.
W

hen a book receives pre-publication blurbs from the likes of General (and later Director) David Petraeus, Director Leon Panetta, Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, and author (and former CIA officer) Alma Katsu, my eyebrow raises a touch. I’m intrigued and cautiously curious. Is it a function of being well-connected and receiving the socially obligatory blurbs? Or is the book really that good? In David McCloskey’s case, the book is really that good.

Damascus Station | David McCloskey | W. W. Norton & Co. | September 2021.

Damascus Station” is truly one of the finest entries into the modern spy thriller genre. In a field groaning with ludicrous plots, absurd characters, and laughable “espionage,” McCloskey—a former CIA analyst—has crafted a book that goes back to the roots of what makes a spy thriller great, the spying. Its plot, its pacing, its characters, and all the connective tissue that makes up the book are superb. It eschews over-the-top action in favor of a delightful attention to the tradecraft of espionage, and jettisons the one-man-army approach to solving the world’s problems in favor of a fictionalized, but one imagines accurate reflection of how the CIA operates around the world today.

His main character, Samuel Joseph, hews more to the middle of the spectrum between Jason Bourne and George Smiley, and that’s not a bad thing. He is a master of his craft, but possesses a self-awareness and self-reflection that makes him human. His absolutely verboten indiscretion of becoming romantically and physically entangled with his agent Miriam, certainly raises the stakes in the plot.

McCloskey’s character development is rich and thoroughly enjoyable. Nearly every character, and there are many, receive an attention to detail that brings them to life, even if they are secondary to the plot. The analyst Zelda, the Office of Technical Services bombmaker Paulina, the Russian Volkov, the list goes on by McCloskey manages to imbue them with personality and vividness in a few short sentences, making them feel important and life-like. My personal favorite character was Artemis Aphrodite Procter, the no-nonsense Chief of Station Damascus, who suffers no fools and supports her people in the field, even if they require a punch in the mouth.

Strong character development is not an inconsequential point—spy stories hinge on the characters, their motivations, their fears, their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. A terrible plot or mundane espionage action (and Damascus Station is the furthest from one) can be saved by vivid characters, but the same cannot be said in reverse. Servicing a dead drop is a relatively banal activity in the broader ecosystem of literary espionage (and almost certainly absolutely terrifying and exciting for a real operations officer), but throw in dynamic characters working against each other, and it becomes something vastly more interesting.

There are layers upon layers in this book, and in lesser hands these threads would turn into a soggy tiramisu, but McCloskey succeeds in keeping the layers apart, before assembling them all together in an outstanding third act. There are twists and there are turns, none of which I will spoil. If you pick up this book, you’ll find out soon enough as it’s unlikely you’ll be able to put it down. It’s unsurprising that Ignatius provided a promotional blurb as reading it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of his own spy thriller, “Agents of Innocence,” which itself is one of the finest entries in the modern spy thriller genre.  

The tradecraft on display is riveting, far more so than any shoot-out. Running a multi-hour, cross-city surveillance detection route (SDR) is likely thrilling in practice, but does not on first glance make for riveting reading. Yet, McCloskey brings the reader along through every twist and turn, offering a glimpse, albeit incredibly limited, of what it must be like to be an Operations Officer in a hostile environment.

What makes McCloskey’s book all the stronger is his attention to the details of the Syrian War and the complexities and nuances of the Assad family and its inner circle. “Damascus Station” is as much a family drama as it is a spy thriller. Miriam is a member of the ruling elite, an Alawite, and enjoyed all the privileges such a socio-economic and political position offered. Her cousin, Razan, is an activist, rejecting the life of privilege and demanding freedom for the Syrian people, a stand for which like many Syrians she pays for dearly in the opening of the book. Her extended family is embedded within the regime which plays out like a Sopranos-like drama in the background of this tightly written spy story.

Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria | Sam Dagher | Little, Brown, & Company | May 2019.

In reading “Damascus Station” I was immediately reminded of Sam Dagher’s exceptional 2019 book, “Assad or We Burn the Country”. McCloskey offers just enough about the Syrian Civil War to get the reader up to speed and to set the scene for the plot to unfold (and make the reader curious about more). Dagher’s exploration drills down into the Assad family’s inner workings, decision-making, and the lengths it would go to stay in power (which McCloskey reflects in his story).

Dagher’s book rests mainly on the account of Manaf Tlass, a Syrian army general and family friend of the Assads, who defected in 2013. Of course, Tlass has considerable self-interest to spin the narrative to his favor, so one must take his commentary with a grain of salt; there is a not insignificant undertone of his ambition to succeed Bashar or accede to the leadership of Syria in the future. That said, Dagher’s reporting is second-to-none and keeps the book grounded in on-the-ground fact, tragedy and all. Tlass grew up alongside the Assads, his father being close with Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Tlass pulls back the curtain on the Assad family’s inner thoughts and actions, and, together with Dagher’s exceptional history, the reader better understands the dynamics of Syria. These dynamics are absolutely critical to understanding the civil war and were often lost in the coverage of atrocities, ISIS, and will or won’t America intervene.

Bashar was never meant to be president, but was thrust into the position after the death of his elder brother Bassel. While many at the time hoped Bashar, a trained ophthalmologist with a very-Western oriented wife, would open up the country, ushering in a new prosperity, reality turned out very different. Indeed, the Assad’s extended family system of governance was so entrenched, any demand for change was seen as an existential threat. Inspired by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East, young Syrians took to the street asking “why not us?” and demanded change from the Assads. Their protests were met with repression, violence, imprisonment, and abuse.

Not without precedent in Syrian history, Bashar took a page from his father’s playbook. In 1982, in response to an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad surrounded and shelled the city of Hama, killing upwards of 40,000 people. The conflict descending into Dante-esque circles of hell with the rise of ISIS, the use of chemical weapons, and the conflict turning into a proxy war for the United States and Russia (which intervened in September 2015). Joby Warrick of the Washington Post offers a masterful account of the destruction of Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons and the White House’s muddled Syria policy in his book “Red Line.”

Assad’s violence was meted out by his intelligence services, the Mukhabarat, and the Shabiha (or “ghosts”) state-sponsored militias. By barrel bomb and chemical weapon, Assad hoped to strangle the opposition, raising the level of violence to a level intolerable to those who stood in his way. Pressed between the government forces and the Islamic State, it was thought that the population would have no choice but to acquiesce to Assad’s rule. Indeed, today, the prospect of Assad leaving Damascus—once thought possible and openly demanded by President Barack Obama—is long gone.

Dagher also brings the civil war home, connecting the reader with every day average Syrians. He writes affectionally of those fighting to survive on the front line, continuing to advocate (at the time of writing) for freedom and reform, and those part of the Local Coordination Committees—organizers of and reporters on, the protests on-the-ground. The tragedy is that the reader knows, especially now, that their efforts will not prove to be successful.

The drama Dagher so profoundly writes about provides a fantastic if painful backdrop McCloskey’s “Damascus Station”, in which he deftly blends the fact and the fiction. Both books are excellent reads as the seasons change. “Damascus Station” is certainly a thrilling escape, but one grounded in a very real, real-world tragedy.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Syria Through the Lens of Spy Fiction and Serious Fact

Aleppo, Syria. Photo by Aladdin Hammami via Unsplash.

October 17, 2021

W

hen a book receives pre-publication blurbs from the likes of General (and later Director) David Petraeus, Director Leon Panetta, Washington Post reporter David Ignatius, and author (and former CIA officer) Alma Katsu, my eyebrow raises a touch. I’m intrigued and cautiously curious. Is it a function of being well-connected and receiving the socially obligatory blurbs? Or is the book really that good? In David McCloskey’s case, the book is really that good.

Damascus Station | David McCloskey | W. W. Norton & Co. | September 2021.

Damascus Station” is truly one of the finest entries into the modern spy thriller genre. In a field groaning with ludicrous plots, absurd characters, and laughable “espionage,” McCloskey—a former CIA analyst—has crafted a book that goes back to the roots of what makes a spy thriller great, the spying. Its plot, its pacing, its characters, and all the connective tissue that makes up the book are superb. It eschews over-the-top action in favor of a delightful attention to the tradecraft of espionage, and jettisons the one-man-army approach to solving the world’s problems in favor of a fictionalized, but one imagines accurate reflection of how the CIA operates around the world today.

His main character, Samuel Joseph, hews more to the middle of the spectrum between Jason Bourne and George Smiley, and that’s not a bad thing. He is a master of his craft, but possesses a self-awareness and self-reflection that makes him human. His absolutely verboten indiscretion of becoming romantically and physically entangled with his agent Miriam, certainly raises the stakes in the plot.

McCloskey’s character development is rich and thoroughly enjoyable. Nearly every character, and there are many, receive an attention to detail that brings them to life, even if they are secondary to the plot. The analyst Zelda, the Office of Technical Services bombmaker Paulina, the Russian Volkov, the list goes on by McCloskey manages to imbue them with personality and vividness in a few short sentences, making them feel important and life-like. My personal favorite character was Artemis Aphrodite Procter, the no-nonsense Chief of Station Damascus, who suffers no fools and supports her people in the field, even if they require a punch in the mouth.

Strong character development is not an inconsequential point—spy stories hinge on the characters, their motivations, their fears, their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. A terrible plot or mundane espionage action (and Damascus Station is the furthest from one) can be saved by vivid characters, but the same cannot be said in reverse. Servicing a dead drop is a relatively banal activity in the broader ecosystem of literary espionage (and almost certainly absolutely terrifying and exciting for a real operations officer), but throw in dynamic characters working against each other, and it becomes something vastly more interesting.

There are layers upon layers in this book, and in lesser hands these threads would turn into a soggy tiramisu, but McCloskey succeeds in keeping the layers apart, before assembling them all together in an outstanding third act. There are twists and there are turns, none of which I will spoil. If you pick up this book, you’ll find out soon enough as it’s unlikely you’ll be able to put it down. It’s unsurprising that Ignatius provided a promotional blurb as reading it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of his own spy thriller, “Agents of Innocence,” which itself is one of the finest entries in the modern spy thriller genre.  

The tradecraft on display is riveting, far more so than any shoot-out. Running a multi-hour, cross-city surveillance detection route (SDR) is likely thrilling in practice, but does not on first glance make for riveting reading. Yet, McCloskey brings the reader along through every twist and turn, offering a glimpse, albeit incredibly limited, of what it must be like to be an Operations Officer in a hostile environment.

What makes McCloskey’s book all the stronger is his attention to the details of the Syrian War and the complexities and nuances of the Assad family and its inner circle. “Damascus Station” is as much a family drama as it is a spy thriller. Miriam is a member of the ruling elite, an Alawite, and enjoyed all the privileges such a socio-economic and political position offered. Her cousin, Razan, is an activist, rejecting the life of privilege and demanding freedom for the Syrian people, a stand for which like many Syrians she pays for dearly in the opening of the book. Her extended family is embedded within the regime which plays out like a Sopranos-like drama in the background of this tightly written spy story.

Assad Or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria | Sam Dagher | Little, Brown, & Company | May 2019.

In reading “Damascus Station” I was immediately reminded of Sam Dagher’s exceptional 2019 book, “Assad or We Burn the Country”. McCloskey offers just enough about the Syrian Civil War to get the reader up to speed and to set the scene for the plot to unfold (and make the reader curious about more). Dagher’s exploration drills down into the Assad family’s inner workings, decision-making, and the lengths it would go to stay in power (which McCloskey reflects in his story).

Dagher’s book rests mainly on the account of Manaf Tlass, a Syrian army general and family friend of the Assads, who defected in 2013. Of course, Tlass has considerable self-interest to spin the narrative to his favor, so one must take his commentary with a grain of salt; there is a not insignificant undertone of his ambition to succeed Bashar or accede to the leadership of Syria in the future. That said, Dagher’s reporting is second-to-none and keeps the book grounded in on-the-ground fact, tragedy and all. Tlass grew up alongside the Assads, his father being close with Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. Tlass pulls back the curtain on the Assad family’s inner thoughts and actions, and, together with Dagher’s exceptional history, the reader better understands the dynamics of Syria. These dynamics are absolutely critical to understanding the civil war and were often lost in the coverage of atrocities, ISIS, and will or won’t America intervene.

Bashar was never meant to be president, but was thrust into the position after the death of his elder brother Bassel. While many at the time hoped Bashar, a trained ophthalmologist with a very-Western oriented wife, would open up the country, ushering in a new prosperity, reality turned out very different. Indeed, the Assad’s extended family system of governance was so entrenched, any demand for change was seen as an existential threat. Inspired by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East, young Syrians took to the street asking “why not us?” and demanded change from the Assads. Their protests were met with repression, violence, imprisonment, and abuse.

Not without precedent in Syrian history, Bashar took a page from his father’s playbook. In 1982, in response to an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad surrounded and shelled the city of Hama, killing upwards of 40,000 people. The conflict descending into Dante-esque circles of hell with the rise of ISIS, the use of chemical weapons, and the conflict turning into a proxy war for the United States and Russia (which intervened in September 2015). Joby Warrick of the Washington Post offers a masterful account of the destruction of Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons and the White House’s muddled Syria policy in his book “Red Line.”

Assad’s violence was meted out by his intelligence services, the Mukhabarat, and the Shabiha (or “ghosts”) state-sponsored militias. By barrel bomb and chemical weapon, Assad hoped to strangle the opposition, raising the level of violence to a level intolerable to those who stood in his way. Pressed between the government forces and the Islamic State, it was thought that the population would have no choice but to acquiesce to Assad’s rule. Indeed, today, the prospect of Assad leaving Damascus—once thought possible and openly demanded by President Barack Obama—is long gone.

Dagher also brings the civil war home, connecting the reader with every day average Syrians. He writes affectionally of those fighting to survive on the front line, continuing to advocate (at the time of writing) for freedom and reform, and those part of the Local Coordination Committees—organizers of and reporters on, the protests on-the-ground. The tragedy is that the reader knows, especially now, that their efforts will not prove to be successful.

The drama Dagher so profoundly writes about provides a fantastic if painful backdrop McCloskey’s “Damascus Station”, in which he deftly blends the fact and the fiction. Both books are excellent reads as the seasons change. “Damascus Station” is certainly a thrilling escape, but one grounded in a very real, real-world tragedy.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.