Never judge a book by its cover. In this case, the cover shows us a veiled woman on a Syrian street, ignoring a painting of a youthful Hafiz al-Asad, who looks here almost like Omar Sharif. The painting, suspended from a concrete wall, is lit up in lights. This image, with its nod to the past, belies a collection that focuses firmly on the present. One should read these essays as an initial evaluation of the years after Bashar al-Asad became Syrian president in 2000, succeeding his father.
Starting with promises of internal political and economic liberalisation, al-Asad subsequently turned back towards a reassertion of tight political control. This was even more pronounced after the US invaded Iraq and suggested that Syria might be next on a list of countries designated for regime change. This did not happen, however. Confronted with more than 1.2 million Iraqis fleeing to Syria, the Syrian population began to value internal stability ever more highly, and the regime subsequently moved from being cornered towards improving its international position through rapprochement with France, Turkey and other countries.
The book deals with four main themes in current Syrian affairs. These are socioeconomic and legal power structures; the politics of religion and ethnicity; the Syrian opposition; and Syria's external relations. One problem arising in this volume derives from the nature of short, edited collections; there is patchy coverage of themes in each of the four fields. Current research is highlighted, but topics are not exhausted: these research results are published at greater length elsewhere.
In the first section on socioeconomic power, the book's contributors explain how the Syrian regime came to be based on an alliance between the Alawi-led military and groups that represented traditional economic power, such as the Damascene Sunni merchants. Salwa Ismail states that the alliance between factions of traditional domestic capital and the state acts as the "structural foundation of authoritarianism in Syria". Bassam Haddad suggests that internal differentiation of the Syrian bourgeoisie is matched by parallel shifts in the regime's socioeconomic outlook; these shifts may break up established alliances, thereby creating a new hegemony based on the opening up of Syria for global capital. According to Haddad, "the 'historical' compromise has come in spurts and culminated in the announcement of a 'social market economy', a term that addresses what needs to be done but without completely abandoning the regime's socialist pretensions".
On the theme of religious politics, Thomas Pierret analyses Sunni clergy authorities and institutions, while Myriam Abasa provides a colourful description of the role of a newly erected Shi'i mausoleum in Raqqa, a Syrian city close to the Iranian border. Abasa stresses that the mosque serves as a symbol of geopolitical collaboration between Syria and Iran, but that its religious significance for Iranian pilgrims remains contested, given that established local religious practices of the region's semi-nomads take place on the same site. Joe Pace and Joshua Landis follow, explaining the trajectory of Syria's internal and external opposition since 2000. Bassel Salloukh discusses Syrian foreign policy in Lebanon and analyses how Syria succeeded in reasserting its influence in the neighbouring country. Both chapters demonstrate how US intervention in the region weakened the position of the Syrian opposition.
This book shows Syrian studies in the best possible light, has been edited to a high level and can be recommended to everyone interested in the complexities - rather than mysteries - of contemporary Syria.
Edited by Fred H. Lawson. SAQI Books, 240pp, £14.99. ISBN 9780863566547. Published 24 September 2009