The original work of the same title, first published in 1979, has been substantially expanded by Ambassador van Dam to bring it up to date through the addition of four new chapters comprising some 80 pages of new material covering the period 1979-1995. The subtitle of the first edition was "Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics, 1961-1978." These six chapters have been retained in the new edition with the same format but with minor changes where relevant. Chapters 7-10 are entirely new and concentrate on Hafiz al-Asad's consolidation of power through his personal control of the army and the Baath party, and his struggle to maintain his (and his Alawite minority's) control of the country in the face of internal rivalries-principally with his younger brother, Rifaat- and the bitter opposition of the Sunni majority, expressed primarily in the activities of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood (ikhwan al-muslimin), which seriously challenged Asad's rule with the Hama uprising of 1982.
The new material begins with the "Aleppo massacre" of 1979 in which 32 cadets of the Aleppo artillery school, the majority of whom "were said to be Alawi" (p. 91), were murdered by Sunni activists. The government reacted with a countrywide campaign to uproot the Muslim brethren, beginning with fifteen members already in prison, who were summarily executed. Egypt's President Anwar Sadat was accused by the Syrians of being behind the massacre, a charge which had some substance to it, as a speech by Sadat a month earlier had been virulently antiAlawite (see text excerpts on p. 93). Both Sadat and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia held the belief, as do virtually all practicing Sunnis, that the Alawites are kujfar (unbelievers) and mushrikun (idolaters, p. 107).
President Asad countered by condemning sectarianism and asserting his somewhat dubious Muslim credibility. The Syrian constitution requires that the head of state be a Sunni Muslim, and Asad has always maintained that he is an orthodox son of Islam. He publicly condemned the Muslim brethren ("May God curse them and their Islam," p. 95), referring to them as the "khuwwan al-muslimin," or Muslim "Traitors," a play on the word "ikhwan." To underscore his own professed adherence to Islam, he began to open his speeches with pious religious invocations and to quote from the Quran, a major departure from traditional Baathist secularism. But this served only to further antagonize the Sunni majority, who despised the Alawite leadership and what they saw as Asad's hypocrisy in pretending to be one of them and daring to define what Islam ought to be. It should be noted that even after suppressing the Brotherhood following the Hama uprising, Asad has continued to publicly assert his Muslim allegiance. Posters in Syria and Lebanon frequently show him performing the prayer ritual at Mecca, and his late son Basil is often portrayed in the garb of the Muslim pilgrim.
A serious attempt was made on the president's life in June 1980, following which more Muslim brethren prisoners, this time at Palmyra and numbering over 500, were cold-bloodedly gunned down in their cells (p. 106). The reaction was not very long in coming. Twenty months later, in February 1982, the whole city of Hama, a stronghold of fundamentalist Islam in the center of the country, rose up en masse, and for almost an entire month (February 2-28) the battle raged with an "unprecedented level of violence, bloodshed and destruction" (p. 111). This "sectarian showdown" effectively crushed the Ikhwan, though Patrick Seale, in his biography of Asad, quoted by the author, maintained that panic seized Damascus and that "the regime shook" (p. 111).
But the outcome was definitive and the Sunni - especially Brotherhood - opposition to the Asad regime ceased to be an active threat. It is no accident that one of the largest statues of the president now stands at the southern entrance to Hama, or that churches to serve the city's Orthodox Christian minority were rebuilt on the sites of leveled mosques, or that a very visible brothel now operates in the heart of the old Muslim center.
The next challenge to face Asad came from his own family: his brother Rifaat, who was the head of the country's internal security and its justly feared mukhabarat (secret police). Fearing that Rifaat was plotting with the Alawite military command to replace him, he effectively isolated him by promoting him to vice-president but without any specific duties or power base. Rifaat went into voluntary exile in Europe, and the president moved to further consolidate his power and to make it the apparently unchallengeable authoritarian force it is today. This he did, suggests the author, by delegating power to "Alawi family or tribal circles" (p. 124), notably the Kelbiya (dog) clan from Asad's home village of Qardaha (p. 125).
The question that preoccupies all observers of Syrian politics is, of course, after Asad, what and/or whom? The author deals with the question of succession at the end of chapter 9, where he considers the possibility of a second son, Bashar al-Asad, inheriting the mantle of his oldest brother, Basil, who was killed in a car crash in 1994. The omnipresent portraits of the president with these two sons (one of which appears on the cover of the book), usually refer to the present as al-qaid or "leader," Basil as al-mathal or "example," and Bashar as al-amal or the "hope," presumably of the Syrian nation. Officially Asad has always said, "I have no successor. The successor is decided by all those institutions, state and constitutional organizations and party institutions" (p. 132). But there is no doubt that the Alawite military establishment would try to maintain power and probably with Bashar as a figurehead, willing or unwilling.
The popular wisdom in Syria and Lebanon is that, if the Alawite military command fails to do this, the Alawites will be massacred in large numbers by the long-suppressed Sunni majority. Thus the incentive to perpetuate Alawite rule through their control of the military and the Baath party is strong indeed. The author concludes, therefore, it is "unlikely that the Alawi-dominated Baath regime will, without severe resistance, give up its present positions" to a more democratic or opposition sectarian regime that would most certainly "wish to take revenge against their former Alawi rulers and oppressors" (p. 135).
To support his analysis the author has assembled an impressive collection of nine tables with sectarian figures which show the strength of the Alawites in the power structure of Syria. The author, now the Netherlands ambassador in Cairo, has obviously taken advantage of access to diplomatic intelligence, as well as official Syrian-government and Baath-party sources published only in Arabic, to provide the reader with figures that demonstrate convincingly the principal conclusion of his research: the numerical dominance of Alawites in all important circles of the government and the military, especially at the top level. His scholarship is admirable and his analysis perceptive and soundly b ed.
There is little, if anything, to criticize in this study, though I would have liked to see more consideration of the degree to which other minorities in Syria-Christians (Arabs, Syrians and Armenians), Druze and Kurds - have been identified with the regime and to what degree the Sunni Arab majority may have come to view them as tarred by the Alawite brush. Only on page 133 does he make one general observation that "many Christians apparently prefer the al-Asad regime or an Alawi-dominated successor to any Sunni fundamentalist alternative." This may be true of the Christians of central Syria (Hama and Homs) and the coast (the Alawite-dominated province of Latakia), but is not a surety among the larger communities of Damascus, Aleppo and the Jazira.
In all probability, we will have to await the actual event before learning what is in store. In the meantime, this work is to be warmly welcomed by academics and the general reader for its excellent contribution to our knowledge of the workings of the power structure of one of the Middle East's leading political players.