Making Sense of the Syrian Civil War

After a chemical attack in Syria on Saturday that killed dozens and is suspected to have been launched by the Assad government, President Trump is warning that the United States may strike back. These books will get you up to speed on the seven-year war and highlight those most affected: the country’s people.


By Fouad Ajami
240 pp. Hoover Institution Press. (2012)

In this book, the Middle East scholar Ajami provides crucial historical context for the uprisings in 2011, which precipitated the present war in Syria. Ajami predicted that the country’s complicated history would prove difficult to reconcile. Syria is a religiously and ethnically diverse country composed primarily of Sunni Arabs and a sizable Christian minority, but since the 1970s, it has been ruled by the Assad family, who are members of a Shiite sect called Alawites that make up 12 percent of the population. Hafez al-Assad established a brutal regime from the onset of his reign, and a pivotal moment occurred in 1982, when he squashed an Islamic insurgency in the city of Hama, killing an estimated 30,000 people. When he died in 2000, his son, Bashar, inherited the throne. Bashar’s regime has been no less repressive and much more decadent; his military has killed so many people that the United Nations has had to stop counting. Our reviewer called Ajami’s an “elegant and edifying book, written on the fly, by an observer who retains an almost loving intimacy with his subject.”


Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria
By Rania Abouzeid
378 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. (2018)

Out this month, the book traces the narrative of the war in Syria from 2011 into 2017 and, through the lens of civilian activists and others affected by the conflict, sets out to explore “how a country unraveled one person at a time.” The journalist Abouzeid highlights people like the activists who were jailed by the Assad regime in the wake of the Arab Spring, and citizens who have lost entire families to the violence. It offers an up-to-date account, and our reviewer called it a book “worthy of the enormous tragedy that is Syria.” Though he also notes that it gives little hope for a happy ending.


A Memoir of the Syrian War
By Marwan Hisham; Illustrated by Molly Crabapple
294 pp. One World. (2018)

This upcoming memoir, out May 15, begins in 2011; the writer and two friends had just joined the Arab Spring demonstrations in Syria. At the time, “the country is boiling,” he writes, and the young men “want to shout our throats bloody.” A long awaited revolution appeared imminent. This book recounts Hisham’s coming-of-age since those early days, how the Syrian war unfolded through the eyes of its citizens, and what became of his friends — one was killed by government soldiers, while another became an Islamist revolutionary. Hisham first came to the attention of international outlets for posting news updates to Twitter about the city under siege, and he is now a journalist living in exile. “Brothers of the Gun” includes more than 80 ink drawings created by Molly Crabapple.

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