Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect by Reese Erlich (Book Review #96 of 2014)

I received an uncorrected, advance reading copy of this book as part of a GoodReads giveaway. As such, there may be some changes between my copy and the final version. (My copy did not have an index which is sorely needed.)

Reese Erlich has done his best to chronicle his interactions with the complicated web of groups fighting it out in Syria and supply a timeline of how we got where we are today. I was excited to read this book as it's one of the first complete looks at the Syria's civil war to come out of it. Erlich doesn't rely solely on his own years of front-line journalism (he even has a one-on-one with Bashar Al Assad), he also supplies plenty of documentation from other printed sources. The State Department reached out to Erlich in 2012 (Chapter 11) at which time he learned how naive and unprepared U.S. policy really was. Even so, even this recent work does not forecast the vast conquering of territory by ISIS and their incursions into Iraq seen just months after completion. He just cursorily notes that Saudi Arabia channeled funds and thousands of fighters into Syria, fighters that eventually formed the Islamic Front and other extremists group, but condemned both Al Nusrah and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014. One wonders that the coalition of countries that helped create the monster of ISIS are now bombing it. The book has a helpful timeline and glossary.

The foreward by Noam Chomsky is a clue that this isn't the type of book Erlich really wanted to write. While he tries to keep an unbiased documentary-style look at events on the ground, he often lets his own opinions and criticism of both U.S. and Israeli foreign policies come out, particularly towards the end when he advocates the U.S. stay out of the crisis altogether. In some places, his opinion seems inappropriate commentary next to the facts he is outlining (perhaps this will be edited more in the final version). Like any book that relies on first-hand interviews conducted through translators, "consider the source" is a good caveat. At times, Erlich relies perhaps too much on the opinion of one expert or witness, particularly in cultural matters.

A prerequisite for reading this book is to read T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom and to watch the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Erlich spends early chapters recounting the Arab politics shaped by World War I and the West's quest for oil and colonialism in the Middle East. He critiques the movie and uses scenes to illustrate points. Those in the West ignorant of history may not appreciate that Syrians resent the involvement of France in their current struggle, as they fought bloody battles for independence from the colonialist French during World War II (p. 54-55). There are some contradictions in these early chapters. For example, Erlich criticizes "ignorant" stereoptying in the West-- that Arabs simply squabble amongst themselves and cannot peacefully govern their own destiny--while later quoting Sunni scholars that in the 1920s Sunni tribes were constantly feuding which made them easy to divide and conquer. Erlich also makes the U.S. out to be imperialist in its post WWI ambitions while later pointing out the strong isolationism that followed WWI.

The more modern history of Syria under Hafez Al Assad and his son Bashar is quite complicated. Erlich never spells out what an Alawite is, exactly, and why it's important. He does illustrate that many Iranians who have been supportive of Assad because they think he is a Shiite have no clue what an Alawite is. Erlich explains the history of the creation of the Baath Party in 1946 and the anti-Israeli pan-Arabism that was strong in the 20th century (p. 57-59). As Baathists became politically stronger in Syria it put them at odds with Nasser-led Egypt and led to secession from a once united Egypt and Syria. The Baathists, led by Hafez Al Assad, came to power through a coup in 1970, an eventual result after the humiliation and occupation experienced after the 1967 Six Day War with Israel (p. 62). Syria's poor treatment of Palestinian refugees and Assad's attempt to co-opt the PLO indirectly created Fatah and fostered the animosity that exists today-- polls show that Palestinian are overwhelmingly opposed to Assad. The political manoeuvring of Assad in moving from support of ethnic Christians in Lebanon to later relying on Hezbollah and even sending troops to help the U.S. led coalition to oppose Saddam Hussein in 1991 is fascinating.

Erlich takes the time to examine exactly how secular Syria was under a supposedly secular Baathist regime. He records the plight of homosexuals within the protest movement (85-87). Life will not bode well for them legally or culturally no matter how the war ends up.

The author does a good job explaining how peaceful demonstrations were eventually met with violence and how violent protestors co-opted the movement, escalating a pro-democracy movement into a civil war. The Assad regime made things worse by surprisingly granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds and intentionally freeing Muslim extremists from jail, essentially creating a war between multiple parties of Sunnis, Kurds, and other Arabs as trust broke down.

"To the pious go the guns" (p. 15) - In the early days of the rebellion it was hard to separate "moderate" from "extremist." Moderate rebels met with Saudi handlers in Turkey to acquire weapons and had to prove their piety by growing beards, fasting, etc. Erlich does a good job explaining the diversity of groups and how the West had such a hard time cobbling a coalition together. When a State Department official is asked by Erlich to identify which group in the Syrian National Council "actually provided a democratic alternative to Assad," the official demurs: "'It's a work in progress'" (p. 209).

Erlich explains the desperate measures used by the Assad regime, particularly its use of civilians trained by Iran to be agitators and local militia (the Shabiba, p. 137). Erlich was in Iran during the "Green Revolution" and saw first hand the tactics perfected by Iran's own civilian militias. The government has no control over the Shabiba as they perpetrate mass-killings and crimes that have simply increased the ethnic hatred. The author does a good job of explaining the complicated nature of Iran's role in the conflict. Forgotten by the West is that Iran faced a "major dilemma" of either abandoning its ally (Assad) or discrediting itself on the Arab street and with Palestinians (p. 146-147). Tehran reportedly supported free and fair elections, encouraging Assad that if he lost the Baathists would still have its constitutional authority and would still be the major player-- an idea Assad rejected.

The events in Egypt and Palestine during the Arab Spring further exacerbated the problem. Damascus and Iran supported Hamas against Fatah. Iran used to spend $20 million a month to keep the lights on in Gaza, but quit in 2013 when Hamas backed the rebellion against Assad. This, combined with the military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt inflamed the economic tensions and violence that led to the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014. Qatar now supports Hamas and Gaza (against Assad) while Iran and Hezbollah assist Assad (p. 203-208).

Late in the book, Erlich identifies himself is an American-born Jew who has become critical of Israel's policies. (It is not stated outright, but I imagine he kept his ethnic identity a secret in traveling through 10 Middle Eastern countries in the course of his work.) Erlich writes that Israel has secretly been training the Free Syrian Army and witnesses the ambulances carting FSA and civilian wounded from the Syrian border, careful not to assist Al Nusrah. Israel was not eager to see Assad go as he'd kept things quiet in the Golan Heights but it wants neither to see Muslim radicals come to power nor a regime even more beholden to Iran. Israel essentially benefits from a stalemate that "keeps Arab minds off of Israel."

Most helpful to understanding recent events in Syria, Erlich explains that there are roughly 16 different Kurdish groups with competing interests ranging from Iraq to Turkey. Some are united in fighting both Assad and ISIS but others, such as the Kurdish Islamic Front are radicalized and fight alongside ISIS against other Kurds. The Kurdish groups have made pacts, split up, made pacts again, and the infighting continues (p. 171-185). Erlich lays out the timeline of U.S. involvement, beginning with the CIA's covert arming and training of rebels beginning in 2013 (p. 210). The State Department reportedly has long-favored a no-fly zone (something demanded by Turkey), while the Joint Chiefs estimated in August 2013 that such an action would require 70,000 American troops (p. 217). Erlich points out that U.S. decisions in 2011-2013 may have been influenced by Assad's rejection of a proposed natural gas pipeline from Qatar to Syria in favor of an Iranian pipeline instead. Erlich examines arguments for and against U.S. intervention in Syria made by characters ranging from Sarah Palin to Thomas Friedman. In the end, Erlich rejects the argument of armed "humanitarian intervention" as practically impossible (p. 221-223). "I oppose all outside interference in Syria," writes Erlich, arguing that aid should be increased to Syrian refugees instead. If Lebanon can be considered a model, Erlich offers it for consideration-- its civil war eventually ended and its population learned to live relatively at peace.

The book ends rather abruptly and awkwardly, as it should given the seemingly endless fight. A must-read to anyone who wants to follow the conflict. Some of the analytical contradictions, awkward opinionating, and interesting editing choices take some of the shine off to result in a rating of four stars out of five.

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