Reviewed by Thomas D’Evelyn

(Syria – A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring By Carsten Wieland. Cune Press: 335 pages.)

Even professional news gatherers have a hard time reporting on Syria now. It’s not simply that foreign reporters are banned from the country. Syria is a mare’s nest of conflicting points of view so over-views of the kind required for objective reporting, as we’ve come to know it, are almost always ideologically motivated.

Carsten Wieland lived in Syria for years and is now a diplomat with the German Foreign Office who has studied Syria for over a decade. (This is his second book on Syria; his first, Syria—Ballots or Bullets? was published in 2006.)  Yet he still confronts the current situation with disbelief.

The Syria he had come to know no longer exists. Even while governed by an unstable set of tensions between Bashar al-Asad, a weak and impulsive autocrat,  and the various pressures contesting his authority, the Syria Wieland had come to know was marked by tolerance, civility, and peaceful coexistence of religious minorities. That Syria has been replaced by a country at war with itself. Thousands of citizens have been killed by the mukhabarat, Asad’s special police.

The complexity that had made Syria an island of pluralism has imploded. The old Syria haunts this book. It must have been tempting to write a narrative, a goodbye to Syria. Wieland wisely resisted that temptation. Rather he chose to analyze Syria today by means of numerous dense essays penetrating key questions from shifting points of view. Thus he brings us into the belly of the beast that is Syria today.

He begins with a hair-raising account of the firestorm that hit Syria on March 15, 2011, one many of his readers will have watched unfold in social media and television news. Asad’s modernization had prepared the ground for civil unrest by allowing satellite dishes and a modern communications infrastructure. “Syria experienced the first ‘youtube war’ in history.” (21).

The fact that today Syria is “covered” by social media allows Wieland to pack his book with analytical material; readers can supply the storyline. Or so it seems. What happens during a close reading of the fourteen essays that comprise the book is the reader becomes engrossed in the sheer difficulty of generalizing about Syria. Information overload is one way to put it. Wieland’s chapters include “The Pillars of the Ancient Regime,” “Opposition, Islam and the Regime,” “Syria’s Policy Paradox,” “Excursus: Secularism in Syria,” “The Bankruptcy of Baathism,” “Syria: A Rogue State?” and “After Arab Spring: Shifting Discourses and Alliances.”

The analytical complexity is relieved by voices recovered from Wieland’s years of interviewing Syrians.  I quote one passage as a good example of his skill of allowing individual voices to complicate the picture, which nevertheless remains analytically useful. This is from “The Pillars of the Ancient Regime.”

“Nihad Nahas is a communist in the political opposition who spent fifteen years in prison. A Sunni by birth and married to a Christian, he said, ‘Syrian society used to be much more liberal and more secular. It was not until after the Alawites strong-armed Asad to power that tribes and religious groups gained importance. The ideological rift between them has deepened.’ His wife Leila Nahal, who was also in prison for being a communist, said in fluent French, ‘We never used to know what a person’s religion was. Today young girls ask about a man’s religion on their first date to know if there is any question of marriage.’ Mixed marriages are more difficult and less common than they used to be. ‘In the 1950s, as Volker Parthes quoted an intellectual, ‘we are communists, Baathists, Nasserists, or Syrian nationalists. Today we are Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, or Christians again.’ Perthes attributed this developed to the lack of an open political discourse.”

The voices of the husband and wife confirm the great burden of Wieland’s book: Syria once embodied an extraordinarily complex balance of plural representations, religious, tribal, ideological, all reflected in mores tenuously dependent on a delicate balance of forces. Now things are dramatically simpler.

The method is not without its limitations. The compact presentation of so much material at times leads to infelicities of expression, a tradeoff no doubt with time and circumstance. Some of the limitations will be the individual reader’s. It takes some stamina to keep alert reading these nuanced pages. There are limitations sourced in Wieland’s own style. The constant shuttling between periods of modern Syrian history, even when the theme is clear, can be disorienting.

This is an important book, especially perhaps for Americans. US policy plays a minor role in these pages. It may surprise some readers to learn that the death of Osama bin Laden made little difference to the Arab world. Those who support the hands-off policy of the current administration may have their position strengthened by reading this book.  But that would be a narrow reading. Despite its origins in rigorous fact-finding and analysis, this book offers no simple solutions. It engenders no belief in the capacity for humans to collectively overcome the weaknesses of human nature, weaknesses that can lead to the most appalling bestiality.

Perhaps a creative writer will read this and write a play about Asad. He will of course consult Macbeth, Shakespeare’s classic study of evil. When did Asad turn? “Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.” Were this but a dream.

– Thomas D’Evelyn is a freelance writer and editor based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Find his blog, The Literary Bag, on Facebook.(This review was submitted to by the publishers at Cune Press.)

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