Fragile Nation, Shattered Land: The Modern History of Syria, by James A. Reilly. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019. 258 pages. $38.50 hardcover. ISBN 978-1-62637-749-3.

Reviewed by Spenser R. Rapone

The future of the Syrian Arab Republic, still embroiled in a brutal civil war, is today a topic of raging debate in the Middle East and beyond. Taking the long view, James A. Reilly’s Fragile Nation, Shattered Land: The Modern History of Syria recounts the origins of modern Syria in the Ottoman conquest of the region. He argues that “it is impossible to fully comprehend the present-day civil war and destruction in Syria without knowledge of the country’s intricate, longer-term and pre-colonial history” (2). Taking such considerations into account, Reilly nevertheless insists that “Syrian society is resilient, with a continuous history that spans the centuries” (3).

Detailing the emergence of the modern Syrian nation-state and broader constructions of national identity, Reilly, a historian at the University of Toronto, shows how fraught these processes have been. He thus provides insight into Syria’s present moment, and does so in a style that is accessible to non-specialists. 

Reilly’s history fills in a major gap in Anglophone scholarship. Numerous works have been published on Ottoman Syria (1516-1918), Faisal’s short-lived rule (1918-1920), the French colonialist occupation (1920-1946), and the tumultuous years following independence (1946-present). But this is the first work that covers all of these periods together. 

Reilly begins his account with the acquisition of the region now called Syria by the Ottoman Empire in 1516. Both Damascus and Aleppo were “thriving hubs” and much sought after by the Ottomans (8). Reilly describes the eighteenth-century life of the mind in this region, demonstrating its rich intellectual exchanges and cultural production as seen through the works of Ismail al-Ajluni (d. 1749), Muhammad Ibn Kannan (d. 1740-1), Ibn Budayr (d. ca. 1763), and Mikhail Burayk (fl. 1782), capturing their original critiques, chronicles, and contributions to societal discourse (32-36). Moreover, he explicates the crucially important socio-political developments of this era, in the rise of the aʿyan (notables), who “remained prominent in Syrian politics and society through the remainder of the Ottoman Empire, during French colonial rule and in the early years of Syrian independence” (31). 

Following this “long eighteenth century,” a modern state began to crystallize. First, Reilly notes that modern statehood was “abruptly” introduced by an invading Egyptian army led by Muhammad Ali Pasha (d. 1848) in 1831 (48). While under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire, he had centralized his authority in Egypt and sought out increased autonomy (52). Reilly explains that the work of Egyptian forces in Syria “was subsequently carried on by the Ottomans after Istanbul regained control” in 1840 (48). Then, this drive towards statehood continued under the Ottomans, who in “an effort to codify the sharia” established the majalla civil code; by 1860, the majority of Syrian cities had adjusted to these “new institutions and assertions of the modern state” (73-74). Reilly thereafter turns to the intellectuals who first articulated ideas of national consciousness and identity in Syria. This effort was one aspect of a wider historical epoch known as the Nahda (renaissance), the “name given to the Arabic literary movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (228). Syria as a concrete concept and the desire to “find a basis for common political and civic identity” found expression in “[t]he new literary genre of the historical novel” as well as through “modern communications and the press” (76-78). By the end of the nineteenth century, “the modern state had arrived in Syria.” In particular, Reilly observes that Syrian urban elites, but not necessarily rural inhabitants, readily accepted state institutions— the civil service and political and military institutions—as constitutive of their “modern political identities” (74).  

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and the subsequent occupation of the French, Reilly elucidates the illegitimacy of the colonialists in Syria (89). While the Ottomans ushered in modern forms of regional governance that were maintained by the French colonial authorities, Syria had yet to emerge as a sovereign nation-state. As Reilly explains, “[m]odern statehood had been partially achieved, but modern nationhood hardly at all” (89). Reilly is careful to make the distinction between the establishment of modern statehood with that of the arrival of the nation-state. While Syria possessed modern state structures by this point, the question of how Syria would emerge as a unified national polity remained as yet unanswered. The advent of the Great Syrian Revolt (1925-1927) and its subsequent repression is what Reilly considers the first instance of a political movement that takes on a “national character” (100). Reilly points out that this uprising comprised actors of a variety of confessional, urban, and rural backgrounds; as a result, the revolt, though quickly crushed, “belied France’s assumption that Syria’s peoples were a ‘mosaic’ of discrete and unrelated parts who could be handily manipulated” (100). 

Reilly’s account then turns to what followed—the period of so-called “honorable cooperation” between the French occupiers and the local elite. In 1928, the region’s landowning notable class and their collaborators formed the National Bloc, which professed a rather conservative version of nationalism, and sought to negotiate with the French authorities for eventual independence (102-103). Many Syrians grew to resent the continued dominance of a class that had been in power since Ottoman times. 

French troops finally withdrew in 1946, and the nation of Syria finally achieved full independence. Reilly characterizes the new regime as “fragile.” A number of new political parties arose, the  most important among them was the Arab Baʿth Party, whose members saw the ruling notables as little different from the French (120-122). The Baʿth (resurrection) originated as an intellectual and political group founded by the Sorbonne-educated theorists Michel ʿAflaq (d. 1989) and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (d. 1980) in the early 1940s, constituted as an official political party in 1947. The party promoted an egalitarian form of pan-Arab nationalism, that sought to “bridge confessional differences by emphasizing culture and language as criteria of national inclusion” (131). Its guiding tenets were unity, freedom, and socialism. Zaki al-Arsuzi (d. 1968), who also studied at the Sorbonne, played an early role at this stage as well. Al-Arsuzi was affiliated with the League of Nationalist Action and also led a distinct, unaffiliated Baʿth movement from ʿAflaq of which “currents identified with [al-Arsuzi]” would help organize the party in 1947 (106-107).

In 1952, the Arab Baʿth Party officially became the Arab Socialist Baʿth Party following a merger with Akram al-Hourani’s (d. 1996) Arab Socialist Party, “automatically delivering to the unified grouping his rural base in the Hama region” (129). Reilly does not delve too deeply into the early days of the Baʿth and the political, intellectual, and philosophical debates underpinning them, choosing instead to focus on the larger political events in which it played a part. Although authors such as Hanna Batatu and Patrick Seale have covered these events in great detail, Reilly’s work would have benefited from a closer look at these initial formations, given his thorough examination of earlier, often neglected historical figures and their intellectual contributions.  

Following a brief union with Egypt in the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961 (Syria seceded from the UAR in 1961), the Baʿthists seized power through a military coup in 1963 (137). Yet, they soon found themselves involved in intra-party power struggles, primarily between its Syrian Regional Branch and National Command, which manifested as a divide between its military members and the civilian leadership (137). 

In 1966, another coup was carried out, expelling the founding theorists of Baʿthism (139). This moment shattered the pan-Arab aspirations of ʿAflaq, and the party itself would little resemble his ideas thereafter. By this point the Regional faction of the party, of which the Syrian military had its strongest foothold, cemented its dominance. Eventually, even this faction would itself further splinter and result in competing camps (139). Finally, in 1970, Hafez al-Assad carried out one final military coup. As a result, he would remain president of the Syrian Arab Republic for nearly thirty years (145-146). 

The approximately two-decade period in which military coups were a frequent occurrence had come to a close. Yet, in the years ahead, Syria would continue to face many challenges. Assad never succeeded in fully resolving the political tensions from the early years of independence (171). After the elder Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar came to power, in a peaceful transition that established what Reilly calls a “de facto republican hereditary presidency,” meeting little opposition due to the “repressive political atmosphere.” (173). Reilly observes that “[p]erhaps most were relieved that the transition did not open or reopen fractious political divisions, with unpredictable consequences” (173). 

Bashar al-Assad was almost immediately tasked with leading a country on the border of U.S.-occupied Iraq (186-187). Reilly asserts that the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq “shattered the Fertile Crescent’s brittle political arrangements and unleashed the furies of sectarian discourse and rivalries” (212). While he slightly overemphasizes sectarianism here, Reilly convincingly presents this moment as bringing to the surface tensions that outside forces had preyed on for decades. Following the protests that took place in mid-March 2011, as violence continued to escalate from both government and opposition forces, “[t]he last, faint hopes that Syria could avoid full-scale civil war died during the month of Ramadan, which coincided with August in 2011” (191-195). Reilly’s text provides one with an insight into the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War through careful historical analysis. He concludes that Syria today is “a microcosm of the modern Arab national project,” rich in cultural achievements, but fraught with geopolitical complications that have left the political project “stillborn” (213). Despite this ambivalence, Reilly attests to the fact that Syria has remained intact, however precariously, in the midst of seemingly unceasing tragedy (211).

Reilly has written a lively short history of Syria. He nevertheless gives short shrift to the political theorists and thinkers of Arab nationalism and decolonization. Given Reilly’s detailed appraisal of the intellectual currents in the region during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, his work would have been even more comprehensive had the same treatment been given to the thinkers of the interwar and postwar period. For example, key figures like ʿAflaq, al-Bitar, and al-Arsuzi are only mentioned briefly. Still, this concise account of the broad contours of modern Syrian history is a major achievement. And while uncertainty surrounds Syria’s future, a clear look back at the past helps us to understand better the tangled historical roots of the tragedy currently unfolding there.