Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
Only a year after publishing A Concise History of the Arabs (reviewed in JPR 50(6), 768-769) John McHugo publishes this very timely and concise modern history of Syria. As Syria has descended into a vicious civil war with no apparent end in sight, the need to understand the modern history of this key Arab state is paramount. McHugo’s decision to cover a full century is wise. The First World War ended the Ottoman Empire and in the period that followed the modern map of the Middle East was drawn. Syria was created during this period, while the potential Greater Syria was destroyed. Lebanon was made a separate state, as were Palestine and Jordan. This territorial division was followed by a French administration that favored certain ethnic groups rather than building up a functioning national society. As Syria gained independence in 1946 it quickly descended into political chaos as coup followed coup. After decades of short-lived regimes Hafez al-Asad took over power, holding it until his death and his son Bashar inherited the presidency. While Bashar initially seemed to initiate reforms, he quickly proved to be as ruthlessly authoritarian as his father. In 291 pages McHugo’s book was never going to be the book on Syria’s modern history, but it comes close. McHugo provides the reader with the most necessary information, and a high level of sound analysis. Perhaps the most interesting contribution is McHugo’s concluding remarks concerning the debate over whether new borders will be imposed on the region. The book is written both with academic scrutiny and with the empathy of an individual who cares greatly for his area of study.