Sources and Solutions: Review of Van Dam’s Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria

Syria’s Civil War is mind-bogglingly complex. The sheer number of factions fighting over a small triangle of land in the Middle East seems ludicrous. In 2013, up to 1,000 armed rebel groups waged war both against the Syrian government and one another. These factions are constantly in motion, making temporary alliances of convenience, changing their names, merging, and splitting. Even Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian government has lost all sense of order; local militias, nominally loyal to the regime, rule much of the territory ascribed to the Syrian government. The war’s lack of a single battlefront has merely added to the mayhem.

Only taking local factions into account, the Syrian Civil War defies description. Nonetheless, foreign powers decided they had a part to play in the madness. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah cast their lot in with Assad; the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey cautiously backed rebel groups. Increasing the tension, a true wildcard appeared—the Islamic State. Foreign involvement transformed the Syrian Civil War into a proxy conflict with geopolitical implications. It will take decades before anyone gains the perspective necessary to develop a work detailing the course of so complicated a topic.

Due to this complexity, when readers pick up Nikolaos van Dam’s Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, they should not be surprised that it does not give a blow-by-blow account of the war. Instead, it explains underpinning factors which shaped the course of the Syrian Civil War and offers potential solutions to the ongoing conflict.

Although Destroying a Nation is brief—not even breaking the two-hundred-page mark before notes—it excels at describing the historical events which caused the Syrian Civil War and the diplomacy which shaped it. Van Dam, who served as the Netherlands’s Special Envoy to Syria, argues that the nature and history of the Ba’th Party caused the war, foreign intervention prolonged it, and poor diplomacy prevented it from ending.

Destroying a Nation accurately traces the history of the Ba’th Party before placing blame for the Syrian Civil War directly at the party’s feet. Although the Ba’ath were initially motivated by Arab Nationalism—a doctrine enshrined in the organization’s 1947 constitution—it quickly began a descent, albeit accidentally, into sectarianism. Since the Ba’th followed a secular ideology, they offered all sects the chance to join the Arab community as equals. This approach contrasted with other Arab nationalist parties which were dominated by Sunnis and consigned minorities to a secondary status. As a result, the Ba’th drew a disproportionate number of its members from minorities, particularly the Alawites.

As providence would have it, Alawites (among other minorities) lived in the countryside and saw military life as a path out of rural poverty. The French encouraged this military inclination during the Mandate (1923-1946), using special military units composed of minorities to suppress rebellions. Hence the Alawites—and through them the Ba’th—were overrepresented in the Syrian army. When a small group of military officers helped to overthrow the Syrian government in 1963, it was no surprise that most of the officers were minorities and members of the Ba’th Party.

Minorities in Syria are compact—while they may be minorities in the country as a whole, they are majorities in the areas in which they reside. This means minority members in Syria are particularly connected to one another. Consequently, when the Ba’thists searched for trusted officers to support the new government after the 1963 coup, they called up the people they knew—other minority members. As a result, up to 90 percent of the new officers after the 1963 purges were Alawites. Therefore, while the Ba’th rejected sectarianism, the reality was that one sect—the Alawites—came to rule the country with the Assad family at its center.

Hafiz al-Assad achieved power over the backs of his fellow military officers in 1970. Instead of implementing reforms, he brutally centralized power. Ultimately, neither Hafiz nor his son Bashar al-Assad would allow any real power-sharing in Syria outside a small ring of Alawites. The party became a source of oppression which felt particularly heavy to Sunnis. This history of the Ba’th Party’s sectarianism set the stage for the current conflict and made revolt in Syria inevitable.

While the Ba’th Party caused the Syrian Civil War, foreign powers prolonged it. After Syria rose up against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, a diverse array of countries quickly offered support to the rebels. These countries led on the opposition, promising more than they would ever give. They kept on assuming and hoping that Assad would disappear, but they did not apply enough hard pressure to make that dream become a reality. Simultaneously, these foreign powers had no additional leverage at their disposal since they were already at odds with the two nations which could truly influence Assad’s regime—Russia and Iran. In brief, the world powers opposed to Assad encouraged the opposition to continue fight but provided the rebels with little firm aid. With inadequate support, the moderate rebels turned to more radical factions for help. This process has radicalized the rebellion—now, the strongest factions are Islamists and Jihadists.

Finally, Destroying a Nation explains the failure of diplomacy in Syria. It is difficult to find any deal amenable to both sides in this brutal conflict. At the very least, the opposition demands reform, including real power-sharing in Syria. Ultimately, such power-sharing would undermine and destroy the regime, whose members would then face justice—likely resulting in capital punishment. On the one hand, real change would threaten Assad’s personal survival, and on the other, cosmetic changes would never satisfy an opposition which has lost so much. The two parties seem irreconcilable. Thus, the Syrian Civil War continues.

Destroying a Nation concludes by offering five possible solutions to this conflict. First, the war could continue indefinitely—a future which no one wants. Second, Assad could win. In this case, “It seems to be inevitable that one day there will be a reckoning from the side of opposition forces, or the enemies of the regime, because of the many atrocities committed by the regime and its supporters.” This future, then, is just a pause before another conflict, and so should be avoided. Third, the opposition could win. The odds are that this would lead to an Islamist dictatorship, since the necessities of war have radicalized much of the opposition. Fourth, the country could split into multiple territories. However, no party seems inclined to accept a partition, so it is doubtful that this solution would create lasting peace.

Destroying a Nation’s fifth solution—and the one it advocates—is political compromise. The work contends that serious negotiations are needed. Even while asserting this solution, Nikolaos van Dam seems to realize that it is wistful thinking: “Serious efforts should be continued to help achieve a political solution. Miracles only happen if one keeps believing in them.” Accomplishing the political solution he espouses certainly would be a miracle, and it is disappointing that the realistic analysis which he applies to the war ends in a blindly optimistic plan.

Readers searching for a blow-by-blow depiction of events on the ground won’t find it in this work. This book gives little more than a passing comment to the actual progression of the war. Furthermore, despite its diplomatic focus, Destroying a Nation says surprisingly little about the interests of foreign actors involved in the conflict—it is neither a geopolitical nor a military work.

However, aside from the rather wistful conclusion, Destroying a Nation is an excellent historical and diplomatic analysis of the Syrian Civil War. This book is a solid starting place from which to study the conflict—it establishes a framework without which the events of the war look like little more than a kaleidoscope of chaos. Even advanced students of the Syrian Civil War will find much to learn—in particular, historical and diplomatic details. Having followed the war fairly closely for the last few years, I appreciated the nuanced analysis of Destroying a Nation and would recommend it to anyone who desires to understand the background of the mind-bogglingly complex conflict which is the Syrian Civil War.

Nathaniel Mullins is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history from Patrick Henry College.

Feature Photo Credit: Two destroyed tanks in front of the mosque at Azaz, August 21, 2012. By Christiaan Triebert via Wikimedia Commons.

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