Reviewed by Tom Little
Given Syria’s key role in the Middle East, it’s always slightly surprising that there is so little available on the country’s recent history. A cursory glance at Amazon shows that, compared with Turkey, Israel, Palestine and Egypt, Syria has been sadly neglected by historians and current affairs writers down the years; all the more infuriating considering Syria is hardly out of the news these days.
What little is available tends to be overly-academic, and is certainly not aimed at the layman (or someone with an attention span as short as mine, anyway) or is hopelessly specialized.
It is with great pleasure, then, that I had the opportunity to review Nikolaos Van Dam’s The Struggle for Power in Syria, of which a new edition was published by IB Tauris last year. Van Dam served in the Dutch diplomatic corps for decades, spending much of his career in the Middle East and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a good few years in Syria.
Over his distinguished career, Van Dam built up an unsurpassed knowledge of the inner workings of the Syrian state under Hafez al-Asad, father of the current, embattled president Bashar. Drawing on his first hand experience of Syrian politics and extensive research, Van Dam shows how the Syrian state evolved after the Second World War. Much is said in the media these days about the nature of Al-Asad’s government in Syria, but you can bet that most journalists today do not have even a fraction of the understanding of Syrian history that Van Dam does.
The Struggle for Power in Syria shows the way in which Syria lurched from coup to coup in the 1950s and 1960s, which finally resulted in the Ba’th Party seizing power in Damascus in 1963. It has to be said that the dizzying series of coups and counter-coups that followed the arrival of the Ba’th Party to power in 1963 is mindbogglingly complex, but it is fortunate that we have as lucid and knowledgeable a narrator as Van Dam, who explains the politics of the period marvelously.
Van Dam’s book also looks extensively at how Hafez al-Asad was able to manipulate regional, tribal and sectarian loyalties to assure his ascendancy and then maintain a vice-like grip on power once he had the presidency. Since Al-Asad fils undoubtedly still relies on the connections his father built to rule, this section is vital to understanding what is happening in the country at the moment.
Also included is a survey of biographies of influential figures in the Syrian Ba’th Party, which may sound a little dry but which is equally indispensable for anyone interested in the country. Of particular interest was the summary of Mustafa Tlass’s autobiography. Formerly Syria’s minister of defence and chief of staff, Tlass has a reputation for eccentricity bordering on dementia: he once claimed that Princess Diana had sent him love letters and, bafflingly, that Prince Charles gave him a submachine gun as a gift.
Although The Struggle for Power in Syria was first published over thirty years ago, IB Tauris’ latest edition shows that the book is still as relevant as ever and, most importantly, reads very well indeed. Anyone hoping to understand what’s happening in Syria at the moment could do no worse that starting here.