Hafiz al-Asad has a long record lamentable on human rights, lousy on economics, and aggressive in foreign policy. But he enjoys a rather favorable image in the West, where statesmen praise his "wisdom" and academics and journalists overly focus on his role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Pipes specifically addresses this last problem in his refreshingly bold account of Syrian politics in the late nineties; in the process, he shakes up the conventional wisdom.

In this, his third book on Syria, Pipes argues that Asad does not bother himself with ideology, is not inspired by grand nationalist designs, and does not worry about the national interest. Rather, the Syria strongman operates on a more prosaic level: "he conducts foreign relations less with an eye to achieving external goals than to strengthening his regime's grip on power." Ideology is but a means to legitimize his rule: "Asad has propounded pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist policies in the twin hope of diverting the country's attention from unpleasant realities at home and making common cause with the majority of the Syrian population.... Asad will do whatever he must to stay in power."

Although Pipes may loathe the Asad regime, he does not recommend undermining it. Concluding that Asad can be pressured into making concessions, he suggests instead that Washington take advantage of Asad's present weakness to propose a deal: support for his minority regime in return for a warm peace with Israel, withdrawal from Lebanon, and an end to the regime's many rogue activities.

The author writes in a relaxed and readable style, with touches of sarcasm (commenting on Asad's cult of personality, he writes that Asad's image "appears among the meat cuts on display in butchers' shops and on the walls of public toilets.") His scholarship, grounded in common sense, is faultless; his portrait of Syria is wholly in tune with what local observers know. In brief, Pipes has captured the essence of the Asad regime better than any other Western analyst. Although unlikely to be endorsed by the Syrian authorities, the book with its two chapters on domestic politics and five on foreign policy, also serves as a primer of Syrian politics.