This book is quite short, which is just as well because it is written in a style which seems pedantic, making me think the author was steeped in Syrian politics to a degree that he did not wish or perhaps even feel in his heart to cause any offence to any parties. He works hard not to take sides.
Short it may be, but the author has read extensively documentation in several languages including many lengthy sets of memoirs in Arabic. The final chapter summarizes his views of some of these memoirs, and is well worth reading.
This book focuses mainly on the rise to power of Hafiz al Asad (Assad senior) and suggests that through the sixties and seventies the power of the Assad dynasty (my word not his) was established at times with great brutality, but Van Dam seems to come to the same conclusion reached by Patrick Seale in his excellent biography of Assad, that if Assad wanted to stay in power he had no choice.
The tale of this book is the rivalry between tribal and religious groups, most especially the Sunni majority and Alawi, Druze and Christian minorities.
Interestingly, when the French were in power in the first half of the twentieth century the Sunni elite disdained military careers, they did not want to be French lackeys. Others, like the Alawis from Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast north of Lebanon, were relatively uneducated and from rural areas, and had no choice. So when the French left their military strength was an advantage, and eventually they formed a ruling elite.
What Van Dam says, however, was that sectarian politics was to some extent forced on them because the different sociological, religious and tribal groups had different interests, that was just the way it went.
This book says very little, except in passing about Syria's relations with Israel, Egypt, the US. If you want to know about all that read Seale's book first.