A Recent History

John McHugo, 2015

First things first - this is not a book on the Syrian Civil War. In an age where the highest editorial virtue appears to be velocity rather than depth, even avid news consumers could be understood for failing to remember that Syria has played a vital role in world history for centuries, and deserves a treatment which extends earlier than the most recent election cycle.

Nevertheless, McHugo's work is (sub)titularly a modern history, so it bears asking what that means, precisely. Other than a few initial pages on the latter years of the Ottoman regime, the book begins at the end of the First World War and the beginning of the French Mandate. This window seems appropriate, neither so narrow as to devolve into wonkishness and political screed, yet not so broad as sacrifice its analytical resolution.

Reminding me of Michael Axworthy's similarly scoped Revolutionary Iran, McHugo's greatest accomplishment in Syria is an ability to 'zoom in' on political processes to the point where the players can be represented as more than silly caricatures. Rather than statements along the lines of "Syria doesn't like Egypt anymore" or "Alawis run the government" (each of a level of fatuity beneath anyone other than a small child or powerful politician), McHugo provides granularity down to the level of individual players, detailing their personal interests and patronage networks and their consequences. This is an important theme throughout the entire book, but nowhere more so than his discussion of the Assad family and their close circle of power, and the way that the maintenance of these patronage networks has accelerated the country's slide into corruption and war.

Unfortunately, so deft is McHugo at bringing the microscope of history to bear on the Levant that it makes his failings farther afield all the more glaring. To his credit, McHugo is a lifelong student of Syria and not a scholar of international relations in the abstract, yet it's still jarring to hear him talk of a monolithic 'Russia' or 'America'. At points, this tendency is made worse by McHugo's subscription to the strand of anti-Zionism particular to the British Left which, without commenting on it's ultimate merits, has the unfortunate effect of simplifying any political analysis that comes near.

It's for this reason that the stories McHugo tells best are those of Syria's internal politics. Of particular note are his parallel histories of the country's two most powerful institutions, the military and the Renaissance Movement (or as you almost certainly know it, the Ba'ath Party. What a difference branding can make). McHugo is a masterful storyteller here, detailing the circumstances that gave rise to these institutions, and tracing the sad histories of their decay and capture by authoritarian rulers.

Ultimately, Syria: A Recent History is, rather unsurprisingly, a recent history of Syria. The focus is tight, and McHugo does not attempt to provide a sweeping analysis of autocracies or political Islam. Indeed, when tasked with placing Syria within a broader international context he often falls short, forced to take the actions of outside states and politicians as exogenous, a kind of historical deus ex machina. In the hands of a less knowledgeable and less talented author, this would be a recipe for the kind of bland myopia more befitting a foreign service briefing note than anything fit for public consumption, but McHugo posesses the talent to keep his book accessible and enjoyable, without giving up control of the microscope. Syria is unlikely to spark a fire for those with no interest in the region, and liable to prove too academic for those looking for nothing more than a novelisation of the civil war. However, for readers seeking a serious introduction to the political landscape of of post-independence Syria, it will be tough to beat Syria: A Recent History.

This book comes to me from Shakespeare and Company, an incredible English-language bookstore on Paris's Left Bank. As this book provides an essential lesson for the context of the Syrian Civil War, may the store's motto, "Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise", serve as a reminder on how to deal with the country's refugee crisis.

The cover image is courtesy of Syria Civil Defence, the heroic White Helmets of the civil war.