The Making of Modern Syria: Daniel Neep talks to CCAS about his new book project

This article is from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ Newsmagazine, Fall/Winter 2017, available here.

Tentatively titled The Nation Belongs to All: The Making of Modern Syria, Assistant Professor Neep’s book is under contract for publication with Allen Lane Random House.

Q. Why did you want to write this book?

There were two reasons that I decided to work on a history of modern Syria. First, I was deeply irritated by the tone of much of the media coverage about the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and the country’s subsequent descent into civil war. To the extent that the media gives any historical context at all, it tends to reproduce the assumptions of what I call the “Sykes-Picot narrative”: that Syria is an artificial state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire by the colonial powers, which forced together disparate religious and ethnic groups with no common identity. In this narrative, civil war happens when state control weakens and once latent primordial divisions become resurgent.

Second, although Syria has never been far from the news in recent years, there is not one book currently available for the non-specialist general public that adequately situates the current conflict in relation to Syria’s broader historical context. The few books out there that are accessible to non-academics tend to focus on a narrow tranche of recent history (Syria under Hafiz al-Asad, for example), present a narrowly political account of Syrian history (lots of coups and military conspiracies, for example, while neglecting patterns of social transformation or episodes of economic crisis and institutional restructuring), or else simply summarize the existing academic literature in English. In contrast, my book is based on a wide array of sources in Arabic; it aims to present original research on the development of Syria’s politics, society, and economy in a way that is accessible to a general readership, while also offering new insights for academic specialists.

Q. To many people, the “Sykes-Picot narrative” seems quite persuasive. What’s the problem?

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, showing the proposed division between the direct (colored) and indirect (uncolored) spheres of influence agreed between France (A) and Great Britain (B) in the Asian lands of the Ottoman Empire. (Wikimedia Commons)

The narrative is based on a faulty, biased, and fundamentally tendentious reading of the historical evidence. I could go on at length, but I’ll just point out four of the major problems here.

First, the Sykes-Picot narrative overlooks the waves of state-building that had started to warp the fabric of social, political, and economic life in the region well before its division by the colonial powers. Ottoman reforms had already begun to introduce modern systems of private property, constitutional and representative government, urban development, infrastructure, and tax reform in the late nineteenth century, for example. After France took control of Syria in 1920, the French government constructed state institutions on top of these Ottoman foundations rather than creating them ex nihilo.

Second, Britain and France may have drawn the borders of Syria with a mere stroke of the pen, but these lines were not definitively or decisively enforced until well into the 1950s. In fact, it was first in the 1860s that connections between the regions, towns, and communities that eventually comprised the modern state of Syria began to be forged. In the nearly a century that it took for the new borders to be rendered impermeable, the density of these social ties had already coalesced to the point of creating a coherent society that could be called “Syria.”

Third, the Sykes-Picot narrative assumes that ethnic and religious groups are the basic building blocks of Syrian society. Yet the historical record tells a very different story. From popular rebellion against the French to the coalition of support built by the Asad regime, cooperation between Syria’s ethnic and religious communities has always been more common than conflict. For much of modern Syrian history, forces such as social class and regional identity have been considerably more powerful than the ties of ethnicity and religion.

Finally, the Sykes-Picot narrative discounts the many meaningful investments that people have made in the existence of a distinctly Syrian identity over the years, both culturally and politically. Even today, Syrians themselves are fighting to control the state, not dismember it (ISIS, after all, is not a Syrian organization). Contrary to the imputations of foreign journalists, Syrians who claim their nation exists are suffering from neither delusion nor false consciousness.

Q. So what’s the alternative argument that you make in the book?

My book tells a very different story about Syria. In part, it’s a story of economic inequality, social transformation, and the quest for justice. A key theme of the book is the ongoing popular struggle for the rights of Syrians to live with respect and dignity—from Druze agitation against social hierarchy in the 1880s to the fight for national independence from French colonial rule in the 1920s, from battles against the landowning elites to give impoverished peasants a fair share of the country’s wealth to uprisings against the violence and repression of the Asad regime—and the resilience of today’s civilian society against the predations of armed militants.

Alongside these elements of what might be described as a people’s history, I also detail the broader forces that have shaped modern Syria. I argue that, rather than Syria having been instantly “made” by colonial diktat in 1920, there was actually a longer process of making that took decades to unfold. I pay particular attention to the way in which relations between the different regions and different social formations that existed in this part of the world were transformed by the unfolding of new infrastructures, institutions, and economic practices. These emerging configurations of state power, geography, and capital, I suggest, shaped and reshaped the social and political field in which protest and contention were embedded.

My book seeks to explain that the current conflict, as well as previous contentious episodes, are caused not by an exotic culture, religious radicalism, or primitive society, but by processes of political struggle, economic restructuring, and popular protest that similarly motivate social justice movements not only elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Europe, North America, and around the world more generally.

Q. What sources did you use in writing this book?

Everything I could get my hands on. I have read countless memoirs by Syrian army officers, politicians, activists, and businessmen, and have trawled through collections of official state newspapers and the professional journals of the armed forces and the police. I’ve analyzed the annual bulletins of Syria’s chambers of commerce and industry, planning documents from an array of government ministries, and economic analyses by leading journalists and intellectuals. I’ve also looked at the French colonial archives and British diplomatic records, which help to fill in some of the gaps, and drawn on scholarship on Syria written in Arabic by Syrian historians themselves, which provides a rich vein of insights that is often neglected by scholars.

Q. How has research for this book informed your teaching at CCAS?

At Georgetown, I am lucky enough to teach the masters seminar, “Politics of Syria,” which has provided a fantastic opportunity to delve into some of the substantive themes of the book. Students in the MAAS program have been a great source of inspiration as well as of criticism: they read some of my draft chapters alongside the work of other scholars, and their feedback has helped me rethink my approach and refine my arguments. I also think it’s useful for students to see research in progress rather than the final product, which has been polished by successive rounds of peer review and often seems to set an unattainably high standard. By opening up my process of research and writing, I hope to give students greater confidence to develop their own work. Writing isn’t perfect right away. We all need time (and multiple drafts) to get there.

Daniel Neep is Assistant Professor at CCAS.