Syria-Why Syria Goes to War: Thirty Years of Confrontation

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Why Syria Goes to War: Thirty Years of Confrontation, by Fred H. Lawson. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. xvi + 181 pages. Notes to p. 217. Index to p. 222. $29.95.

Reviewed by Max L. Gross

This volume is another in the series of "Cornell Studies in Political Economy," edited by Peter J. Katzenstein. As such, it is more a volume on political economy theory, in which Syria is the major case study, than a new book about Syria. Readers should be warned that this is not a "potboiler" nor a "page turner." Neither is it a seminal, groundbreaking study of the sort provided by Nicholas Van Dam, Patrick Seale, Raymond Hinnebusch, John Devlin, Volken Perthes, Tabitha Petran, Itamar Rabinovich, and others, although Lawson has relied heavily on these authors. As "primary" source material he depends heavily on several journalistic sources, such as Middle East Record, Arab Report and Record, Middle East Economic Digest, various US newspapers, and a few issues of Syrie et Monde Arabe. A few Arabic and French references are present, but the work is based primarily on English secondary sources.

Despite these limitations, the author clearly is a sincere and honest scholar who has mastered the key English literature about Syria. He has a stronger interest, however, in the theoretical models he seeks to apply to Syria than in the country itself. The result is a number of key conclusions which seem simplistic interpretations of modern Middle Eastern history.

With a title like Why Syria Goes to War, one expects at least some discussion of Syrian decision making, but there is none. The key argument of the book is that decisions of war and peace are made largely for the "dominant ruling social coalition" (pp. 12-13 and passim) by the prevailing political and economic climate. The author carries the ancient political wisdom that leaders often respond to domestic crises by provoking (or responding to) a foreign crisis into a virtual iron law of political behavior. As a corollary, when that "dominant ruling social coalition" is able to cope successfully with a domestic crisis, it backs away from (deescalates) active confrontation abroad. According to this theory, another factor, drawn from Marxist theory, called an "accumulation crisis" (i.e., surplus capital in one sector of the economy that is needed in other sectors of the economy), is the second key determinant in decision making by the leadership.

Using Syria as his case study, the author tests the theory against five confrontation scenariosthe 1967 war with Israel; the 1970 deescalation of conflict with Jordan; the 1976 intervention in Lebanon; the 1982 backdown from confrontation with Iraq; and the 1994 rapprochement with Turkey despite serious issues dividing the two countries (Israeli-Syrian peace talks are also cited as evidence in support of the theory). Finding that the facts concerning Syria's political economy support the theoretical framework he has established, he concludes that it is valid. To carry his argument further, the author also examines briefly three other case studies-the 1948 Syrian conflict with Israel; the 1963 Algerian-Moroccan crisis; and the 1973 Egyptian-Israeli war. …