So you want to read up on the issues surrounding Syria, but you aren’t satisfied with the usual list of — often outstanding, sometimes less so — think tank reports, blogs and op-eds which usually get offered up? Well, here’s a selection of some of the most useful books for making sense of what’s happening in Syria now and what might be coming. They aren’t going to give you the kind of immediate situational intelligence to make sense of current events, of course, or directly address the issues posed by the current policy debates, but they will leave you a lot more informed about Syria.
The very best book for all this is probably Patrick Seale’s sadly out of print The Struggle for Syria: a
definitive, highly readable account of an earlier era of regional proxy
wars over Syria. I’m shocked that it doesn’t seem to be available at an affordable price, but get your hands on it if you can.
On current events, I’d start with Emile Hokayem’s Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant. Stephen Starr’s Eyewitness to an Uprising is a nice read. Asad biographer David Lesch’s The Fall of the House of Asad gives useful insights into the mindset of Syria’s President. Some of the chapters in the recently published Middle East Authoritarianisms, edited by Steve Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, are very insightful. There’s also that The Arab Uprising book that some FP blogger wrote.
There’s some good choices on Syria’s political economy and the formation of the state. Heydemann’s Authoritarianism in Syria is a fine account of the emergence of an authoritarian state in the period leading up to 1970. Bassam Haddad’s Business Networks in Syria is really good on the political economy underpinnings of the regime. Nikolas Van Dam’s updated version of The Struggle for Power in Syria gives a good sense of the nature of political conflict in Syria’s history.
Thomas Pierret’s new book Religion and State in Syria offers some unique insights into the role of the Syrian ulema, while Rafael Lefebvre’s Ashes of Hama will be useful on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood if it’s ever released in the United States. There’s also this "after-action report" by Abu Musab al-Suri on the reasons for the failure of the last jihad in Syria, courtesy of Will McCants. I’m quite enjoying Daniel Neep’s new book Occupying Syria, on the role of violence during the French occupation; pity about the price tag. Lisa Wedeen’s Ambiguities of Domination might not seem directly relevant to the current crisis, but there’s really just no way I’m not going to recommend that you read it. Oh, and of course Hanna Batatu’s 7,269 page Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendant of its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics doesn’t just have a catchy title, it can also be used to kill zombies or hold up a collapsing wall.
Meanwhile, it couldn’t hurt to have a look at Fanar Haddad’s Sectarianism in Iraq to get a sense of how these antagonisms developed next door. Toby Matthiessen’s brand new Sectarian Gulf might help make sense of just what the Saudis might be up to (hint: probably not promoting Syrian democracy). While you’re at it, why not dust of your old copies of Tom Ricks’ Fiasco and Nir Rosen’s Aftermath for a reminder of just how often these things go according to plan. The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas is pretty essential for all purposes in life; and if you like that one then have I got a list of relevant books on civil wars and insurgencies and international intervention for you!
Happy reading. There are many more, of course — I’m sure you’ll all
quickly remind me of the ones I forgot! — but this should at least be a