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The period between 1973 and 1976 was a pivotal time in the history of the modern Middle East, as well as for US-Syrian relations. It witnessed the October 1973 war, the reestablishment of US-Syrian diplomatic relations, the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon in 1975, and the Sinai II disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel, among other events. In all of these, the characters of United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad loomed large. However, existing narratives generally sideline their interactions. This relationship, as well as Asad's legacy more generally, is the subject of a new book by Bouthaina Shaaban, a key political and media advisor to current Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, and a former advisor to Asad, père.
Readers familiar with Shaaban's public whitewashing of the current Syrian regime's atrocities will be naturally skeptical of her views on these subjects. In fact, her interpretations of these events rest comfortably within what might be seen as the mainstream Arab perspective. Indeed, they closely match those expressed in Patrick Seale's now-classic biography of Hafiz al-Asad, also written with insider access.1 Like Seale, Shaaban's basic argument is that Arab leaders erred in trusting Kissinger to act as a mediator. This is reflective of the widely held view that the Secretary of State's strategy of brokering separate peace agreements between Israel and the Arab states undermined the Arab world's common cause. In turn, Asad's greatest challenge was not Kissinger but rather his former comrade-in-arms, Anwar [End Page 682] al-Sadat, who in the period following the 1973 war pursued Egyptian interests at the expense of other Arab parties, particularly Syria and the Palestinians (p. 11).
The Edge of the Precipice has some points to commend it. It provides a comprehensive overview of the discussions between Kissinger and Asad during the former's "shuttle diplomacy" between Israel and the Arab states in the aftermath of the 1973 war. The Syrian documents Shaaban cites offer some new insights into the views of the major participants. They demonstrate that Kissinger and President Richard Nixon did not hesitate to use anti-Semitic rhetoric in an attempt to win Arab favor; for instance, Kissinger frequently invoked Jewish control of the American media to explain why the US was unable to pressure Israel at particular times. He even hinted that the Watergate investigation was a result of the "Jewish Lobby" in the United States (p. 60). Although Asad grew tired of hearing this refrain as an excuse for lack of progress, he bought into its fundamental premise. Nixon's subsequent resignation, Asad believed well into the 1990s, was a result of his desire to impose a peace between Israel and the Arab states (p. 61).
Additionally, Shaaban offers new evidence on a particularly contentious aspect of modern Syrian history: Syria's increasing involvement in the Lebanese Civil War, culminating in overt military intervention in June 1976. This book joins several other recent works (including one by this reviewer)2 in arguing that Syria did not actually give its consent to any sort of formal or informal "red line" agreement with Israel governing its presence in Lebanon (p. 228). To prove this, she cites numerous memoranda of conversations between the Syrian leader and American officials. It is hoped that the Syrian government will make these and other valuable primary source documents available online to researchers and the interested public, in and outside the Arab world.
Despite these contributions, the book suffers from a number of serious flaws. The first is the selective nature of the primary sources used. Shaaban, currently under US sanctions that make travel to the United States difficult, does not appear to have visited any American archives, which contain many additional records of the Kissinger-Asad conversations. Her access to Syrian sources appears to have been limited only to transcripts of conversations in the presidential archives. While these...