Reese Erlich’s informative and insightful book, Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect, brings to mind the Greek myth of a vast maze under the palace at Knossos, with one exception: King Minos’ labyrinth on Crete concealed a single Minotaur, Syria is teeming with the beasts.
Erlich has spent almost three decades reporting from the Middle East, and he brings his considerable knowledge of the region into this analysis of the Syrian civil war. A winner of the Peabody Award and the Society of Professional Journalists explanatory journalism award for “Inside the Syrian Revolution,” Erlich combines on-the-ground reporting with an encyclopedic background in the region’s history. It is a combination that is particularly useful for a subject as complex and nuanced as the current war, one that has gradually drawn Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, along with the U.S., France and Britain.
The mainstream media generally considers history an afterthought, which explains why it does such an awful job reporting on the Middle East. Journalists like Erlich, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn understand that the history of the region and current events are one and the same, a sort of paraphrase of William Faulkner’s observation that history is as much the present as the past.
While understanding the historical context of a story is a pretty good rule of thumb for producing competent journalism in general, that is particularly so in the Middle East, precisely because many people think they know about that past. Didn’t they see “Lawrence of Arabia”? Read “Exodus”? Or—God help them—read the mainstream press or watch television news?
The book begins with the initial revolt—“The Uprising That Wasn’t Supposed to Be”—and then backs into broader historical context, including a chapter on T.E. Lawrence (if this particular period is of interest to readers, they also might consider picking up Scott Anderson excellent book, Lawrence In Arabia). How Syria was created, and the imperial machinations of her architects, Britain and France, is essential to understanding not only the internal dynamics of the country, but its place in the region. The current hostility between Turkey and Syria has roots that reach back almost a century. If you want to understand Lebanon—a key player in the Syrian civil war—knowing how it was created and the strategies of ethnic division that France employed to maintain its colonial grip on this small but strategically placed country is essential.
The book covers Syrian history without bogging the reader down. This is, after all, a report on the on-going civil war. But Erlich does not glide over the important details, including how the U.S. camel first put its nose under the tent. Two chapters cover the period just after World War I, the impact of World War II, and the appearance of the Assads in 1970.
Erlich maintains that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s economic “reforms” helped impel the current uprising. Adopting neoliberal policies, Assad sold off state-owned enterprises—generally to regime allies and insiders—and opened the economy to outside competition. The result—aided by a long-running drought—was growing impoverishment and lots of unemployed youth. Joblessness and economic crisis is a volatile mix and needs only an “incident” to set it off. That happened in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa, when Syrian security forces brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators.
After laying the historical groundwork for his reporting, Erlich follows with a detailed chapter on the 2011 uprising.
While Erlich has a clear point of view—he detests dictatorship and neo-colonialism in equal measure—he is a careful and thorough reporter. His discussion of the use of chemical weapons is a case in point. Erlich carefully unpacks the evidence that the Assad regime used Sarin gas and finds that some of it has been exaggerated or even possibly fabricated. Which doesn’t mean the Damascus regime is innocent. His discussion weighs the charges on all sides and concludes that we really don’t know. What we do know is that U.S. intelligence didn’t think the evidence against Assad was a slam-dunk, a fact that the Obama administration deliberately obscured. It is a fascinating treatment of the subject—there were several incidents involving the use of chemical weapons, not just the most horrendous at Al-Ghouta that killed several hundred people—and a good example of Erlich’s diligence as a reporter.
His chapters on “the Uprising begins,” and “Who Supports Assad” are a must for anyone trying to figure out who is who in this complex tragedy. Erlich details the various factions, how they interlink and how they differ, and why the U.S. policy of arming “moderate forces” is doomed to failure. These chapters are essential for understanding the internal dynamics of the two sides, which are more like a Rubik Cube than two opposing poles. The book includes an invaluable appendix on the groups involved, as well as a useful timeline of the current uprising.
Syria is part of a much larger picture, and its strategic placement—bordering Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon—means what happens in Damascus doesn’t stay in Damascus. Why is Iran backing Assad? Is this all about religion? (Hint: nope). What will this mean for the 30 million or so Kurds trying to form their own country? Do all the Kurds want to form a country, and, if they do, what will moving that particular piece on the Middle East chessboard do? How might this affect the on-going fight by the Palestinians to form their own country?
The Syrian civil war has morphed into a proxy battle with Iran and Russia on one side, and the U.S., Gulf monarchies and some NATO members on the other. While the battle is not over religion per se, religion greases the movement of arms and aid. “To the pious go the guns,” writes Erlich, which means that adherence to the reactionary brand of Islam favored by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies is a litmus test for whether you get arms and ammunition. It is not an atmosphere in which the American’s favored “moderates” can thrive.
Erlich says the White House recognizes that the “ultra-right wing Islamic groups” like the ISIS, Al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front are growing at the expense of the less extreme or secular groups and at one point considered simply “re-defining” the extremist Islamic Front as “moderate” so it could send aid to that organization.
Because Erlich is one of those old-fashioned journalists who believes that you need to talk to the principals involved, the readers get an opportunity to listen to what Kurds and Palestinians have to say. This combination of street interviews, suite discussions— he beards the U.S. State Department in Foggy Bottom—and historical background makes for a thoroughly engaging read. While he generally keeps his distance, Erlich injects himself when needed, or when he wants the reader to know that this is his opinion, not God’s. He also has a sense of humor. There is a wonderful moment when he gets off a bus in Gaza to be met by Hamas officials.
His final chapter—“U.S., Russia, and outside powers”—discusses the international dimensions of the civil war—virtually anything major that happens in the Middle East, with its enormous oil and gas reserves, has an international dimension—and what ought, and ought not, be done, to solve it.
The Obama administration is slipping into a quagmire that some have even compared to Vietnam. That analogy is probably flawed, but it should still gives us pause—for one, Vietnam demonstrated that air wars don’t work unless you have reliable allies on the ground. Once again, the U.S. is at war. Once again, the U.S. is ignoring international law and choosing to use military force over diplomacy. Once again there is a logic at work here that leads to yet another dark tunnel of escalation.
In 1966 journalist Robert Scheer wrote a small book, How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam, that undercut the popular narrative about Communist aggression and toppling dominos. The book shattered the official paradigm and gave the infant anti-war movement ammunition for its confrontation with the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Erlich’s Inside Syria has similar heft and should be widely read, because we are once again at war without the slightest idea of where it leads or what its ultimate goals are.