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  • The View from Damascus: State, Political Community and Foreign Relations in Twentieth-Century Syria
  • Fred H. Lawson (bio)
The View from Damascus: State, Political Community and Foreign Relations in Twentieth-Century Syria, by Itamar Rabinovich. London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008. viii + 354 pages. Bibl. to p. 367. Index to p. 371. $49.95. [End Page 146]

Fifteen previously published essays by the doyen of Israeli scholars of contemporary Syrian history make up the bulk of this collection. Some of these are widely available but classic, such as "The Compact Minorities and the Syrian State" (1979), "Historiography and Politics in Syria" (1978), and "Israel, Syria and Lebanon" (1990). Others are portions of Itamar Rabinovich's earlier books and seem a bit truncated standing alone, such as "Israel and Husni Za'im" (from The Road Not Taken, 1991), "Israel and Syria, Rabin and Asad" (from The Brink of Peace, 1998), and "Ehud Barak and the Collapse of the Peace Process" (from Waging Peace, 2004). "Arab Political Parties: Ideology and Ethnicity" was originally published in a 1988 volume that Rabinovich edited with Milton Esman. Still others are important contributions that first appeared in hard-to-find places, making their republication particularly welcome, including "Inter-Arab Relations Foreshadowed" (1980) and "The Greater Syria Plan and [the] Palestine Problem: Historical Roots, 1919-1939" (1982).

What remains is an assortment of comparatively short papers on a variety of topics. "France and the Levant" (1982) surveys the French government's attitude toward political developments in the eastern Mediterranean from the late 19th century to the end of the First World War. "Syria, Inter-Arab Relations and the Outbreak of the Six Day War" (1998) criticizes existing explanations for Syrian policy toward Israel in the spring of 1967 and proposes an alternative account in terms of regional rivalry between the comparatively weak Ba'thist leadership in Damascus and the more powerful regime of Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser in Cairo. More substantial is "Syria's Quest for a Regional Role" (1986), which offers a concise overview of Syrian foreign policy during the era of Hafiz al-Asad. Rabinovich concludes that Damascus' actions reflected the Ba'thist regime's "limited intrinsic power and resources, the underlying weakness of the regime's political base and the shifting nature of Middle Eastern regional politics" (p. 170).

Those looking for new insights into more recent events will be tempted to turn immediately to "On Public Diplomacy and the Israeli-Syrian Negotiations during the Waning of Hafiz al-Asad's Rule." Here the author wrestles with the ambiguities of Syria's posture toward Israel as the 1990s drew to a close. On one hand, influential figures in Damascus signaled a willingness to reopen serious talks with their Israeli counterparts; on the other, Syrian officials adamantly refused to make the sort of concessions that Anwar al-Sadat had undertaken in 1978. For Rabinovich, the discrepancy resulted from the Ba'thist leadership's ignorance of the basic rules of public diplomacy: President Hafiz al-Asad "did not quite grasp the interplay between media and politics in countries like the US and Israel" (p. 315). In December 1999, the spotlight shifted to Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara', who attempted to frame Syrian diplomacy in ways that might make a resumption of direct negotiations with Israel more palatable. Whether Rabinovich appreciates the subtle distinctions that al-Shara' was trying to introduce into public discourse in Syria is open to question. The chapter turns to a remarkable June 2000 essay by Sadiq al-'Azm for help, but trails off without advancing either an elaboration or a critique of al-'Azm's analysis.

"The Bush Administration, Israel and Syria, 2001-2008," which closes the volume, tells the story of Washington's steadily growing "anger" toward Damascus (p. 344); Syria's transformation into a client state of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a trend that in Rabinovich's view was "clearly illustrated during Israel's war with Hizballah in the summer of 2006" as well as in the Israeli bombing of a suspected nuclear facility in northeastern Syria a year later (p. 345); and the calculations that lay behind Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to...


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