A Syria Reading List

So you want to read up on the issues surrounding Syria, but you aren't satisfied with the usual list of -- often outstanding, sometimes less so --  think tank reports, blogs and op-eds which usually get offered up?  Well, here's a selection of some of the most useful books for making sense of what's happening in Syria now and what might be coming.  They aren't going to give you the kind of immediate situational intelligence to make sense of current events, of course, or directly address the issues posed by the current policy debates, but they will leave you a lot more informed about Syria.

The very best book for all this is probably Patrick Seale's sadly out of print The Struggle for Syria:  a definitive, highly readable account of an earlier era of regional proxy wars over Syria. I'm shocked that it doesn't seem to be available at an affordable price, but get your hands on it if you can.  On current events, I'd start with Emile Hokayem's Syria's Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant. Stephen Starr's Eyewitness to an Uprising is a nice read. Asad biographer David Lesch's The Fall of the House of Asad gives useful insights into the mindset of Syria's President.  Some of the chapters in the recently published Middle East Authoritarianisms, edited by Steve Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, are very insightful.  There's also that The Arab Uprising book that some FP blogger wrote. 

There's some good choices on Syria's political economy and the formation of the state. Heydemann's Authoritarianism in Syria is a fine account of the emergence of an authoritarian state in the period leading up to 1970. Bassam Haddad's Business Networks in Syria is really good on the political economy underpinnings of the regime.  Nikolas Van Dam's updated version of The Struggle for Power in Syria gives a good sense of the nature of political conflict in Syria's history.

Thomas Pierret's new book Religion and State in Syria offers some unique insights into the role of the Syrian ulema, while Rafael Lefebvre's Ashes of Hama will be useful on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood if it's ever released in the United States.  There's also this "after-action report" by Abu Musab al-Suri on the reasons for the failure of the last jihad in Syria, courtesy of Will McCants.  I'm quite enjoying Daniel Neep's new book Occupying Syria, on the role of violence during the French occupation; pity about the price tag. Lisa Wedeen's Ambiguities of Domination might not seem directly relevant to the current crisis, but there's really just no way I'm not going to recommend that you read it.  Oh, and of course Hanna Batatu's 7,269 page Syria's Peasantry, the Descendant of its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics doesn't just have a catchy title, it can also be used to kill zombies or hold up a collapsing wall.

Meanwhile, it couldn't hurt to have a look at Fanar Haddad's Sectarianism in Iraq to get a sense of how these antagonisms developed next door. Toby Matthiessen's brand new Sectarian Gulf might help make sense of just what the Saudis might be up to (hint: probably not promoting Syrian democracy). While you're at it, why not dust of your old copies of Tom Ricks' Fiasco and Nir Rosen's Aftermath for a reminder of just how often these things go according to plan.  The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas is pretty essential for all purposes in life; and if you like that one then have I got a list of relevant books on civil wars and insurgencies and international intervention for you! 

Happy reading.  There are many more, of course -- I'm sure you'll all quickly remind me of the ones I forgot! -- but this should at least be a nice start. 

Marc Lynch

Restraining Order

Obama's been wise to not get involved in Syria. But now comes the tricky part.

It now seems virtually inevitable that the United States will be launching a military strike against the Syrian regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. The contours of this planned strike seem increasingly clear, as well: several days of bombing of military targets and perhaps chemical weapons facilities. That means it should look a lot like Operation Desert Fox, the December 1998 airstrikes against alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites, and not like the actions against Kosovo or Libya.

The rumored air strikes would drag the United States across a major threshold of direct military involvement, without any serious prospect of ending the conflict or protecting Syrian civilians (at least from non-chemical attacks). They likely would not accomplish more than momentarily appeasing the whimsical gods of credibility. The attack would almost certainly lack a Security Council mandate. Meanwhile, the response from Arab public opinion to another U.S. military intervention has been predictably hostile; even the very Arab leaders who have been aggressively pushing for such military action are refraining from openly supporting it. And nobody really believes that such strikes will actually work.

But it could be worse. The real test of the U.S. air strikes in Syria will be whether they preempt or accelerate moves toward an intervention aimed at regime change, which would drag the United States inexorably into a quagmire. U.S. President Barack Obama's manifest determination not to get pulled down that slippery slope and his understanding of the implausibility of a successful limited intervention suggest that he believes that he can resist allowing the air strikes to trap America in the Syrian civil war. Let's hope he's right.

The debate about Obama's Syria policy has too often been framed around the supposed existence of plausible options for ending the war through a limited military intervention -- if only the president showed more backbone. Nonsense. If there were easy options for ending Syria's bloodbath and delivering on the president's public aspiration to see President Bashar al-Assad gone, the administration would have taken them long ago. There are not.

Gen. Martin Dempsey's authoritative analysis of military options in response to Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) made painfully clear the Pentagon's understanding of the likely costs and risks of limited military intervention. None of those have changed in the last month. Indeed, this is one of the greatest differences from the run-up to Iraq: Instead of politicized intelligence minimizing the likely costs and risks of a war already decided on, Dempsey and the White House are honestly assessing and communicating the costs of a Syrian war. No wonder McCain is outraged.

Washington suffers no shortage of suggestions for getting more deeply involved in Syria's civil war. Over the last year and a half, I've read dozens of think tank reports and thousands of op-eds urging U.S. military intervention in some form, from no-fly zones to arming the opposition to air campaigns. Not one has made a remotely plausible case that these limited means will resolve the war in ways favorable to Syrians, the region, or America. The honest ones admit that limited intervention is a wedge toward mission creep (as if Iraq had not proven that full-scale intervention is bound to fail). The rest rely on an alarming series of best-case assumptions that fall apart on close inspection. Seriously, when was the last time any best case scenario actually materialized in the Middle East?

From what I've seen and heard in countless public and private settings over the last two years, Obama and his team have thoroughly examined all of these ideas and more. Their hesitation is based on a well-founded recognition of the implausibility of these proposals for limited intervention. And it's not like they haven't tried. The administration has spent many long months trying to engineer a viable Syrian opposition, pushing for a diplomatic process, jawboning erstwhile allies to stop working at cross-purposes by competitively funding local proxies, assessing the prospects of military options, and trying to plan for what comes next. Assad's presumed use of chemical weapons has transformed the demand for action, but not the strategic analysis underlying America's painful policy choices.

Obama is routinely lambasted for a failure to lead on Syria. In fact, he has been leading ... just not in the direction his critics would like to go. Washington remains wired for war, always eager to talk itself into another battle in the same basic ways: invocations of leadership, warnings of lost credibility, stark sketches based on worst-case scenarios of inaction and the best case scenarios for low-cost, high-reward action. Most presidents -- including a John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney -- would likely have long ago leapt to play the assigned role; the United States would already be hip deep in the Syrian civil war. But Obama has actually learned the real lessons of Iraq, the risks and costs, to America and to the world, of poorly conceived interventions abroad that never go quite as promised.

It came as a bit of shock, then, when the administration suddenly began moving toward military action this week, especially when pundits quickly grabbed onto Kosovo as a likely model for the impending campaign. Fortunately, the administration rushed to clarify that they did not in fact envision such plans. It has been reassuring to see their war plan aggressively communicated in terms of punitive strikes (which will presumably also take out the SCUD launchers and attack aircraft which have wreaked such bloody havoc on Syria's people) and explicit rejection of the goal of regime change. Every message coming out of the administration screams limited goals and warnings against mission creep.

But the administration's loud protestations of limited aims and actions are only partially reassuring. Much the same language was used at the outset of the Libya campaign. Everybody knows that it will be excruciatingly difficult for Obama to hold the line at punitive bombing after those strikes inevitably fail to end the war, Assad remains publicly defiant, the Geneva 2 diplomatic process officially dies, and U.S. allies and Syrian insurgents grumble loudly about the strike's inadequacy. Once the psychological and political barrier to intervention has been shattered, the demands for escalation and victory will become that much harder to resist. And what happens when Assad launches his next deadly sarin attack -- or just massacres a lot of Syrians by non-chemical means? This too Obama clearly knows. But that knowledge may still not be enough to save him.