Hugh Roberts in The LRB:
Damascus was the seat of the Umayyad dynasty, established by a clan of the Prophet’s tribe to rule the first Islamic empire. Syria is where, in 1516, the absorption of the Arab world into the Ottoman Empire began, with the Ottoman victory in the battle of Marj Dabiq; where the nahda, the cultural renaissance of the Arab world, blossomed in the 19th century; where the unified Arab kingdom that the British promised the Hashemites, who led the 1916-18 Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, was to have its capital. It is where, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the most politically developed and socially radical version of the dream of Arab unity was conceived by the founders of the Arab Socialist Baath (‘resurrection’) Party. Syria is also the terminus of the Arab Spring.
The country today is in ruins: there are more than 200,000 dead, many thousands of them children, about four million refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, some seven million people internally displaced and many towns largely destroyed. The movement sparked by the Tunisian revolution has ended up consigning Egypt to a new phase of military dictatorship bleaker than any before and precipitating the descent into mayhem of Libya, Yemen and Syria. The most substantial beneficiary in the region of this turn of events practises the most zealously intolerant, retrograde, vindictively sectarian and brutal form of Islamist politics seen in our lifetimes. Islamic State – with its capital and organising centre in Raqqa in northern Syria – now exerts control over much of Syria and Iraq and is spreading its tentacles south to the Gulf states and west to North Africa. How is this dreadful turn of events to be understood?
Jean-Pierre Filiu, who teaches at Sciences Po in Paris after a career in France’s diplomatic corps which included tours of duty in Jordan, Syria and Tunisia, argues in his new book, From Deep State to Islamic State, that the Arab revolutions (as he calls them) have been foiled – Tunisia apart – by successful counter-revolutions organised by the ‘deep state’. In Syria – as in Egypt and Yemen – the deep state is the hard core of a regime that strongly resembles those of the Mamluks in Egypt and the Levant long ago. He holds the Syrian ‘Mamluks’ responsible not only for the devastation of their own country but also for the rise of Islamic State, with which, he suggests, they have been in cahoots. The ‘Mamluks’ are the main – indeed the only – villains in his story. His solution is to keep the revolutions going at all costs and get rid of the ‘Mamluks’ whatever it takes.