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The Duke of Damascus : ASAD The Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Seale with the assistance of Maureen McConville (University of California Press: $25; 552 pp.)

June 18, 1989|L. Carl Brown | Brown is the author of "International Politics and the Middle East: Old Rules, Dangerous Game" (Princeton University Press, 1984)

In a dust-jacket blurb, John le Carre dubs it "a thriller, a textbook, and an invaluable contemporary history." Well, yes and no. That word "thriller" somehow jars. "Asad" does offer a complex cast of characters and a rash of things-are-not-what-they-seem subplots. In the best tradition of the thriller, the strongly etched portrait of a principal protagonist (Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad) provides a crisp story line. "Asad" is definitely a page-turner. Yes, Le Carre rightly detected in Patrick Seale a peer and a competitor.

On the other hand, no. The book is not a thriller in the sense of escape literature, although certain persons given rough treatment in the book may try to dismiss it as such. This is a book in the finest tradition of investigative scholarship. The research is awesome, utilizing scholarly books and articles, memoirs, speeches, newspaper accounts, broadcast summaries, and even unpublished doctoral dissertations.

Seale interviewed more than 40 Syrians of varied backgrounds, plus Lebanese, Egyptians, PLO Palestinians and such Americans as Philip Habib and Robert McFarlane. Seale notes six interviews with Asad himself, ranging in time from March 1977 to March 1988. Only one Israeli was interviewed, a "former intelligence officer who wishes to remain anonymous," but the Israeli accounts written by scholars, journalists and political figures are used extensively.

This book exploits the kinds of sources that journalists thrive on but academicians often slight. It also uses the heavy artillery of academic research that journalists tend to discount (studies that seek systems underlying personalities and politics).

Years ago Seale established himself as the pre-eminent interpreter of modern Syria. His "The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics 1945-1958," first published in 1965, is a classic. It has since been reissued (Yale University Press, 1987). Seale may be said to have spent most of his life tooling up for this task.

The similarity of title linking the two books is surely not accidental. To Seale, Syria has been and remains the epicenter of struggle in the modern Middle East.

"Asad" is both authoritative and readable. It is not, however, a book to be called dispassionate. To Seale, Asad emerges as a hero, whereas the conduct of most of Asad's fellow players in this deadly diplomatic game are portrayed as duplicitous or ruthless, if not both.

The latter group includes Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres--indeed, for that matter, virtually all American and Israeli foreign policy makers during the time covered. Included as well among the bad guys are Anwar al-Sadat, King Hussein, Saddam Hussein and Yasir Arafat.

Such a disparate assortment of alleged scoundrels will understandably disorient many American readers, but Seale backs up these charges with always plausible (if often involuted) interpretations and solid doses of data. Readers willing to take on a sophisticated debunking of the American received wisdom on the Arab-Israeli confrontation will find this book stimulating. Not so for those seeking comfortable old categories.

And if Seale paints Asad in heroic proportions, he is a hero only in the Italian Renaissance tradition. Seale does not pretty up Asad's struggle to the top, the brutal 1982 suppression of the Muslim-brethren uprising in Hama, or his willingness to use all the dirty tricks of the intelligence trade. To Seale, however, Asad is ruthless for raison d'etat. Seale's portrait is that of a hard-eyed statesman surviving in a tough environment.

Part One, "The Revolutionary," roughly one-third of the book, introduces the Alawi community to which al-Asad belongs and sketches the rise to power of this impoverished and heterodox group of mountaineers by way of the military vocation beginning in French mandate days. Asad's own family history, his early life and his subsequent career are then traced alongside an overview of Middle Eastern diplomatic history from roughly the 1940s until 1970, when Asad captured power in Syria.

Part Two, "The Leader," offers an even more detailed diplomatic history of Syria, the Arab world, the great powers, and Israel since 1970s--all as seen from Damascus.

Of the 16 chapters in Part Two, only three address domestic Syrian developments. The real story is that of the diplomatic ups and downs from 1970 to 1988--again as seen from Asad's Damascus--presented as a diplomatic duel of giants. Chapter titles tell the story: "Sadat, the Unsound Ally," "Duel with Henry Kissinger," "Jimmy Carter's False Dawn," "Ally of the Ayatollah," "Battle with Menachem Begin" and "The Defeat of George Shultz."

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