The Struggle of Major Powers Over Syria

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9780863725111: The Struggle of Major Powers Over Syria
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BEIRUT, Lebanon - It's a widely held view in the Middle East that America understands little about the cultures and peoples that occupy these lands, and that Washington's foreign policy engine rarely stops to draw breath before making decisions that will alter history irrevocably here. Perhaps there is some truth to this perception with Syria. Back in 2007, Assad was brought back from the cold by a new way of thinking on the Middle East - to use his relations with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran to the West's advantage. Syria's unique place in the Arab world was seen as a positive thing. Then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was said to have "embarrassed" the Clinton administration for her public statement that doing business with bogeymen of the Middle East was smarter than isolating them. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended Pelosi at the time. "We have got to engage these countries. Obviously we have serious differences with a country like Syria, but we're sure not making progress towards our goals in the region by isolating and ignoring them." Few could have predicted Clinton's role in the early days of the implosion of the Assad state when she would eat her own words. As the regime shot at protesters, Clinton serenaded a remarkable ignorance of Syria and its history, clinging to the illusion that the regime could be easily toppled, and that the 'good guys' - the moderate 'Free Syria Army fellows - would ensure that the guns would be removed from jihad fighters from Iraq, Pakistan, the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon and even Europe. Many would argue that she was following tradition by identifying whether the man at the center of the storm was Washington-leaning and could be influenced by diplomatic pressure. Assad was neither and therefore the U.S. position was inevitable: he would be demonized and anyone who stepped forward to support Washington's attack on him would be supported. It's a shame that The Struggle of Major Powers over Syria was not published earlier and read by Clinton, or even Kerry now. This fascinating exploration of Syria's history, written by an acknowledged expert of the region, Dr. Jamal Wakim, demonstrates that the West's involvement from the beginning was a grotesque error of judgment - perhaps one that President Obama has realized. Wakim, a Lebanese lecturer in history and international relations, has done a fortuitous job at writing a digestible A-Z guide of Syria's history, in terminology and context that Washington can understand. Wakim begins by explaining that Syria was historically a superpower and Damascus was the center of the world. Even in 1200 B.C., Syria was emerging as a power house that was feared by the predecessors of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. Back then everyone wanted a piece of Syria and tribes from Arabia were already conquering southern Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Homs in 1284 BC was a major battlefield as it has been in recent months as Egyptians and Hittites clashed. A ceasefire was soon drawn up by the king of the day, fearing that he had too much to lose with the result that 1,000 years of peace followed, which made Syria at the center of a crossroads between east and west and explains to some extent the country's cultural riches. But the peace did not last. The long period of conflict between the three contending powers of the Near East - the Hitttite, Egyptian and Mitannian states - exhausted their economies and impacted the region. The collapse of all three powers paved the way for a new power in the region, Assyria, which would be the first to unite the whole civilized world under its banner and thus impose the first instance of globalization in history as it controlled all trade routes of the Near East. Brilliantly, Wakim explains how the New Syria that emerged was a unifying one like America in the 19th century. It was also an exercise in preventative diplomacy. The new regime emerged from the ashes of warring clans who would have destroyed the country and diverted the trade routes from as far as India and Egypt if law and order had not been imposed. Much like the Romans in 350 BC England who brought order from chaos with a centralized government, a legal system and a solution to tribal in-fighting, the 'new Assyrians' became what Wakim describes as "one power" that controlled parts of Northern Persia, Mesopotamia, Cilicia, Syria and Egypt. Its economic domain, however, extended far beyond its political borders. In the East it controlled the trade routes as far as India and in the West it dominated trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. But if the ancient history is too heavy for the reader, many will start with the real beginning of Syria's downfall: the arrival of the French in 1920 who were given Syria, and what is Lebanon today, by the British to appease them after the fall of the Ottomans at the end of World War I. To understand today what the Al Assad Awalite elite is trying to avoid at all costs, one can look at a map of Syria after France divided it into six states based on confessional lines. This division effectively made the Sunni population the most powerful, as the lion's share of the country - the states of Aleppo and Damascus - were, of course Sunni. France had divided Syria into ethnic groups and, according to Wakim, occasionally encouraged the groups to fight each other to keep them from ever uniting against the colonial incumbent administration. A revolt soon followed as the French failed to realize the implications of internal trade in the country. Damascus lost its prime role as a central trade hub for the region. While squabbles with Turkey resulted in broken ties, Beirut's emergence to take the role of Damascus meant a great loss of business with surrounding countries was lost. Britain was blamed and in 1949 London found itself vying to take back Syria as the arrival of the Americans and their sponsored coups in the country changed everything. Washington's backing of today's so-called Free Syria Army is not the first time an American administration has dabbled in Syria's domestic politics. Probably the golden section on the book is the post mortem on the Hafez Al-Assad regime and the emergence of Bashar as a leader battling to retain the ethos of his father's authoritarian, yet cunning political stamp, while attempting to modernize Syria and open up its markets during a period kinder commentators have called 'reform.' The early days of the father's rule in the early seventies are fascinating chronicles. His increasing distrust with Arab leaders over Israel explains one of the reasons why Iran and Russia emerged as allies in regional politics as Syria, growing stronger under Assad senior, was becoming increasingly isolated. It is a self imposed state with which the Assad clan have seemed comfortable and one that unnerves the West interminably. Many lessons are here in arguably the best contemporary account of Syria's history to date: Syria's isolation from the West is a juxtaposition to its historical links with its neighbors; virtually all of Syria's wars have been international proxy ones and never exclusively 'civil', and Syria's rich history is peppered with sponsored tyranny from what is Saudia Arabia today. But perhaps more than anything, what emerges is how today's leader in Syria is misunderstood and perhaps underrated. This book might help Washington understand why superpowers like Syria stratify their own ways of retaining functional societies which, despite human rights abuse and dysfunctional autocratic rule, at least keep a complex and troubled country together - the same country that Ottoman, French, British and American rule have failed to temper. It may seem a kind of madness to Westerners who understand little about modern Syria and even less about the present regime, but surely not when compared to Washington and London indirectly backing jihadist fighters there. By Martin Jay. Martin is a veteran foreign correspondent who has been reporting on Middle East, Africa and Europe for 25 years, working as a correspondent for Euronews, CNN, The Sunday Times, Reuters and many British newspapers. He currently lives in Beirut working as a correspondent for Deutche Welle (English) and The Sunday Times. Discussions on the Middle East and the Arab World tend to focus on topics of religion, oil exploitation, and terrorism. Debates on Syria, in particular, draw from these topics in order to explain the state's modern geopolitical significance and recent government dysfunction. Yet scholar Jamal Wakim goes deeper by emphasizing centuries of interplay between geography, society, and economy to clarify Syria's unique place in Middle East and global history. According to Wakim's work, Syria has a multilayered and complicated history. First, Syria possesses a delicate societal structure where multiple religious communities and people groups vie for political and economic power. More importantly, however, Syria also sits atop the world's overland crossroads. Inside Syria's borders rest vital way points along century old trade routes linking Europe and Asia. Imperial powers had for centuries coveted the lucrative, geostrategic position leading to a long history of foreign occupation. Moreover, its location--sandwiched between Egypt and Turkey--linked Syria to other regional events. In essence, Syria's situation directly impacted those nations around it. Wakim contends that this culturally fragmented nation served as a global intersection of economy, geopolitics, and cultural exchange. From the second millennium BCE, Syria was the major junction for international economy, culture, and politics, he argues, representing the first "instance of globalization in history" (p. 7). His global angle sets his thesis apart from previous analyses attempting to explain Syria's modern dysfunction. The approach is an interesting change of pace to an otherwise predictable topic. Wakim segments the treatise into eleven chapters, organized chronologically. Although the content is somewhat dry, the encyclopedic style works well in retracing Syria's evolution from tribal land to Arab nation state. The textbook style offers a digestible overview of Syria's history and is well-suited for novices and educated non-specialists alike. Wakim is not challenging long-standing arguments in the field or posing a new, path-breaking analysis. Rather, he is taking a comprehensive approach in a retelling of Syria's lengthy history, in order to demonstrate geographical and cultural importance in the course of world civilizations. In Chapter 1, Wakim establishes the foundation to his thesis, exploring Syria's early history before the start of the Middle Ages proving that, even in these early years, the area was already a center for international trade and commerce. Such an important economic center naturally became the target of foreign empires seeking to expand their kingdoms. The region witnessed a cavalcade of successive occupiers to include the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Here, Wakim should be lauded for his extensive use of maps, as they offer critical assistance to an otherwise convoluted period of frequent turnover and ease the task of recalling names and places over time and space. Chapter 2 is a rather basic retelling of Syrian history from the 11th through 16th centuries that recalls multiple Crusades and the eventual takeover by the Ottomans. In Chapter 3, Wakim makes a keen observation arguing that the critical transition for Syria came with the Portuguese establishment of sea-based trade lanes reaching Asia. With new trade lanes, Wakim writes in Chapter 4, Syria's chief significance shifted from economic to a central seat for imperial powers to maximize their reach into far-flung corners of their empire. Colonial empires, especially the French, "assigned special importance to Syria, and throughout the 19th century tried to impose their influence on this highly important geostrategic region" (p. 61). Chapters 5 and 6 retrace the mandate period and national independence, in which Wakim claims that the European's planned for the endorsement of Israel's nationhood, more or less, to undermine future Arab domination of the Levant. In essence, imperialism continued under new strategies after the mandates collapsed. Chapters 7 and 8 bring readers into a modern period with a recounting that begins with the reign of the Assads up through the 1990s. In these periods, Wakim contends, Syria's history of societal fracturing became painfully evident. The volatile mix of competing religions and ethnicities, which has historically undermined Syrian cohesion, Wakim writes in Chapter 9, led to Assad's "delicate equilibrium" to hold the nation together. Yet "chronic Syrian-Iraqi disagreements," normalizing relations with Israel, and U.S. meddling all continued to threaten regional stability (p. 49). In Chapters 10 and 11, Wakim veers off his otherwise logical progression of Syria's history into some rather startling conclusions. First, without a single reference to primary evidence, he claims that the U.S. used the September 11 attacks as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, much like Nazi Germany used the "Polish attacks on its eastern frontier in 1939" (p. 157). He goes on to argue that the invasions were "decided upon" long before September 11 (p. 158). Wakim wants readers to believe the U.S. government purposefully staged the attacks much like the Nazis did on the Polish border. Unfortunately, he offers no evidence to support his conclusions. Such a major development without any evidence appears as an egregious deviation from quality scholarship. In the final Chapter, Wakim contends that the Arab Spring highlighted Syria's regional importance as its own instability went on to negatively impact Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. The Arab Spring reminds readers that the consequences of Syria's ongoing internal dysfunction reach far beyond its borders. The recent revolutions remind us that the nation plays a vital role in regional and international stability. Wakim's approach is refreshing. Syria's geostrategic position goes further in explaining why the area has been the frequent target of occupation in spite of weak nature resources. His basic argument will surely change the way readers view Syria's role in international affairs. However, Wakim's use of sources is a glaring drawback. Firstly, Wakim relies heavily on secondary materials, which alone is not a problem. The issues rest with the large amount of secondary material, coupled with his infrequent endnotes. In fact, there are times when several pages go by without any reference. For example, in Chapter 5, Wakim makes the fascinating observation that Europe's case for Israel had to do with preventing "the creation of an alliance between Mesopotamia and Egypt" (p.86). Yet there is no reference within 50 sentences of the information. Together, it left this reader wondering if certain information is derived from a published source or his own previous research. This weakness looms especially large in Chapter 10 with his assertions that equate the United States and September 11 to premeditated Nazi actions. Here again, Wakim offers no reference or evidence to support his rather incredible conclusion. An unsubstantiated claim that the U.S. government orchestrated these attacks is bizarre. It appears cavalier and it mars an otherwise interesting monograph. Taken together, source usage and notation needs some serious revision and reorganization, but the overall narrative offers a fantastic overview of Syria's historical evolution. The book is a good tool for those seeking a readable rehashing of Syria's history. Review by David A. Grantham, MA Texas Christian University Ft. Worth, TX

Reseña del editor:

In this book, Dr. Jamal Wakim argues that the success or failure of Syria's policies is directly linked to the degree to which these policies accord with those of Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and that it has been subject throughout its history to competition between the forces occupying the geostrategic spheres that surround it. He further argues that the influence of these spheres is not restricted to foreign policy, but also extends to interaction with cultural, economic and social groups, thus transforming the geo-political to geo-cultural, geoeconomic and geo-social. Ordered chronologically, the book deals chapter-by-chapter with the different conflicts and struggles that have surrounded Syria throughout history, detailing the constant struggles to control it by Mesopotania, Anatolia and Egypt. The book attempts to understand the political changes that have taken place during the term of President Bashar Assad, including the role of the 'superpowers' in seeking to achieve control of the region; and concludes that whoever controls Syria can tighten their grip on Iraq, Turkey and Egypt, and thus the whole of the Middle East.

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