Syria through a Sectarian Lens


The Syrian Rebellion

Fouad Ajami, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2012

(Huffington Post) Ajami, author of ‘The Arab Predicament’ a bombastic argument about the stalemate of political ideas in the Arab world, has written a timely and passionate account of the bloody events in Syria. The author is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution whose mandate states that “the war of ideas with radical Islamism is inescapably central to this Hoover endeavour” (XII), and the focus on religion and politics certainly underpins the central narrative of “The Syrian Rebellion”.  Ajami’s main argument is that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is a “monstrous state” (p.70) that has manipulated the sectarian makeup of the country to ensure control, a control that would now appear to be fatally challenged. Indeed the current rebellion is described as “an irresistible force has clashed with an immovable object. The regime could not frighten the population, and the people could not dispatch the highly entrenched regime that Assad Senior had built” (p.9).

The work puts today’s events into context with an abridged history of the Assad dynasty’s rule over Syria. The history focuses on how the Assad family and their Alawi community would sow the seeds for a future sectarian conflict. Ajami describes them as “mountain people” without the “Diaspora that knit them into a bigger world. There was the military and, in time, the Baath Party that brought them out of their solitude” (p.14). The book quotes Martin Kramer who tellingly wrote that “the Alawis, having been denied their own state by the Sunni nationalists, had taken all of Syria instead. Arabism, once a convenient device to reconcile minorities to Sunni rule, was now used to reconcile Sunnis to the rule of minorities” (p.25).


According to the book the story of the Syria rebellion that began in March 2011 is that of a Sunni majority trying to overthrow the Assad-led Alawite government. Ajami explains that “It would simplify things to depict this fight as the determined struggle of the Sunni majority to retrieve its world from minoritarian domination. But that was the truth that finally animated, and shaped, this struggle” (p.174).

Unlike a number of books on the subject, in particular “The Arab Revolution” by Jean-Pierre Filiu and “The Battle for the Arab Spring” by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, Ajami largely ignores the underlying causes of the Arab Spring that have manifest across the region. Instead of examining issues of youth unemployment, lack of political freedoms, communications technologies and protest, the central pillar of the book sees the conflict through a sectarian lens. Ajami dismisses the idea that people rose up over “unequal access to economic opportunity and state patronage….on the face of it, this kind of proposition could be given credence. But the resentments were long in the making” (p.137). The author’s juxtaposition of the Sunni majority with the minority communities leads to overly simplistic scenarios whereby the minorities, as if homogenous groups, have a choice between the “shield of the secular dictatorship, or the risks and rewards of democratic politics……the Christians has bet on Arab nationalism, but it had failed them as it was Islamized from below” (p.115).

In such a rapidly changing conflict the book has of course already been overtaken by events, as this review has likely been too. Ajami rejects any international stomach for intervention and writes that “no Srebrenica had yet occurred in Syria” before the massacres in June in the towns of Qubair and Houla. Depressingly the author outlines how the development of “tolerance aplenty for massive human suffering” means that bloodshed in Syria may be stomached indefinitely.

Beyond the Hoover Institution’s ideology Ajami’s personal perspectives make the book feel an extended op-ed rather than a classic work of academia. As Ajami puts it “I did not hide my sympathies in this book. No author is a moral umpire calling strikes, and I did not pretend to be one in this endeavour” (p.215). Ajami was born in Lebanon and is particularly scathing of Syria’s numerous interventions in the country, describing Syrian rule over Lebanon a “great, pitiless hoax”. He reflects bitterly on the decision to allow a pax-Syriana following the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1991, bemoaning how “the Syrian arsonists had come to be seen as the fire brigade of a volatile Lebanese polity” (p.47). There are no foot or endnotes but rather a limited bibliography at the end and much of the final part of the book is made up of interviews with the Syrian opposition conducted on a brief trip to Turkey that offers little beyond anecdotal snapshots. That said it is a very readable account by an individual whose has spliced a broad knowledge of the subject with a core of emotion.

The options for the near and medium future in Syria appear bleak. Ajami writes of the Alawi Dilemma – that they “were invested in the regime and captured by it” (p.123) and posits the larger debate over the “the unity of this odd nation-state” (p.89). The scale of the challenge for the future of Syria is encapsulated in an activist’s quote on Twitter about how a “revolution for a change” has become “a battle for existence”.



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