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Recommended Resources: Top Six Syria Reads

Syria expert Aron Lund picks six reads you probably haven’t come across before – on subjects including authoritarian counterinsurgency tactics, the key forces behind conflict before 2011, the divisions likely to make the Geneva peace talks fail and life as a gay soldier in Assad’s army.

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

Recently at Syria Deeply, we’ve been reaching out to experts in our network for resources they would recommend to others in understanding Syria. In our first installment of “Recommended Resources,” we are thrilled to highlight six suggestions from Aron Lund, a Swedish writer specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and the author of several books and reports on Syria and Arab politics; he’s on Twitter @aronlund.

(Do you know someone who would be perfect for our Verified Expert program at Syria Deeply? Please click here to recommend them)

Here are Aron Lund’s six Recommended Resources, along with his commentary …

#1. David H. Ucko: “Regimes and Revolt: Authoritarian Ways of Counterinsurgency,” War on the Rocks

In this text for War on the Rocks, National Defense University professor David H. Ucko takes a look at the way authoritarian regimes conduct counterinsurgency operations. It’s a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to understand the Syrian war, though it is not specifically about that conflict. (If you want a longer version, you can access the original and unabridged article in the Journal of Strategic Studies.)

Ucko challenges stereotypes about the way dictatorships fight their wars and how they relate to civilians and popular opinion. Indiscriminate violence, he points out, is not the same as mindless violence – it can serve a strategic purpose. Dictatorships also habitually engage in their own brand of politics and negotiation to engineer political stability, just like democracies. In fact, when we note the differences between how democratic and nondemocratic systems try to suppress insurgencies, we must also note the similarities. In both cases, it’s about using violence to defeat an enemy and impose yourself on a population. Unsurprisingly, the results can be quite similar.

However, after reviewing several examples, Ucko concludes that five strategies seem to characterize “authoritarian counterinsurgency,” namely: controlling the flow of information, mobilizing chauvinism among the populace, deploying extreme and indiscriminate violence, imposing a police state, and penetrating civil society. Syria watchers will nod in agreement.

#2. Interview with Samer Abboud on Jadaliyya (available on Soundcloud)

Jadaliyya recently published a podcast interview with Professor Samer Abboud about the Syrian conflict and his new book, Syria (Polity, 2015). You can hear him discuss these issues with Shahram Aghamir for about an hour and a half, and it will be time well spent.

In particular, I enjoyed Abboud’s explanation – both in the podcast and in the book – of the fundamental drivers of conflict in Syria before 2011. Western commentary tends to portray the eruption of war in Syria as an essentially ideological struggle between competing political camps, or alternatively, to dismiss it as a primitive sectarian feud or a geopolitical proxy battle. All three perspectives have their merits, of course. Looking back, however, so much has to do with the socioeconomic crunch experienced by Syrians in the run-up to 2011. The Assad family’s corruption and abuses certainly deserve a chapter in that story, as does sectarianism and foreign interference. But more fundamentally it is a story about the painful nature of nation-building itself, and the failed attempts of a dysfunctional and inflexible political system to contain the volcanic powers of modernization.

It is refreshing to hear someone speak about Syria with both genuine passion and sober realism. You usually get one or the other, rarely both.

#3. Sam Heller: “Why Diplomatic Talks to End Syria’s Civil War Will Fail – Again,” World Politics Review

Sam Heller has done great work tracking the evolution of Syria’s insurgent groups, particularly the Islamist ones. He recently coauthored a fascinating piece with S.G. Grimaldi about the way pan-Turkic sentiment is fusing with Ankara’s Islamist-tinged policy of support for Syrian rebels, including Syrian Turkmen groups.

This one, however, is about the bigger-picture stuff, as we approach the so-called Geneva III peace talks. Instead of getting bogged down in time frames and participant lists, Heller takes a hard look at the still-unbridged divides that will most likely prevent a deal from materializing. He concludes that there’s currently little hope for a negotiated solution, or indeed for any solution at all.

It is a pessimistic outlook, but also a realistic one, which I share. Regional governments and the international community would be well advised to plan ahead for a failed peace process. While they should not hesitate to seize any opportunity for a ceasefire, however imperfect or partial, it is even more important to develop a plan for the likelier outcome, which is continued war, sectarian polarization, social and institutional decay and regional contagion. Every dollar not spent preparing for the worst today is an investment in extremism and instability tomorrow.

#4. Suha Maayeh and Phil Sands: “‘The Uncle’: The life and death of ISIL’s man in southern Syria,” The National

This is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of al-Khal, “The Uncle,” as Mohammed al-Baridi was known. Until his death in November 2015, he was the leader of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a small rebel outfit that spawned among villagers in the southwestern corner of Syria, near Israel and Jordan. Maayeh and Sands, who have produced some excellent reporting on southern Syria over the years, have done their best to piece together the puzzle of the Uncle’s career.

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has been many things to many people, at many different times. Moving between allies and sponsors, the Uncle attached himself to rival funding streams extended by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and its international sponsors, Gulf states and various Salafi figures and – finally – the Islamic State.

The Uncle’s ability to fluidly move between Islamist sentiment, local roots, foreign funding and political allegiances is illustrative of the Afghan-style warlordism that looks set to be the future of rebel Syria.

#5. James Harkin: “We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive: A Gay Soldier in Assad’s Army,” Harper’s Magazine

This fascinating article by James Harkin sheds light on Syria’s little-known gay community. Shunned by a conservative general public and banned by the state, it has also generally been left alone to discreetly mind its own business. During the war, gay life has paradoxically thrived because – as one of Harkin’s contacts put it – “the mukhabarat is busy” and so is the rest of society.

One of Harkin’s interviewees is an army soldier serving on the front lines against the Islamic State, in the Deir Ezzor enclave near the Iraqi border. Through him, we get a glimpse of life as a member of a sexual minority in Syria, but also of the constant trade-offs that all Syrians are forced to make, gay or straight. All in all, it’s a great read that looks past the maps and arrows of military conflict to zoom in on a little slice of real Syria: lives full of mundane contradiction, impossible to fit into the crude categories that structure our understanding of the war.

#6. Kevin Benson: “10,000 Won’t Do It: The Mathematics of an American Deployment to Fight ISIL,” War on the Rocks

A retired U.S. Army colonel, Kevin Benson was one of the chief planners of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Back then, he was deeply frustrated by the inability of politicians to understand – never mind plan for – the logistical requirements of waging a successful war. Now, he’s irritated by the carelessness with which senior American politicians demand interventions in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, to fight terrorist groups or dictatorships, without the slightest semblance of realistic planning.

Benson has therefore written a quick and handy explainer that can either be read on-screen, or printed and stuffed into the mouth of the next armchair general who tells you how he plans to win the war in Syria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

Aron Lund is a Swedish writer specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of several books and reports on Syria and Arab politics, and since 2013 he has been the editor of Syria in Crisis, a web portal run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs. He holds an M.A. in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies from Uppsala University, Sweden, and is a fellow of the Centre for Syrian Studies of St. Andrews University, Great Britain. Follow him on Twitter at @aronlund.

Top image: A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade on Friday, Sept 7, 2012, during fighting in the Izaa district in Aleppo. (AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)

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