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Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East

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Book Review: Written before the recent wave of revolutions across the Middle East, this book by Syrian exile Radwan Ziadeh provides a informative, well intentioned but inconsistent account of the politics of modern Syria. The zenith of this inconsistency is the book's claim to focus on Syria's intelligence services, a worthy and important subject but one whose secretive and authoritarian nature makes it somewhat impenetrable. However, while Ziadeh fails to shine a light on the dark recesses of Syria's security institutions, he does provide a very readable snapshot of the first ten years of Bashar al-Asad's rule, placed into the context of a brief history of the country and the transition from Hafez to his son Bashar.

Part of the book's failure is self-imposed. Ziadeh boldly begins by stating that academic studies of Syria "tend to place too much emphasis on a particular Syrian leader without attempting to study what mechanisms lie behind the political system". The author critiques Patrick Seale's masterly biography of Hafez Assad for claiming that "Asad is Syria, and Syria is Asad", however such an attack on the behaviourist approach can only hold water if the work truly managed to propose a different hypothesis. Ziadeh's research uncovers only what Seale would have himself confirmed: that Hafez Asad "was completely and single-handedly the one decision-maker who could set in motion any all-inclusive system at his disposal". Ziadeh's book offers little change, stating that "any differences between President Bashar Asad and his father stem from psychological differences between them rather than differences in the political system".

The work is, however, a useful introduction to the structures of power that make up the security institutions underpinning the all powerful Asad presidencies. In the introduction, the author describes his own experiences of interrogation by the security forces, which eventually led to his departure from the country. Indeed Ziadeh has had a unique perspective of the "Orwellian system of surveillance" that exists in Syria, where he estimates there is a member of the intelligence service for every 153 citizens. He was a member of the reformists who made up the 'Damascus Spring' described as a brief moment of opportunity for the country to bring about genuine change before, in 2001, deciding that the regime would stick with a "policy based on fear, oppression and a monopoly on truth and patriotism".

The massive bureaucracy that reinforces the power of the presidency and the effectiveness of its security organs is characterised as a Gordian knot that makes it "well nigh impossible to reframe political and economic policy" in the country. Ziadeh demolishes the myth that Syria will somehow be able to replicate the Chinese method of reform typified by economic rather than political change. He skilfully contrasts China's huge number of well-qualified managers, specialists and technocrats to the moribund Ba'ath regional leadership and its paucity of postgraduates.

Ziadeh's section on Syria's foreign policy under Bashar Asad reveals few surprises and falls into the trap of providing too little detail when describing the complexities and subtleties of the relationship with Lebanon. What's more, the chapter relies too heavily on a chronology of statements from both Bashar and Western leaders to fill the narrative, making it feel distinctly disconnected from the rest of the text.

Ziadeh also fails to avoid the cliché so often present in writing on the Middle East when he describes the present day as a "unique stage of Syria's history" with Syria "now at a crossroads". Having spent much of the book describing the leaderships suffocating hold on power it requires quite a radical departure to explain 2010 as a moment of pivot for the regime. However Ziadeh was not alone in being surprised by the rapid pace of change that would roll across the region in 2011, with the International Crisis Group stating in March following violence breaking out in Deraa that "Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership". Ziadeh did predict the key role of technology in challenging entrenched power, describing the internet as "the sole place where democratic debates take place", a reality that has been validated by the key role played by online social networking sites in the Arab revolutions to date. Ultimately Ziadeh, alongside many commentators on the region, will have to update their work to accommodate the legacy of these dramatic events.

As I write, Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban has announced that the ruling Baath party have agreed to study the possibility of lifting emergency law and have announced a string of other reforms, including pay rises for state employees and possible licensing of political parties. Syria, it would appear, truly is at a crossroads.

This review originally appeared in International Affairs

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