Review

The Spy Who Could Have Saved Syria

An espionage thriller presents an alternative to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s failed policy toward the Assad regime.

By , a former CIA senior operations officer, chief of station, and counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wave a Syrian flag.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wave a Syrian flag with Assad’s face on it during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on Sept. 9, 2013. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

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“Protect your agent. It’s all that matters,” Sam Joseph reminds himself in the midst of a perfect storm of personal and professional crises while a looming threat places thousands of innocent lives at risk.

Joseph, the protagonist of former CIA analyst David McCloskey’s exciting spy novel, Damascus Station, is vividly depicted as a real person. He must navigate his own emotions, the accurately captured and ironically rigid government administrative hoops found even in espionage, and the various evil villains hot on his trail. Indeed, not even James Bond would have been able to convince McCloskey’s caricature of a long-in-the-tooth CIA support officer to bump 007 up from economy class on a flight under 14 hours, even at the risk of the world coming to an end.

Middle East watchers will appreciate how McCloskey weaves in grains of the region’s culture and history, making the Syrian setting, rather appropriately, a character itself. McCloskey offers readers the sights, scents, tastes, and feel of Damascus—one of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited cities. The timeline itself is perhaps deliberately left unclear, since the Arab Spring’s shockwaves first hit Syria in March 2011. Ensuing violence and instability forced the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to close in February 2012, and some of the government and rebel forces’ escalating violence that framed the story intensified sometime thereafter.

“Protect your agent. It’s all that matters,” Sam Joseph reminds himself in the midst of a perfect storm of personal and professional crises while a looming threat places thousands of innocent lives at risk.

Joseph, the protagonist of former CIA analyst David McCloskey’s exciting spy novel, Damascus Station, is vividly depicted as a real person. He must navigate his own emotions, the accurately captured and ironically rigid government administrative hoops found even in espionage, and the various evil villains hot on his trail. Indeed, not even James Bond would have been able to convince McCloskey’s caricature of a long-in-the-tooth CIA support officer to bump 007 up from economy class on a flight under 14 hours, even at the risk of the world coming to an end.

Middle East watchers will appreciate how McCloskey weaves in grains of the region’s culture and history, making the Syrian setting, rather appropriately, a character itself. McCloskey offers readers the sights, scents, tastes, and feel of Damascus—one of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited cities. The timeline itself is perhaps deliberately left unclear, since the Arab Spring’s shockwaves first hit Syria in March 2011. Ensuing violence and instability forced the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to close in February 2012, and some of the government and rebel forces’ escalating violence that framed the story intensified sometime thereafter.

Damascus Station: A Novel, David McCloskey, W.W. Norton & Company, 432 pp., .95, October 2021

Damascus Station: A Novel, David McCloskey, W.W. Norton & Company, 432 pp., $27.95, October 2021.

Chronological accuracy aside, McCloskey draws well from these and other real events, such as the 1984 kidnapping, torture, and subsequent death of the CIA’s Beirut station chief William Buckley at the hands of Hezbollah, an act designed both to collect intelligence and send a message that the rules had changed. The book also alludes to the disappearance of U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice, who was kidnapped in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 13, 2012, most likely by pro-government forces.

Tice’s plight would become a political tool leveraged by the Trump administration from 2018 to 2020, which claimed to be pulling out all the stops to secure his release from presumed Syrian government custody while, in truth, the U.S. intelligence community’s prevailing sentiment was he had long since died.

The Biden administration has likewise invested in Tice. Its public posture, however, has been more focused on determining his ultimate fate rather than suggesting he might still be alive or his release is still possible.

McCloskey likewise mirrors the Feb. 12, 2008, assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyah, the infamous Hezbollah operations chief responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and Israelis, by depicting a lawful and lethal U.S. targeted killing of a “designated terrorist.” The operational details align with U.S. press accounts alleging that the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and the CIA were complicit in Mughniyah’s death, explaining how they conducted their attack by staging a precisely aimed car bomb in a residential Damascus suburb. Moreover, McCloskey offers a fair take on the exhaustive legal and policy process required to authorize and then execute a covert, ostensibly deniable lethal operation.

These sorts of operations kill not for revenge or even justice but rather in self-defense—based on the justification of credible intelligence warning of imminent attacks—and are required to assure the total absence of civilian casualties.

Yes, McCloskey reasonably injects several of his villains with the typical one-dimensional Hollywood-esque bad guy personas necessary for the rollercoaster of suspense he deftly creates. But he likewise portrays other key players in this saga—such as the protagonist and other CIA characters as well as his principal Syrian nemesis—as more genuinely complex. His characters are capable of horrific acts of violence and cruelty in their jobs or while protecting their loved ones and colleagues—but likewise come across as loving family people with personal codes, moved at times even to undertake random acts of kindness.

I, myself, have sat cross-legged on the floor breaking bread and sharing personal stories with terrorists and secret police thugs like those described in the book. They can love their spouses and kids, cry at sad stories and corny movies, and just as often possess both the charm and wit of a favorite neighbor. As such, McCloskey does justice to the humanity in all and the all-too emotional forces that drive the calculus behind seemingly detached acts of brutality with a more opaque reflection of “right and wrong.”


It’s no spoiler to note that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people is at the center of the novel. Assad, who’s likewise a character in the story, though largely in the background, is ably described. More accurate still is how Assad plays so powerfully in the lives of all Syrians, whether tethered to him and his repressive regime for their own survival, regardless of their own moral compasses, or in a fight to the death in seeking his removal.

As a work of fiction, McCloskey’s narrative presents an alternative to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s abandonment of the United States’ “red line,” which threatened military force if Assad used chemical weapons.

Although U.S. intelligence and various international organizations had already determined that Assad used chemical weapons in late 2012 and early 2013, news and the horrific images of an August 2013 sarin gas attack that killed more than a thousand people in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, brought the matter to a head.

Abandoning the United States red line opened the door for greater Russian and Iranian involvement that strengthened Assad’s hand, solidified his will, and brought years of greater suffering.I remember a rather uncomfortable and awkward August 2013 meeting with a Middle East intelligence service chief whose country was deeply, publicly, and covertly invested in supporting Obama’s call for Assad’s removal. In hindsight, I remain surprised that his goons did not toss me from his office window as I attempted to spin how the United States had, in fact, not abandoned the Syrian people and the United States’ allies.

Rather, he remained characteristically polite and civil while clearly steaming within as I relayed my official talking points on the president’s thinking regarding relying on Russia and diplomatic means as a less violent solution to address the threat of such weapons’ continued use.

The reality, as he and I both knew, was that the United States had opened the door for greater Russian and Iranian involvement that strengthened Assad’s hand, solidified his will, and brought years of greater suffering. U.S. threats were no longer credible—a paper tiger that, in fact, plotted a half-in, half-out course throughout the conflict. U.S. strategy relied on rhetoric, limited open support to the resistance, and decidedly underwhelming covert assistance to various rebel groups.

It was a program enabled by money from Arab Gulf states and Turkey’s logistical assistance to deliver arms and training to a rather corrupt, disjointed, largely external opposition, among which the United States consistently chose the least worthy or effective elements. Russia and Iran became empowered and emboldened to expand their presence and influence at the United States’ expense, decidedly altering regional dynamics and encouraging partners once willing to follow the United States’ lead in exchange for security to now determine how best to protect their interests on their own.

Whereas I remain unable to sit through an episode of Homeland or 24, I was impressed and grateful for McCloskey’s ability to integrate just enough reality.

For those hoping for a more realistic look at how the CIA spies, you won’t be disappointed. Yes, as an operational tradecraft diva who spent 34 years on the street for the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, I found a number of artificial, inaccurate, or unrealistic accounts. But whereas I remain unable to sit through an episode of Homeland or 24 and simply suspend reality for 007 films, which are just pure fun, I was impressed and grateful for McCloskey’s ability to integrate just enough reality. In fairness, the author explains his interest in protecting sources and methods as well as the CIA review process, which likewise assures as much while not revealing too much.

What McCloskey gets right—and what is more important to me than how he depicts the mechanics of executing a clandestine meeting—are the feelings. McCloskey’s case officers are passionate, driven, and, in some cases, obsessive about their mission and craft. It’s not a job but rather a life. And you don’t switch it off when you’re home, particularly in a foreign field environment, where everything you do is deliberately planned and calculated to present the persona and pattern of life required to spy effectively.

Assuming that someone, somewhere, is always watching or tracking your movements, there are no “days off.” But despite the challenges and imposition—and, yes, the failed marriages, occasional alcohol dependence, and other personal occupational hazards—there is an incredible feeling of power. You run a good surveillance detection route and disappear, but no one knows. You are singular in purpose, autonomous, on a tightrope with no rescue net from the cavalry let alone guidance through any lifeline. But you own the night, the streets, and for just the time needed to steal your adversary’s most precious secrets from under their noses, you leave no clues for them to ever know. Your agent is safe, his or her secrets are reported, and you are the conduit of knowledge that can change history.

But just like his villains, Damascus Station’s hero, like those around him, is human. And humans, even highly trained and effective case officers, make mistakes. The CIA adage of “never falling in love with your agent” is mostly a reminder to remain objective and even skeptical of your agent’s motivations and intelligence reporting so as to continually assess their veracity, access, and freedom from hostile control or deceptive intent. And an agent must be reassessed and essentially re-recruited at each and every meeting because life happens.

Case officers assume, at their peril, that an agent has not lost their job, changed their mind, or been caught, threatened, and turned since the last time they met. An agent’s double life is a lonely and scary existence. But there’s a level of detachment required of the case officer despite the appearance he or she must always display to an agent: that they’re the center of your universe and a cherished friend. McCloskey does well to make Joseph both a confident and expert spy—and therefore, a vulnerable and real human being who at the end of the day must make the right choice.

Damascus Station is a gripping, well-written page turner that is part-thriller, part-love story, part-spy tale, and part-historical fiction concerning Syria and the Arab Spring. Any one of those elements on their own makes it well worth reading; the combination makes it compelling.

Douglas London is a former CIA senior operations officer, chief of station, and counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia. He teaches at Georgetown University, is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and is author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, an intimate view into the world of espionage that depicts the CIA’s post-9/11 transformation. Twitter: @DouglasLondon5

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