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Wednesday, 09 May 2018 09:42

Nikolaos van Dam, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, I.B. Tauris, 2017

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Nikolaos van Dam’s book is the work of a trenchant scholar and diplomat with a clear understanding of Syrian dynamics: the author is a decade-long Syria watcher who laments the country’s multiple plights. His book is an austere distillation of wrong choices, oversights and stubborn obsessions. It’s also a linear history of the Syrian conflict: van Dam shows how once the revolt broke out, war was inevitable. As the Dutch Special Envoy for Syria, van Dam is well-positioned to inquire into the 21st century’s most toxic conflict. His analysis is level-headed and intellectually coherent, quite possibly the best one so far in the form of a single volume.

Van Dam calls Syria a ‘closed community system’. Syria’s sectarianism, replete with religious overtones today, has been a rather political phenomenon. Although it harks back to the colonial era, Syrian sectarianism was magnified in the aftermath of the 1963 Ba’th coup. The party’s leaders, aware of the need to augment their ranks, called up officers to whom they were related via family, tribal and family ties. Naturally, the number of minority officers surged, while purges of the main ideological rivals, namely Nasserists and Independent Unionists, were carried out. The latter were mainly Sunni. An ideological conflict thus played out along sectarian lines. In the intra-Ba’th power struggles that ensued, Hafez al-Assad emerged victorious by purging his ideological rivals. Purging those rivals, many of whom were Sunni, meant purging their support base in the lower ranks. This pattern would ‘repeat itself for the next half a century’.

Not that the Ba’th’s ‘provocative’ secularism was not without its problems. Against the wishes of the wide Sunni majority, Syria’s 1973 constitution did not mention religion. In 1976, members of the Muslim Brotherhood carried out assassinations of Alawis, ‘not necessarily Bathists’. Following the assassination of Alawis in Aleppo’s Artillery Academy in 1979, a country-wide campaign against the Brotherhood was launched. It would reach its climax in the 1982 Hama events.

Van Dam does well to remind important yet oft-ignored points: that the Syrian conflict was very early on a proxy war. That during the revolt various forces in the country had their own agendas and ‘could be expected not to show any respect for democracy’. And that the minorities-Sunni dichotomy was solidified during the war’s course but was not as cut and dried from the beginning: numerous Alawis had gone and kept going against the regime. More than half of the Christians surveyed in 2016 claimed initially supporting the anti-regime demonstrations.

On the West’s stance, van Dam pulls no punches. It might not have created the crisis, but it did pretty much everything wrong after that. Despite the lack of guarantees of success, the West did not engage in any kind of political dialogue with the regime. The withdrawal of most Western ambassadors in 2012 meant that the West would be unable to evaluate the situation on the ground correctly. Imposing sanctions did nothing but increase violence and intimidation, the regime’s sense of siege and severed all potential channels of communication. Refusing to learn from mistakes of the past, Western countries seemed to forget that sanctions usually do more harm than good. This has been the case in both Iraq and Iran. Visits to Hama by the US and French ambassadors in July 2011 without the proffer of other kinds of support created false expectations on the part of the opposition. In short, Western politicians ‘had clear thoughts about what they did not want, but no realistic or clear ideas of what they wanted in al-Assad’s place’.

Van Dam’s greatest contribution to the debate on Syria is his unflinching pursuit of a theoretical framework for a solution in Syria based on both notions of moral justice but also the need to be pragmatic. He correctly reminds that from justice’s vantage point the opposition has been ‘generally speaking correctly’ but that at the end the balance of power on the ground speaks louder. In this context, ‘winner takes all’ attitudes can only add to the Syrian people’s predicament. Declaring a leader illegitimate and calling for his resignation as a requisite for a political solution is more or less a contradiction in terms. And many have also forgotten than, in the Syrian morass, al-Assad’s departure alone would not have solved anything.

Van Dam does not propose a clear way forward. Most likely this is because the multiple Syrian imbroglios leave very little to the imagination. The reader gets the unsavory feeling that, despite the need to continue with attempts at a political solution, everything in Syria will be decided militarily. It does seem like Syria has still some way to go.


For our interview with the author follow this link.

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos