Reese Erlich has written an ambitious book on the Syrian civil war. The war unfolds against the backdrop of regional rivalry pitting Iran against Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as an international Cold War–like friction between the United States and Russia. The Syrian war is thus a multilayered conflict with internal, regional, and international dynamics structuring both its intensity and longevity. Erlich tries to cover all these dimensions and counts on extensive fieldwork and firsthand interaction with decision makers, analysts, and ordinary people alike to draw a comprehensive picture of the war. In addition to covering the different angles of a protracted and complex conflict, an important strength of the book is its accessibility. People who wish to know more about Syria need not be experts on its history, nor that of the Middle East, to understand the book, which reads like a well-documented introduction to Syrian politics.
Although the comprehensive scope and the hands-on approach work for the book, two weaknesses could have been avoided. First, Erlich tries to ground his account in the contemporary history of the Middle East. This in itself is commendable, of course—except that Erlich is not a historian. He thus falls in Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of the book in inaccuracies that the book could have done without. Take, for example, his account of the Lebanese civil war. The conflict, according to Erlich, pitted “poor and underrepresented Muslims against wealthy Maronite Christians” (p. 67). The oversimplification of this statement is staggering: swaths of Lebanese Muslims in fact belonged to the middle and upper classes, namely, Muslims in Beirut, whereas scores of Maronites suffered from rural poverty, especially those living in the north, the Bekaa, and the south. Erlich’s sweeping generalization is unfortunate. That Erlich seems to take at face value the Baathi rhetoric on Arab nationalism and his repeated references to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged “secular nationalism” are also unconvincing (for example, p. 79). The ideological discourse of the Baath Party has long turned into a mere lip service—a veneer for a sectarian autocracy centered on the Assad dynasty. Bashar al-Assad is no more a “nationalist” than Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is a Marxist.
Second, Erlich makes use of highly normative terms such as “progressive,” “conservative,” and “ultra-right-wing,” with no clear definition of how these terms, taken directly from the Western political experience and history, apply in the Middle East. What, for instance, makes a party “ultra-right-wing”? And why is the shaming epithet used exclusively in Erlich’s book to indicate Sunni extremists but not, say, Hezbollah? The reader would be hard-pressed to find answers to these questions in the book. In fairness to Erlich, similar terms are catchall expressions frequently used in Western academic and journalistic accounts on the Middle East; Erlich is only reproducing—uncritically—an ill-defined discourse that continues to plague Middle East studies in West.
These critiques are not damning to the book, which should be taken for what it is: an interesting account by a journalist who has traveled a lot in the Middle East and who has reported what he saw and heard. The narrative is enriching and the reporting accurate, although readers need to look elsewhere for a deeper analysis of the Syrian war.
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