Versatile writer and authority on Syria

Patrick Seale: May 7th, 1930 - April 11th, 2014

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 00:20

Patrick Seale who has died in London at the age of 83 was the world’s most distinguished expert on Syria. He had close connections with Ireland and Syria. Born in Belfast, Seale and his sister Dorothea (the 1960s dress designer Thea Porter) spent their early years in Damascus.

Their father was the distinguished scholar and theologian Morris Seale who graduated from Queen’s University of Belfast, focused on commonality in Christian and Muslim traditions, and served on an Irish Presbyterian mission in the Syrian capital before moving to Beirut.

Educated at Balliol College, Oxford, the younger Seale did post-graduate research at St Antony’s College where he focused on Middle Eastern history and wrote his first book for which he was awarded a D.Litt. This book, The Struggle for Syria , was a seminal work published in 1965 as the country, caught up in regional power play, was in political turmoil and experiencing coup after coup.


Reputable journalist
Seale divided his time between journalism and authorship. He worked for six years with Reuters, focusing on finance, and for 12 with the Observer .

From his base in an elegant seafront flat in Beirut, he covered the Middle East, Africa and India and kept a weather eye out for a ripping story to tell between the covers of books. He not only grasped the issues of the day but also tackled a wide range of topics and could, when time was short, produce a readable book to order.

His second book, French Revolution 1968 , was just such a work. Published that year, it covered the student protests and occupations of universities and workers’ strikes that brought De Gaulle’s France to a halt.

The third book, Philby, the Long Road to Moscow , traced the career of Kim Philby, Russia’s master mole in the British intelligence service, from his communist days at Cambridge University until he disappeared from Beirut in early 1963.

Seale’s magnum opus was Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East , a massive tome, issued in 1988, describing the rise of Hafez al-Assad, a poor Alawite villager from the mountains of Latakia, to the presidency of Syria and his efforts to secure for Damascus a leading role in the region’s turbulent politics. This book transformed Seale into the chief reference on the opaque Syrian ruler and his enduring regime.

Informed critique
During the current tragic Syrian civil conflict, Seale commented on and wrote prolifically on events as they unfolded. He refused to become caught up in the media’s romance with the rebels seeking to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s opthalmologist son, and looked at the situation clearly, painfully.

Writing in March 2012, Seale criticised western and Arab supporters of the uprising who believe the government can be overthrown militarily without destroying the country. It is all too clear that it cannot.

He blamed the government for failing to address the needs of the semi-educated, unemployed urban and impoverished rural “foot soldiers” engaged in the conflict.

The government’s “urgent priority should have been to launch major programmes to help these two categories of victims”.

Instead, the focus was on tourism, the rehabilitation of Islamic Damascus and Aleppo, and fostering the internet.

Seale’s other books were The Hilton Assignment (1973) on the aborted plan by US- and UK-backed mercenaries to restore to power Libya’s Senussi dynasty overthrown by Muammar Gadafy in a bloodless coup in 1969, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire (1992), about the world’s infamous terrorist of the 1970s-80s, and The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (2010), which covers the turbulent first half of the 20th century through the career of independent Lebanon’s first prime minister who was assassinated in 1951. His books, all readable and topical, are a grand legacy.

The versatile Seale also worked as a literary agent, gallery owner and, in recent years, a syndicated columnist, writing until he fell victim to cancer.

He is survived by his second wife, Rana Kabbani, writer, activist and broadcaster, and daughter of former Syrian ambassador to the US; and his children, Orlando, adopted daughter Delilah Jeary, Alexander and Yasmine.