The protests that erupted in Daraa in March 2011 catapulted the Syrian Arab Republic into the global spotlight, but the policies of the al-Assad regime have captured the world’s attention for decades. Both Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez have autocratically presided over a state antagonistic toward its neighbors and at times brutally repressive of its citizens.
Itamar Rabinovich’s The View from Damascus aims to explain modern Syria with careful attention toward its rich and nuanced history. The text is a collection of essays written by Rabinovich over the course of his career covering the state’s colonial origins, the dynamics of its rule by a minority sect, and its foreign relations over nearly eight decades. With its incorporation of a wide variety of sources including colonial-era newspapers, party manifestos, and Israeli academics, the book’s greatest strength is its highly detailed coverage of certain issues in Syria’s colonial past. Rabinovich’s research illuminates often underappreciated points of Syrian history. For example, it delves deeply into the French priorities in the making of modern Syria and the dynamic roles of Christians and Druze.
Rabinovich is not merely an academic. As Israel’s Chief Negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1995, he is poised to offer the reader an insider’s account of the negotiation process and an informed and nuanced analysis of the mechanics of Syria’s last two decades. These are disappointingly absent from the book. One of the final chapters, for example, is entitled “How to Talk and How Not to Talk to Syria,” yet it primarily offers a description of past events and culminates in single substantial policy suggestion: trilateral negotiations between Israel, Syria, and the United States. The analysis accompanying the suggestion mostly argues for its infeasibility; Rabinovich observes that trilateral talks are not particularly favorable to any party and require a radical reorientation of Syria’s foreign policy. This relatively unambitious policy suggestion does not ultimately satisfy the expectations created by the author’s experience and unique position—especially as these are emphasized in the book itself.
The final chapter, written to update the book in its second edition reprint, covers the events of the “Arab Spring” in Syria. While Rabinovich humbly observes that “it is impossible to know how this crisis will develop,” the reader expecting any analysis of the current uprising will find little more than a summary of current events. The book elsewhere offers rich coverage of Syria’s minority situation in its historical context, yet the author gives little commentary on the role of sectarianism in the modern uprising beyond the fundamental observation that many Sunnis view the ‘Alawites as illegitimate. With respect to Israel—which should, by all accounts, be Rabinovich’s strength—he offers only the broad principle that Israel’s view of the Arab Spring revolves around a desire for stability. In spite of his experience as a chief Israeli diplomat, the analysis does not move past this superficial level. This may reflect Rabinovich’s distance from current events or the constraints he faces as a former Israeli diplomatic official. Most striking is the lack of analysis covering the actual “view from Damascus.” The regime’s notably violent response to the uprising is accepted as a fait accompli. The reader is justified in expecting explanation, speculative as it may be, of the dialogue occurring in Damascus during such a pivotal point in Syrian history.
The text is best suited for a reader with prior familiarity with Syrian history. Some essays within the book assume prior knowledge of regional events; actors such as the Hashemite family and the “Quai d’Orsay” are referenced without extensive context. The arrangement of chapters leads to overlapping content at times and an absence of content at other times. As a reference text, the book would benefit the student of Middle Eastern history in its highly detailed coverage of a small number of specific topics, such as French-Iraqi oil negotiations and an essay devoted to Husni Za’im. Yet its chronological gaps and occasionally inexplicable essay sequencing make the text ill-suited for acquiring a broad historical overview of modern Syria. Furthermore, a number of chapters are outdated or were updated with apparent haste. One chapter, for example, speaks of the Amal party’s emergence in the Shi’a community but neither delineates Amal’s activities in the last three decades nor mentions Hezbollah’s existence.
In many of its chapters, The View from Damascus features a detailed study of events in the history of modern Syria. Ultimately, however, the book fails to deliver a nuanced perspective on Syria’s current mechanics. It offers a view of, rather than from, Damascus, and one that is insufficiently differentiable from other recent accounts to justify reading it through. Rabinovich’s thoroughly researched historical essays, while independently valuable, could be better appreciated by readers in a form other than the collection in which they appear. Touted as integral components of an engaging, insightful primer from a well-positioned expert, they are bound to disappoint.
Staff Writer John Corbett