a well-informed OBJECTIVE view of what is happening in Syria - and why it is happening.
Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down.