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 nice start.
If a group of Middle East analysts had been asked two years ago to rank which Arab heads of state were most likely to still be in power by the end of June 2013, the Emir of Qatar would almost certainly have been ranked #1. And for good reason: relatively young and exceedingly energetic diplomatically, unfathomably wealthy, facing no real domestic challenges or grave international threats. My column this week, which despite my best efforts was not entitled "Game of Qatari Thrones", explores some of the mysteries surrounding his stunning decision to hand over power to his son Tamim.
The Emir's surprising move recalls many of the fascinating discussions and debates about the possibility of prediction in political science in the wake of the Arab uprisings. You'll recall that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and all which followed, spawned a tidal wave of indictments of political science and of area studies for failing to predict the mass mobilization. This never seemed exactly right. The predictive failure wasn't one of information: many, if not most, scholars of Arab politics over the 2000s catalogued the political, economic, and institutional failures of Arab regimes and the rising wave of popular protest. The analytical failure, such as it was, came from the (not unreasonable) assumption that the survival strategies which had kept those authoritarian regimes in power for decades despite their many failures would continue to work. That assumption was widely shared. As Charlie Kurzman and others have often pointed out, even the participants in protest movements are often surprised by their success. It is only in retrospect that the unthinkable comes to seem inevitable.
The Emir's decision to hand over power was arguably even more unpredictable than the Arab uprisings. As Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who has worked for a long time on forecasting and prediction (including with the Political Instability Task Force), points out, the eruption of mass mobilization and its political outcomes can be modeled within a broad comparative universe. All sorts of data might go into the predictive analysis. But what would allow you to predict an intra-family decision behind closed doors for inscrutable reasons, other than actually being in that room? Even hearing the many rumors about the closed doors meeting doesn't really help, since rumors flow freely in a place like Doha and 99 out of 100 turn out to be bunk. At any rate, I'd love to hear more from Jay and others on the relative challenges of predicting leadership changes in the Gulf against, say, what might happen in Egypt on June 30.
This Week on the Middle East Channel
Speaking of Egypt's June 30 protests, the Middle East Channel posted several outstanding articles previewing the runup to those potentially fateful -- and potentially an overhyped fizzle -- protests. Nathan Brown returned from a week in Cairo extremely worried about the polarization and expectations in the days leading up to June 30. Tarek Radwan recounted the political road to June 30 and the thinking behind how it might unfold. Hisham Hellyer warned of the atmosphere which produced the horrifying lynching of four Shi'ite Egyptians. And over on the FP main page, Mohammed el-Baradei warned that Egypt is already a failed state and "you can't eat sharia."
Elsewhere on the Channel, Paola Rivetti and Farideh Farhi and Daniel Brumberg interpreted the politics of Iran's Presidential election; Aaron Zelin and Charles Lister presented one of the most detailed analyses to date on the emergence of the Syrian Islamic Front; Curtis Ryan examined Jordan's ongoing struggles with political reform and the controversy over its blocking of websites; Jake Hess went into Iraq to interview a leader of Turkey's PKK about the very tenuous prospects for a real peace agreement; and I talked to Mark Tessler about the evolution of Arab public opinion research.
Finally: POMEPS is hiring! If you want to work with us here at the Middle East Channel, along with a wide range of academic programming, check out this opportunity. Since it was originally posted last week the position has been upgraded to a full time position. If you're interested be sure to apply!
"Of course we made mistakes" isn't something you hear very often these days from Arab (or any other) political figures. So I found it refreshing to hear that frank admission from Hamadi al-Jebali, former Tunisian Prime Minister and current Secretary-General of the Ennahda Movement, during a small group conversation and subsequent private chat in Washington DC today. I've always found Jebali to be one of the more thoughtful of Ennahda's leaders, so I looked forward to seeing him for the first time since he stepped down as Prime Minister in February.
Jebali painted a sobering but still optimistic picture of a Tunisian transition facing tremendous economic and social problems, as well as what he termed an artificial but nonetheless dangerous political polarization. I had been pressing Jebali to reflect on the prospects for the Tunisian constitution, the final draft of which is finally being circulated, to ultimately command a real societal and political consensus given the level of political polarization in the country. He insisted that it could, and indeed already did. He emphasized all the areas of broad national consensus which the constitution would reflect: political freedoms, the peaceful circulation of power, mutual respect, a civil state, an independent judiciary, and the rejection of state hegemony or violence.
Jebali of course acknowledged and expressed deep concerns about Tunisia's political polarization, but described it as "manufactured" and superficial, driven by a small political elite and mostly manifesting in very small, extreme elements on the fringes of the political spectrum. That, of course, made it no less potentially dangerous, especially given the deep, unresolved economic and social problems driving discontent. But despite those mistakes, and polarization, he repeatedly rejected the idea that it was too late to achieve a national consensus and a real Tunisian democracy rooted in political freedoms, mutual respect and social justice.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
It has been widely noted that monarchies have done better at surviving the Arab uprisings that began two years ago. Three Presidents (Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh) have fallen, along with Muammar al-Qaddafi's unique Jamahiriaya, while Bashar al-Assad's Baathist presidential regime faces a mortal threat. No Arab monarch has yet lost his throne. For some analysts and academics, this pattern suggests a fairly obvious "monarchical exception" which demands explanation.
In August, I launched a debate on Foreign Policy about whether and how monarchy matters in explaining the resilience of Arab regimes. I was not impressed. Against arguments that monarchies possess some kind of unique legitimacy commanding the loyalty of their people, I noted that Arab monarchies have in fact faced significant popular mobilization over the last two years: Bahrain has had one of the most intense and protracted uprisings anywhere; Kuwait is facing the deepest political crisis in its post-occupation history; Jordan experienced unprecedented protests; Saudi Arabia has had a protracted challenge in its Eastern Province; Oman experienced unusual levels of protest; Morocco's protest movement drove the king to adopt a significant (if underwhelming) constitutional initiative. I concluded, "the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths."
The responses I got over email, over Twitter, across blogs, and at various academic conferences convinced me that the monarchy question remains an open one, however. It is an important debate for political scientists and analysts, with a wide range of arguments and evidence to consider. Over the last few months, I have reached out to a number of leading scholars to weigh in on the question of Arab monarchy. I asked them to move beyond simple binaries ("monarchy does or doesn't matter") to explore the specific mechanisms by which it might matter, to weigh them against competing explanations, and to show how monarchy operated in particular cases which they knew well. Those articles, along with some particularly relevant older Middle East Channel essays, are now collected in today's new POMEPS Brief, "The Arab Monarchy Debate."
-- The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog --
There are plenty of strong reasons for the United States and the international community to remain deeply cautious about taking a deeper role in Syria's internal war. Concerns about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the unintended effects of arming them, fears of a slippery slope from limited to direct military involvement, and questions about international legitimacy remain as urgent as ever. But what could possibly justify the failure to adequately address the humanitarian needs of the expanding Syrian refugee population?
Nobody can seriously question the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are now more than 465,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. By past experience, this likely dramatically undercounts the real number as many refugees shy away from registering with official organizations. That does not count the internally displaced, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. Most of the refugees are living in harsh conditions, inside or outside of camps.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Few developments associated with the Arab uprisings have generated as much concern of late as the rapid emergence of Salafi movements into the public arena. The performance of al-Nour Party in Egypt's parliamentary elections stunned many observers. Waves of attacks on Sufi shrines in Tunisia and Libya, denunciations of secular citizens, and loud calls for the imposition of sharia have raised fears at home and abroad. The violent protests over the anti-Islam YouTube film, the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the emergence of Salafi-jihadist trends within the Syrian opposition have made these political concerns ever more urgent.
Who are these new Salafi movements? How should we interpret their rise? I am pleased to announce the publication of our new POMEPS Brief, available as a free PDF download, which collects more than a dozen recent ForeignPolicy.com essays on Salafis across the Arab world, including a detailed look at Salafi politics in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The picture that emerges is troubling -- but also unexpectedly reassuring. These well-funded and well-entrenched subcultures will likely continue to thrive in the open, contentious new Arab political realm. But how they will behave, the response they will generate from other political trends and societal sectors, and how they will approach political institutions remains very much in question.
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #8
King Abdullah's approval this week of a controversial new law imposing potentially draconian controls over Jordan's internet is finally drawing attention to the country's increasingly dangerous political situation.
The new law's effort to stifle political expression puts at risk the Jordanian IT sector, which makes up some 14 percent of the country's GDP, produces a very significant share of youth jobs, and is one of the few bright spots in its grim economy. It's hard to see the gain in further alienating disaffected youth and crush their primary source of economic hope at a time of grinding economic problems and simmering political protests (for more background, see May's Jordan, Forever on the Brink). Jordanians in the IT sector, as well as conbributors to its vibrant political public sphere, point to the irony of the famously dysfunctional Parliamentary system managing to suddenly work so effectively to produce this legislation out of all the real problems in the country it has spent years neglecting.
It's also hard to see much hope in the regime's response to its political problems. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is reportedly again discussing a push for constitutional monarchy which it has intermittently floated for the last five or six years. But there does not seem to be much of a sense of urgency. Instead, there has been a combination of more repression and more of the same, tired political games: rumors of yet another prime ministerial shuffle, plans for a Parliamentary election by the end of the year under an extremely disappointing new election law. Fears of replicating Syria's bloody chaos may restrain protestors from fully challenging the King even with these escalating grievances, a familiar theme in Jordanian political history. But for how long can this be enough? And will a disappointing election be a trigger for simmering discontent to turn into something more?
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's sudden move last week to oust the senior leadership of the Egyptian military broke a long period of political stagnation and began to bring into view the contours of the emerging political order. It reversed views of Morsi almost overnight. Only two weeks ago, most analysts had written Morsi off as a weak and ineffective executive boxed in by the ascendant military leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After his bold move against the SCAF and reversal of its constitutional decrees, many now fear that he and the Muslim Brotherhood stand at the brink of nigh-totalitarian domination.
I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World's Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn't ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.
This afternoon, a sizable Washington audience turned out to watch White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talk about American policy toward Yemen. Imagine that -- a large Washington audience turning out in the dead of summer to hear about Yemen! And even better, Brennan began by responding directly to the criticisms of U.S. policy toward Yemen expressed in a recent Atlantic Council-POMED letter to President Obama, which called for moving "beyond the narrow lens of counterterrorism." (I made similar criticisms in this space in January.)
Brennan's main goal was to push back against these criticisms. It is simply wrong, he argued, to claim that the U.S. views Yemen only from a security and counter-terrorism lens. He laid out the administration's "comprehensive" strategy for Yemen, including support for the political transition, humanitarian aid and economic development, and institutional reforms. He effusively praised President Hadi and his efforts at institutional reform and political transition, and he emphasized several times that more than half of the increased U.S. aid to Yemen went to the political transition and economic development, not to counterterrorism. Of course at the end he came to AQAP and mounted a spirited defense of drone strikes as ethical, legal, and effective, but the speech was structured to show that these efforts came within a broader political and developmental context. (He also, thankfully, didn't waste our time blaming Iran for Yemen's problems).
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
The Middle East Channel Editors Reader #6
Votes are being counted in yesterday's historic election to select a temporary 200 member General National Congress in Libya. The voting process itself was a resounding success, which defied the many skeptics who predicted violence, boycotts, or worse. Reports from across Libya highlighted an enormous, infectious enthusiasm for the vote which belied the sensationalist press reporting and commentary about a collapsing, violent Libya on the brink of chaos. Voter registration and turnout were remarkably high, and there have been few reports of either violence or attempted fraud. With luck, Libya's electoral commission will avoid the self-inflicted wounds of, say, Egypt and quickly announce credible results which will be accepted as such by all of the major contestants.
Few observers have any illusions that the elections themselves will solve any of Libya's many problems, from economic woes to the absence of effective state institutions to the continuing role of armed militias. The absence of any prior history of such elections makes it almost impossible to predict the likely winners. And the experience of countless transitional elections elsewhere warns against exaggerated hopes for a smooth political ride to come. There will be fierce struggles for power and positions as a government is formed, existential decisions to be made by the election's losers about whether and how to contest their defeat, and looming battles about core questions of the country's identity and direction. But the high participation in and smooth progress of the elections will help to ground those coming political battles within a legitimate, democratic and hopefully resilient institutional framework.
In short, July 7 was only one day in Libya. But it was a good day.
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader, #5
Last week's outbreak of the largest wave of popular protests in Sudan in nearly two decades has opened up the possibility for change in one of the cruelest regimes in the Middle East and Africa. Few regimes are more deserving of popular challenge than that of Omar Bashir, who should long since have been in custody in the Hague answering for his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The "Arab spring" is hardly needed to account for the protests in Khartoum, which has a long history of popular uprisings, but it certainly frames the perception and politics of what is unfolding. The current wave of protests were triggered by austerity measures, including cuts to food subsidies, in a tenuous political arena framed by the tensions surrounding the new South Sudan. Activists, especially students who had been trying to keep protests alive for over a year and a half, have moved creatively to embrace the online communications and organizational tactics made familiar by the Arab uprisings of the last year and a half. The tortuous path of popular struggles in Syria, Yemen and so many other Arab countries following early waves of enthusiasm should be a cautionary tale about overly high expectations. But Sudan's rising protest movement in the face of a growing crackdown clearly merits the world's attention.
Political scientists specializing on the Middle East see Jordan as the Arab country most likely to experience major new mobilization during the coming year, but see Bashar al-Assad as the Arab leader most likely to lose power. They see the Obama administration as doing a pretty good job overall in its response to the Arab uprisings, but performing terribly on Bahrain and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are largely against military intervention in Syria, don't expect war between Egypt and Israel in the next two years, and don't expect a negotiated two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians in the next decade. And they are perfectly divided over who they think will win the upcoming Egyptian Presidential run-off election.
Those are among the interesting findings of a pilot survey I conducted this week during the third annual meeting of the Project on Middle East Political Science, a network of academic political scientists specializing in the Middle East which I direct. The sample for this pilot survey included about forty political scientists at all career levels, all of whom have spent significant time doing research in the region and speak the relevant local languages, and are primarily based at a university or college (rather than a think tank or NGO). This survey is a pilot study for a larger expert panel I'm planning to put together for the Middle East Channel. I hope that expert panel will offer a regular barometer of views of regional issues -- and also be willing to offer predictions which might offer some meat for the Philip Tetlock-inspired debate about the value of expertise for prediction.
Below the break are some of the key results of the POMEPS pilot survey:
What should you be reading about the politics of today's Middle East, beyond (of course) the outstanding daily content on the Middle East Channel and the news and analysis featured in the MEC Daily Brief? The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader -- or, "Abu Aardvark's guide to good reads on the Middle East" -- is a new regular feature which will highlight what I consider to be the best of the academic journal articles, long-form magazine articles, policy reports and books which come across my desktop.
The MEC Editor's Reader will reflect what I'm actually reading and think merits your attention. Some weeks that might mean an extended book review, others a selection of journal articles. I may write about a ten year old book if it's what I'm currently reading, or I may write about forthcoming academic research. I will particularly highlight publications by the talented academic members of the Project on Middle East Political Science, which I direct, but I will try to not neglect writers from other fields. I can't promise to even try to be comprehensive -- which you'd thank me for if you actually saw my desktop. This will be a selective guide to work I found interesting for some reason, reflecting my own ideosyncratic interests and reading habits. But please do send me your articles and books if you want me to consider them. And with that, welcome to...
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #1 (May 16, 2012)
The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen. (Harvard University Press 2012).
Harvard historian Roger Owen had almost completed a book on "Arab Presidents for Life" in late 2010, just as several of those Presidents suddenly faced mortal challenges. Rather than simply insert "and Fall" into the title, Owen chose to integrate the new developments into a thoughtful and incisive evaluation of Arab political authoritarianism in all its components. Owen points out the many ways in which Arab Presidents and Kings imitated one another, with Presidential sons following - or attempting to follow - their fathers, and all relying on extensive security services and webs of patronage. His analysis of the personalization of power challenges recent efforts to distinguish Arab monarchies from their Presidential counterparts, and lays bare the internal logic of such personalized security states. As an historian, Owen is sensitive, and admirably transparent, about the limits of our knowledge about the inner workings of these regimes. But his brief discussions of each country effectively convey both the commonalities and differences across the cases. Owen's highly readable book serves as a fitting requiem for a system of rule which long seemed immovable, has now been exposed in all of its flawed brutality, but seems likely to adapt to new structural conditions rather than simply fade away.
My PDF Reader:
Voting for Change: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of First Elections in Arab Transitions, by Ellen Lust (Brookings Doha). Yale University Political Scientist Ellen Lust, who has written widely on political parties and elections in authoritarian Arab regimes, lays out the challenges and opportunities in the foundational elections in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond. First elections, she warns, should be treated differently from subsequent elections, with different objectives and obstacles, with priority given to building a strong democratic system and addressing the fears and uncertainty which plague any transition rather than on managing a particular political outcome. Lust wrote about Syria's recent pre-transitional Parliamentary election for the MEC here.
The Rise of Islamist Actors: Formulating a Strategy for Engagement, by Quinn Mecham (POMED). Middlebury College Political Scientist and former State Department Policy Planning staffer Quinn Mecham argues for a more systematic strategy for engagement with Islamist political parties. It should surprise nobody that Islamist parties do well in Arab elections or more open political arenas. Mecham expertly lays out the benefits and risks of engagement, and urges the U.S. to engage broadly in order to build understanding on both sides ---but to neither compromise on core value commitments or to exaggerate their likely power.
Tunisia's Transition and the Twin Tolerations, by Alfred Stepan (Journal of Democracy). Columbia University Political Scientist Alfred Stepan, one of the leading figures in the study of democratic transitions globally, examines the relatively successful Tunisian experience since 2011. "With secularists agreeing that Islamists could participate fully in democratic politics, and Islamists agreeing that popular sovereignty is the only source of legitimacy," he writes, Tunisia has been able to avoid the violence and polarization found in some other cases. Egyptians and others should take note.
Networks of Third-Party Interveners and Civil War Duration. Asyegul Aydin and Patrick Regan (European Journal of International Relations, 2011). What is the likely impact of military assistance to the opposition on the duration of Syria's civil war? Aydin and Regan's 2011 article doesn't talk about Syria directly, but it does focus on the logic and historical record of external interventions in such conflicts. The network analysis suggests that such interventions are likely to increase civil war duration and encourage opportunistic, rent-seeking behavior among the combatants unless there is a high degree of unity of purpose and shared interest among the intervening parties. Well worth a read, even if you have a low tolerance for math, for trying to think through the likely implications of supporting armed opposition in Syria.
... and don't miss these from the Project on Middle East Political Science:
Jordan, Forever on the Brink. Collection of essays on the shortcomings of political reform and growing instability in Jordan.
Breaking Bahrain. Collection of essays on the political stalemate in Bahrain.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.