- Damascus Diary: An Inside Account of Hafez al-Asad’s Peace Diplomacy, by Bouthaina Shaaban
The personal story of Bouthaina Shaaban is, to a great extent, the story of Syria under Ba‘th rule during the second half of the 20th century. Shaaban was born in 1953 to an ‘Alawi family from the village of al-Mas‘udiyya in the District of Homs. She joined the Ba‘th Party at the age of 16, obtained her PhD. in English literature from the University of Warwick, and attained the position of Professor of English Literature at Damascus University. In 1990, she reached the trusted position of translator for Hafiz al-Asad and his son and heir, Bashar al-Asad. Under Asad, she served from 2003–2008, as Minister of Expatriates.
Shaaban’s own rise reflects the social transformation that took place in Syria following the Ba‘th revolution in 1963. In particular, it reflects the rise of members from the minority communities and from the rural Sunni population — who made up the broad social coalition led by ‘Alawi army officers, and later by the Asad family, that has ruled [End Page 486] Syria in recent decades. It is no wonder, then, that Shaaban’s book starts with her first meeting with Hafiz al-Asad, which resulted in her receiving a scholarship that enabled her to study at Damascus University and acquire the education that paved her way in the coming years (pp. 1–4).
Shaaban’s appointment in 2008 as political and media adviser to the presidential palace, along with the fact that Syria lapsed into a bloody civil war in March 2011, provided her with free time, which she used to write Damascus Diary. However, she chose not to address in her book the timely issue of Bashar al-Asad’s conduct during the current crisis. Rather, she chose to describe Syria’s peace negotiations with Israel.
Much was written in Israel and in the United States about the Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The absence of a Syrian version lends special importance to Shaaban’s book, in which she seeks to present a full and comprehensive account of the Syrian side in the peace talks, based on the personal experiences of someone who sat in on a significant portion of Asad’s meetings with American officials, and who was granted access to the official Syrian protocols kept in the Syrian archives.
Shaaban’s book arouses great expectations. One would hope that answers would be provided to many fascinating and hitherto unanswered questions regarding the conduct of the Syrian side in the peace negotiations.
Unfortunately, Shaaban’s contribution to answering such questions is marginal; and in general, she tries to ignore them. She adds only a few details to what has already appeared in the published literature on this topic. Still, Shaaban’s book does provide two major insights. One is that Hafiz al-Asad’s Syria did not conduct negotiations with Israel, but with the United States. This was because peace with Israel was meant to be merely a path to Washington. The other insight is that there was in Syria a disregard or lack of understanding of what was happening on the other side of the hill — on the Israeli side. The Syrians were either not interested in, or did not understand the dynamics, the motives, and the considerations of the side that was an enemy in war, but had now become a partner in negotiations.
The book is full of errors: dates are given inaccurately, facts are presented incorrectly, and there are puzzling omissions of anything that fails to support the narrative Shaaban wants to promote. For example, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave the so-called “deposit” in the summer of 1993, on the eve of the Oslo Agreement. However, in describing it, Shaaban places it at the beginning of 1994 (pp. 98–107).
The main contribution of Bouthaina Shaaban’s Damascus Diary is the protocols it cites showing how the Americans and Syrians spoke with each...