FURTHER READING: Making Sense of Syria

Syria After the Uprisings (Haymarket Books, 2019) Joseph Daher is a Swiss-Syrian activist and scholar who teaches at Lausanne University in Switzerland and maintains the blog Syria Freedom Forever. His previous book, Hezbollah: The Political Economy of the Party of God, is a Marxist critique of the Lebanese Islamist organization. In Syria After the Uprisings, he analyzes the nature of the Assad regime going back to 1970. He views the Syrian uprising in the context of the region-wide political earthquake that began in Tunisia in December 2010. But while protesters in cities across Syria took inspiration from their counterparts in Tunis and Cairo, their revolt met a very different fate: Unlike Ben Ali and Mubarak, Assad did not step down in the face of popular mobilization. Daher explains this variance by reference to the architecture of power in Syria: a patrimonial state apparatus “in which the centers of power (politics, the military, and the economy) within the regime [are] concentrated in one family and its clique” — one that “owns the state” and is protected by a “praetorian guard (a force whose allegiance goes to the rulers, not the state).” Daher shows how the regime’s crony capitalism and arsenal of repression produced inequalities and humiliations that fueled the 2011 revolt. While supportive of the uprising and its aims, he offers a trenchant critique of the opposition’s failures — a critique from within that should be taken seriously by everyone who cares about Syria.

Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria (University of Chicago Press, 2019) Like Daher, Lisa Wedeen, who teaches political science at the University of Chicago, has a lot to say about the way capitalism works in Assad’s Syria. She calls the system since Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000 “neoliberal autocracy,” and Authoritarian Apprehensions has a particularly illuminating discussion of the complex role of ideology in maintaining that system, both before and after the uprising. (Wedeen’s 1999 book Ambiguities of Domination, a study of Syria under Hafiz al-Assad, is a must read.) Among the highlights in Authoritarian Apprehensions are Wedeen’s nuanced reading of comedy in Syria and her discussion of the ideological war of narratives. Her engagement with Syrian filmmakers — Ossama Mohammed’s agonizing Silvered Water, for example, and the work of the Syrian documentary collective Abounaddara — is arresting. These artists “perform an incandescent otherwiseness to the bleakness of the present moment,” she writes. Authoritarian Apprehensions is the most theoretically insightful book on post–2011 Syria yet to appear.

The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death (Pluto Press, 2020) In The Syrian Revolution, Yasser Munif explores “the subterranean territories of the Syrian revolt.” He offers a richly textured, bottom-up analysis of the “micropolitical processes” in areas outside the control of the regime, processes he claims are “mostly invisible to external observers.” He focuses on the experiment in “grassroots governance” in Manbij between 2012, when the northern Syrian town was liberated from the regime, and 2014, when it was conquered by ISIS. During those two years, “revolutionary forces reconfigured the city from the ground up by creating inclusive spaces, forming horizontal networks, and building democratic institutions.” (Anand Gopal also tells the story of the Manbij experiment in his December 10, 2018 New Yorker article.) For Munif, the “[e]veryday resilience and unrelenting organizing” of the people of Manbij embodied a “politics of life” that he juxtaposes to the “orgy of death” embodied by the regime’s tactics of “starvation, torture, siege, indiscriminate bombing, chemical attacks, massacres,” on one side, and the violent, obscurantist dungeon of ISIS and other militant Islamist groups, on the other. Munif provides a gripping and moving account of the Manbij experiment. He also provides a forceful critique of the distorted narratives about Syria prevalent in the West—including among segments of the Left — in which Manbij and the larger democratic struggle it represented simply don’t figure.