In philosophical discourse on the essence of human destructiveness, arguments ultimately boil down to the following question: Do socioeconomic circumstances drive man towards violence, or is it human nature that makes war inevitable? Bente Scheller's The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game offers a full menu of such tantalizing questions, starting from the broader query, "Has Bashar al-Assad gone crazy?" Scheller also explores the more policy-specific question: Considering the positive momentum Hafez al-Assad gained in the last years of his rule, what went wrong with the course Syria took under Bashar?
Scheller starts with an analysis of the Syrian uprising of 2011 and the Assad regime's failure to absorb the uprising's energies and react positively to at least some of the forces that gave rise to civic unrest and defiance. Overall, the volume is a tour de force in its coverage of Syria's foreign-policy decisions in the past two decades and the unique interaction between domestic and foreign-policy pressures. The analysis serves as a reminder of the complexity of Levantine politics and the multiplicity of bases one must cover in order to understand the successes and failures of leaders such as the Assads, if not their reasoning and motivations.
That the regime was rigidly hierarchical from the start has become axiomatic in most writing on the modern history of Syria. In particular, Scheller lists the symbiotic relationship among the Assad family, the Baath leadership and the institutions of the state. She argues that this accord has facilitated the centralization of decision making, explaining why the Assad regimes were able to maintain power during their decades of authoritarian rule as well as how Hafez established "stability" during the chaotic birth of the Syrian Arab Republic. It was this very stable structure, however, that also led to the ossification of the regime and to its inability to allow social, political and economic development. This weakness proved fatal once the population, emulating their brethren in North Africa and Yemen, rose against the state. In fact, this ossification, according to Scheller, had already frustrated the limited economic modernization that Bashar had (to some extent) attempted to implement: for sustainability, the corruption and lack of transparency fostered by the political and security apparatuses had become a necessity, yet ultimately they stunted Syria's growth.
Bashar's rigid leadership skills are contrasted with his father's more flexible approach in several instances, particularly when examining the years between 1990 and 1997, when Hafez was able to change directions in his relationship with the United States, first by siding with the international effort to reverse Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, then by participating in U.S. efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries. While minimizing Syrian concessions, Hafez gained considerable leverage with the United States by sending a token force to join the military effort to liberate Kuwait and by participating in several political fora, including a summit meeting with President Clinton in 1994 aimed at reaching a Syria-Israel peace agreement. By contrast, Bashar took an opposing stance on the Iraq War in 2003 and was not seen as fully cooperative, particularly with Washington's repeated demands that Syria seal its border to prevent foreign fighters from crossing over into Iraq. A closer reading of this episode suggests that U.S.-Syrian relations were not so much sabotaged as mismanaged in 2003 and beyond, with substantial blame falling on both sides. However, the coup de grace came with the uprising of 2011, starting perhaps with the false expectation in the White House that Assad could be a reform-minded leader capable of withstanding a political uprising. Washington's disappointment in his performance resulted in the break-up of the diplomatic relationship altogether. Similarly, concerning the peace agenda between Israel and Syria, lethargy plagued both sides; under Netanyahu, the Israeli government proved especially disengaged. But Bashar once again proved uninterested in pushing forward an important foreign-policy agenda, assuming that time was on his side and that rushing into negotiations with Israel would do nothing to consolidate his domestic front.
Relations between Syria and Turkey present another case where Bashar failed to capitalize on the much-improved atmosphere. Damascus and Ankara were on the brink of war in 1998. Turkey, having emerged with the stronger hand from that negotiated conflict, acted magnanimously with Bashar, opening up to Syrian trade, coordinating high-level diplomatic visits and fostering continued support. This ensued even after the United States and the West started applying strong pressure on Damascus following the Hariri assassination in 2005 and after accusations that Damascus was facilitating the flow of foreign insurgents to Iraq during the intense fighting in 2006-07. When the uprising began in 2011, Ankara tried hard to mediate, advise and otherwise help Assad's regime avoid a political meltdown. Once again, domestic factors complicated the issue for both countries, with Bashar's Sunni opposition posing a difficult problem for Turkey to ignore. As the Kurdish question fueled agitation inside Syria, it posed potential domestic problems for Turkey, whose leaders worried that this issue would spill over Syrian borders. Bashar's rejection of Turkey's mediation and advice led to a final break, as the situation inside Syria deteriorated.
Of all of Syria's regional relations, none have traditionally been as close or as important as those with neighboring Lebanon. From a position of total Syrian dominance, achieved through its intervention in Lebanon's civil war (1976-90) and the official endorsement of its role in the Taif Accords of 1989, Bashar steered a disastrous course. First, he pushed to extend Lebanese President Lahoud's term in office, which according to the author precipitated the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. Then, the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 led to a Lebanese uprising against the Syrian military presence, radically changing the environment in Lebanon and making it virtually impossible for Syrian troops to remain. The current disastrous war in Syria has ironically turned the tables, with Syrian refugees flooding Lebanon in search of a safe haven and Lebanese Hezbollah crossing in the other direction to assist the Syrian army in crushing the rebellion against the Assad regime.
Scheller does not blame this on Bashar's failed leadership but rather finds that Syria-Lebanon relations were bound to change, given the evolving regional and international environment. True enough, once U.S.-Syria relations soured following Israel's military withdrawal from Lebanon, and after peace efforts faltered and the Lebanese no longer tolerated direct tutelage from Damascus, the Syrian position could not remain dominant in Lebanon. However, given Assad's persistent attempts to hold onto Lebanon until the last possible moment despite the changing political environment, the violence that accompanied the departure of Syrian troops and the polarized Lebanese attitude toward Syria can hardly be laid at anybody else's doorstep.
The strength of this book lies in its breadth and in its bold handling of an extensive terrain of regional and international issues. Scheller offers a multidimensional reflection on domestic political conditions in this relatively concise and therefore dense work, rich with detail and nuance. Nonetheless, several questions posed by the author remain unanswered. For example, in comparing the leadership styles of father and son, the author concludes that there was more certainty with Hafez as to where the buck stopped; under Bashar that question remained vague. The book occasionally hints that others in the Assad family may play influential roles in Bashar's decisions, but this issue is dropped almost as soon as it is raised. This may be the most frustrating aspect of the book: Syria's decision-making apparatus (under both Hafez and Bashar) is left largely unexplored, though admittedly a thorough examination of this topic is not an easy task. This scholarly gap demonstrates the need for further research — perhaps via interviews with those who were once close to the regime but later abandoned it — to look deeper into the roles and responsibilities of influential figures. Another venue left unexplored is institutional or bureaucratic: to what extent did state institutions fulfill the roles assigned to them, and how effectively?
Another critical matter not given its due by the author is Bashar's relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. Scheller recognizes that Syria's relationship with Tehran started under Hafez and that Lebanese Hezbollah was nurtured into a formidable regional non-state actor while Syrian troops were in Lebanon during the eighties and nineties, but the depth to which she explored these relations under Bashar is limited. Indeed, the extent of close integration between these three political actors may help to explain many questions touched on in the book, such as Bashar's lethargy towards Israel, his lack of enthusiasm for counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, and finally his stubbornness in pursuing the current civil war despite its egregious destructiveness.
It takes nothing away from the value of the book to acknowledge that less than a year after its publication it already needs updating. In fact, this should be expected given the fast pace of events in Syria and the region. Scheller asks at the very beginning of the book, "How should other countries deal with a regime that seems to have realized it cannot last and yet continues with a policy of violence and destruction?" Given the twists and turns of the international environment and the lack, thus far, of decisive Western intervention, Bashar seems emboldened by the successes on the battlefield made possible by Iran's and Hezbollah's direct assistance. All current indications suggest that he believes he can actually win this fight and prevail, even if it means reclaiming a largely destroyed Syria, devoid of more than half its citizenry.