“[The Essential Readings series is sponsored by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings Modules by submitting or suggesting an “Essential Readings” topic pertinent to the Middle East. Articles such as this will appear permanently on both www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com.]

The Syrian uprising precipitated an explosion in publications on what had hitherto been an understudied country. The conflict has, however, produced a more limited number of high quality works that present a wealth of empirical findings, take theoretically innovative approaches, or both.

Several volumes provide general context for the uprising:

Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria (Brookings Institution, 2005) and David Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (Yale University Press, 2005) provide sympathetic but insightful glimpses of the dilemmas facing Bashar al-Asad during his early years in power.

Radwan Ziadeh, Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East (I.B Tauris, 2011) provides a broad background: it examines Hafiz Assad’s power consolidation around personal loyalty to the president and based on pillars of civil bureaucracy, the security organs and the Baath party; also it looks at the succession of Bashar al-Asad and repression of the Damascus spring; isolation brought on by Bashar’s foreign policy in Lebanon and Iraq; and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate Islamic opposition.

Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zintl, Syria from Reform to Revolt, Vol. 1: Political Economy and International Relations (Syracuse University Press, 2015) brings together senior and younger scholars doing cutting edge research in Syria in the first decade of Bashar al-Asad’s rule. It explores the ways in which Asad’s domestic and foreign policy strategies during his first decade in power safeguarded his rule and adapted Syria to the age of globalization. The volume’s contributors examine multiple aspects of Asad’s rule in the 2000s, from power consolidation within the party and control of the opposition to economic reform, co-opting new private charities, and coping with Iraqi refugees. The Syrian regime temporarily succeeded in reproducing its power and legitimacy, in reconstructing its social base, and in managing regional and international challenges. At the same time, contributors detail the shortcomings, inconsistencies, and risks these policies entailed, illustrating why Syria’s tenuous stability came to an abrupt end during the Arab uprisings of 2011. In a companion volume, Christa Salamandra and Leif Stenberg, Syria from Reform to Revolt, Vol. 2: Culture, Society and Religion focuses on key arenas of Syrian social life, including television drama, political fiction, Islamic foundations, and Christian choirs and charities, demonstrating the ways in which Syrians worked with and through the state in attempts to reform, undermine, or sidestep the regime. 

Three studies provide the political economy context of the uprising:

Bassam Haddad, Business Networks in Syria; the Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford University Press, 2012). This political economy analysis of the impact of Bashar al-Asad’s reforms in the late 2000’s shows how regime favoritism toward investors was paralleled by a decline in the living standards of the state-employed middle class and the regime’s former plebeian constituency—arguably an element in the 2011 Uprising. But the regime’s move toward a more formal state-business alliance deterred business from joining the opposition. Thus, state-business networks both contributed to and detracted from authoritarian resilience.

Linda Matar, Political Economy of Investment in Syria (Palgrave, 2016) takes the determinants of investment and the agency of class, as an analytical lens to understand Syria’s failure to promote employment-generating investment prior to the uprising. Matar argues that neoliberal reforms under Bashar al-Asad failed to build productive capacity and instead enriched a few through short-term speculative and mercantile ventures. The proponents of the free market justified policies which exacerbated unequal income distribution, thus contributing to the social explosion in 2011.

Jamil Baroutt, The Past Decade in Syria: the Dialectics of Stagnation and Reform (Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, 2011) is a political economy analysis by a Syrian scholar that examines the formation of a bureaucratic capitalist class and authoritarian liberalization to understand economic stagnation and the regime’s inadequate strategies for overcoming it. The gap between economic growth and population growth, resulting in growing youth unemployment, concentrated in neglected rural provinces, provided the tinder for the uprising. 

The following studies expose the religious, social and cultural context of the uprising:

Thomas Pierret, Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution (Cambridge University Press, ) focuses on Syria’s ulama and their changing relationship to power. His main argument is that the ulama were more readily co-opted than were Islamist movements when the regime gave them concessions reinforcing their religious authority, notably in conflicts with secularists, or expanded their freedom for non-political dawa. This enabled the regime to divide and rule these two wings of the Islamist movement; he also shows how the erosion of this game helped prepare the way for some ulama to back the opposition after the uprising.

Pierret’s volume is usefully read together with Line Khatib, Islamist Revivalism in Syria: The Rise and Fall of Secularism in Ba’thist Syria (Routledge, 2011), which shows how the regime played off secularists and Islamists. Indeed, it viewed the secular opposition as a potentially greater threat than the Islamists, hence fostered and co-opted the latter against the former. In doing so, it inadvertently spread the ideology that would be used to mobilize the Islamist movements that came to dominate the opposition to the regime.

Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Hurst, 2013). While much of the book recounts the 1978-92 uprising from the point of view of the Muslim Brothers, to whom Lefevre had exceptional access, it is quite relevant to the current Syrian Uprising. The earlier insurgency generated a jihadi tradition whose remnants went to Afghanistan, morphed into transnational jihadis, played a role in the founding of al–Qa’ida and returned to fight in Syria after 2011. As part of a 1990s deal with Islamists, the regime had allowed a substantial Islamization of society, at the expense of secularism that grew the potential base of Islamist opposition activated as the post 2011 Uprising became militarized. The current Uprising has been shaped by memories of Hama: the desire for revenge motivates some of the insurgents while the memories of the Ikhwan assassinations of Alawis and of its sectarian discourse forged the solidarity of the regime in the face of the current uprising. However, by contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, where the organized Ikhwan filled the gap after the quick fall of presidents, the protracted struggle in Syria has generated sectarian hostility to the advantage of radical jihadis.

Charles Lister The Syrian Jihad: Evolution of an Insurgency (Hurst, 2015) takes up the story, which looks at the jihadists who came to dominate the uprising, including al-Qaida avatars, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.

Michael Kerr and Craig Larkin (eds.), The Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant (Hurst, 2015) examines the role of the key pro-regime minority community in Syria.  This edited collection examines Syria’s Alawi community, a key constituency of the Asad regimes. Several chapters examine the historical emergence of the community (Aslam Farouk Ali), their experiences under the Ottomans (Stephan Winter) and the French mandate and early independence (Max Weiss) Two look at the complex relation of regime and sect: their prominent role in the Ba’th party and army (Raymond. Hinnebusch) and their demographic spread to the cities, especially Damascus under Ba’th rule (Fabrice Balanche). Leon Goldsmith examines their implication in the regime; Aron Lund the Shabiha phenomenon and Reinoud Leenders the regime’s strategy of repressions

The roots and trajectory of the uprising are more specifically addressed in these studies:

Carsten Wieland, Syria: A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring (Cune Press, 2012).

This book provides a valuable and detailed examination of Bashar al-Asad’s rule, particularly of what Wieland considered the opportunities missed by the president to carry out political reforms that might have headed off revolution. The traditional opposition was loyal and moderate and its political incorporation could have enabled a gradual and peaceful transition to a more democratic and legitimate regime. In Wieland’s view, Asad could have won a free election in 2011 had he embraced the demands of the opposition, portrayed himself as the solution rather than the problem, and led the transition to democracy. Most Syrians would have welcomed this. Instead Asad played the sectarian and security cards, destroying his status as a secular popular leader while the violent response to protestors only further propelled the uprising. Wieland believes the security solution was decided by a special committee that concluded that the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes had fallen because they had used insufficient repression. The author benefited from extended discussions with the secular “traditional opposition,” notably Michel Kilo.

David W. Lesch, Syria: the Fall of the House of Assad (Yale University Press, 2012).

How, David Lesch muses, did Bashar al-Asad, a man who had appeared to him as “a relatively ordinary person,” quite different from the princelings in other authoritarian regimes, become drenched in blood? The book ably summarizes the structural factors against and for an uprising in Syria: on the one side there was the Asad’s nationalist stature and relatively good image as a youthful reformer, the substantial stake in preventing Islamic fundamentalism by minorities the secular middle class and the bourgeoisie—who could account for half the population in Lesch’s calculation; and the fragmentation of opposition. On the other hand, the rapid growth of unemployed educated youth that the economy could not absorb; the shaving of social safety nets and growing inequality. Given this relative balance, Asad’s approach to the protests could have made a big difference. Lesch explains his resort to repression by their belief in foreign conspiracies and that any concession seen to be made from weakness only encourages enemies. Once the killing reached a certain point, there was no way back. The regime hunkered down, counting on creating a favourable stalemate to survive.

Samer Abboud, Syria (Polity Press, 2016).

This volume focuses on the uprising years, particularly examining the anti-regime side.  Abboud charts the emergence of protest movements, the external opposition, the “civilianization” of violence, the militarization of the uprising and the war economy. A main thrust of his analysis is how the fragmentation of the opposition prevented it from coordinating around a common political and diplomatic strategy and obstructed the emergence of military formations able to defeat the regime. The emergence of Islamists, themselves ideologically divided, further fragmented the opposition despite periodic efforts to bring the multitude of jihadists groups together in “fronts.” Formations large enough to hold and expand territory could not be sustained and fighting groups, rather, were satisfied with profiting from local fiefdoms; as they became warlords they lost their popularity. Abboud’s analysis goes far toward explaining the failure of the Uprising.

Illuminating the conflict from the point of view of its victims, ordinary people, is Wendy Pearlman, We Crossed that Bridge and it TrembledVoices from Syria (Harper-Collins, 2017), while Yassin al-Haj Salah, The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy (Hurst, 2017) examines what went wrong from the point of view of a prominent anti-regime activist

The international context of the uprising is most ably charted in:

Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (Yale University Press, 2016).

While Phillips acknowledges the domestic roots of Syria’s conflict, his main argument is that without external interference the fragmented opposition had little chance of prevailing. Importantly, this interference was driven by miscalculations, most importantly the delusion of anti-Asad forces that his regime was fragile and would soon fall, and, if not, that US intervention would tip the balance against him. Miscalculations by the regional opposition to Asad led them to follow inflexible policies in Syria. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were convinced that US intervention was coming and they conveyed their confidence to the exiled opposition, thereby discouraging any compromise with the regime. As for the West, its main mistake was to make uncompromised-able demands on the Asad regime, convinced it was on the way out, even while it had no intention of intervening militarily. On the other side, however, Iran and later Russia were determined to prevent regime collapse. The resulting “balanced intervention” by anti- and pro-Asad powers tipped Syria into protracted civil war.

Philips’ analysis could be usefully read in tandem with Nikolaos Van Dam, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (I.B Taurus 2017), by a diplomat-scholar with decades of experience of studying Syria. He similarly examines the mistakes of the West in its expectation that the regime would easily be swept away.

John McHugo, From the Great War to the Civil War (Saqi Books, 2014) provides a wider historical sweep regarding the deleterious impact of foreign powers on Syria, seeing its very founding as a modern state under French tutelage as sewing the seeds of the uprising.

For a broad overview of the uprising:

Raymond Hinnebusch and Omar Imady, The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory (Routledge, 2018).

This major edited collection provides a uniquely comprehensive examination of the uprising. The book consists of nineteen chapters, each addressing an aspect of the Uprising. The chapter cases are located within a framework that poses a series of key questions or issues raised in the scholarship and debates on the Syrian uprising. Chapters 2-8 focus on the structural vulnerabilities and strengths of the regime that help explain the origins of the uprising (causes, grievances, and opportunity structure); how such mass protests became possible but also why they did not initiate a democratic transition; why the protests were militarized and sectarianism instrumentalized, resulting in civil war; and how the regime survived and how it was able to keep support of key constituencies, including the military, business, and the minorities. It takes the view that the structure goes far to explain the roots and early trajectory of the uprising, with chapters looking at regime formation (A Saoul) and practices (S. Valter), e.g., how “Sultanism” precluded democratic transition (Soren Schmidt), the military-business complex that backed it (Salam Said); the political economy context (F Lawson); regime divide and rule strategies e.g. Islamism vs secularists (L Khatib); Sufis vs Islamists (O Imady) and the role of the Alawis (L. Goldsmith). Agency also mattered and subsequent chapters examines Asad’s decisions (D. Lesch), the emergence of civil society as a base of opposition (T al-Om), the role of notions of dignity (J. Harkin) and the social media (B Brownlee) in mobilization; the role of the Muslim Brotherhood (N. Ramirez Diaz); the sectarianization of the conflict (E Bartolomeni; O. Rifai); the emergence of salafist jihadists (I Eido), and the roles of the Druze (M. Kastrinou), the Left (F Arslanian) and the Kurds (D. Cifci). Subsequent volumes in this series will examine the external role in the uprising, and its later evolution.

In addition to these works, students of contemporary Syria may wish to consult the only scholarly journal devoted entirely to Syria, Syria Studies; the valuable reports of the International Crisis Group; and in-depth news and analysis websites such as Syria Deeply; and the Carnegie Middle East Centre.”

[This article is published jointly in partnership with Jadaliyya.]