Bouthaina Shaaban, Damascus Diary: An Inside Account of Hafez al-Assad’s Peace Diplomacy, 1990-2000 (Boulder, CO and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013), 245 pp. ISBN 978-1588268631
As this review is being written in late December 2012, Bouthaina Shaaban is still an important figure in Bashar al-Asad's crumbling regime in Syria. She can be seen on television when Asad and his chief advisers are meeting with Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi, the UN's and the Arab League's special envoy, and her name is mentioned in the Arabic press as Arab journalists speculate who among Asad's close associates seeks accomodation with the opposition and who advocates fighting to the bitter end. Bouthaina Shaaban, originally a professor of English Literature at Damascus University, became Hafez al-Asad's personal interpreter and was promoted by him to membership in Syria's cabinet as Minister for the Affairs of the Syrian Diaspora. Several years later, she became an adviser to and spokesperson for the president, and remained close to the Asad family and to the current beleaguered president. It is curious that during the course of 2012, as Syria descended deeper and deeper into a brutal civil war, Ms. Shaaban found the time and presence of mind to write her "inside account of Hafez al-Assad’s peace diplomacy,1990 -2000." Was it an attempt to salvage at least part of the Asad dynasty's shrinking legacy or perhaps an effort to lay a foundation for a post-Asad life outside Syria? Whatever the motivation, the outcome is disappointing.
Shaaban's book has its merits. The failed effort to produce a Syrian-Israeli agreement gave birth to sevral accounts, most of them written by Israeli and American participants. Other than one article by Syria's current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Walid Muallem, there has not been a systematic Syrian version of the course of events. Shaaban's book fills this void for the most important phases of the on-and-off Israeli-Syrian negotiations. She offers the reader the recollection of a participant in some of the most important American-Syrian and American-Israeli-Syrian meetings of the 1990s. She was given access to Syria's official archives and as a result her book, both the main text and the appendices, offers the reader an opportunity to read the minutes of several significant encounters.
But these merits are overshadowed by severe faults. The book is full of factual errors. Some of them are minor and more irritating than damaging. But some of them are major and in all likelihood deliberate. This makes them interesting and revealing. In August 1993, Rabin deposited in Secretary of State Warren Christopher his conditional willingness to withdraw fully from the Golan in order to enable the U.S. mediator to find out whether Asad was willing to sign a peace agreement modelled after the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord of 1979. Rabin's "deposit," probably the single most important act in this negotiation, was an exercise in "hypothetical diplomacy," an effort to circumvent Hafez al-Asad's insistence that Israel commit to full withdrawl from the Golan before he would reveal his notion of peace with Israel. Shaaban places this act in April 1994 (p. 124) while in fact it took place in August 1993. She does say (on p. 100) that Christopher "had first heard of the Rabin Deposit in August 1993," but she completely misses or distorts the significance of that moment. In early August 1993 Rabin knew that he could finalize the Oslo Accord with the PLO, but he did not want to do so before finding out whether he also had a Syrian option. To the end, he tried to break the deadlock on the Syrian track by using the hypothetical technique. Unlike Christopher and his team, Rabin was not impressed with Asad's response to his gambit and decided to sign the Oslo Accord. This was one of the most important turning points in the history of the peace process. As a result, the peace process was predicated on the Palestinian track while the Syrian track was fatally set back. It is obviously uncomfortable for Shaaban to describe it in these terms, when one of her chief arguments is that Asad was "serious" in his give-and-take with the Israelis while the latter were not. She then tells us that "Hafez al-Assad seemed not to be impressed by the deposit" (p. 100), a very revealing statement for those interested in the history of the Israeli-Syrian negotiation.
Another peculiar misrepresentation is the description of President Clinton’s trip to Damascus in October 1994. As Shaaban puts it, "Clinton was touring the Middle East and was scheduled to stop in Damascus for a high profile summit at the Presidential Palace" (p. 107). In fact Clinton was not "touring"; he came to the Middle East in order to participate in the signing ceremony of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. Clinton and his aides were concerned by Asad's reaction. Asad viewed himself as the key Arab actor in the peace process, was mortally offended by the PLO's decision to sign with Israel without him and ahead of him, and now had to come to terms with the fact that King Hussein had done the same. In order to placate him, Clinton's "peace team" came up with the idea of a presidential visit to Damascus, the capital of a state appearing on the U.S. State Department's list of states engaged in terrorism. This clearly was an uncomfortable moment for the Syrian president, and his loyal interpreter chose to depict it as part of Clinton's "tour" in the region.
One could go on and on with similar misrepresentations. And one can find fault with the adoring portrayal of Hafez al-Asad toying with American visitors, humiliating Secretary Christopher in the spring of 1996. But this is not the point. We now know that this is a partisan, self-serving and tendentious book. But it still tells us volumes about Asad's view of the world and his concept of the failed peace process.We can be impressed with Asad's ambivalent view of America, on the one hand "The Great Satan" (to borrow a phrase from his Iranian allies) but on the other, the power with which he really wanted to do business. The book confirms what the Israeli negotiators with Syria felt all along. Syria did not negotiate with Israel; it negotiated with Washington. A deal with Israel was not meaningless; Asad wanted to regain the Golan. But its true significance would be as a prelude to the grand bargain with America.
In short, this is a book that should only be read by experts. A lay reader would be misled by errors of omission and commission; an expert will find rare and valuable glimpses into the worldview and realities of Hafez al-Asad's Syria.