New Spy Thriller Has a Novel Twist on Syria Ops

Damascus Station, by ex-CIA man David McCloskey, is an impressive debut


Damascus Station, David McCloskey’s riveting debut spy thriller, is a swift dive into the lethal, nebulous world of CIA operations in the Middle East. And while its focus on sources and methods feels authentic and close to the moment, the story shines by delving into the inner workings and motivations of Syrian society.

As the story opens, Sam, an undercover CIA officer, has evaded capture at a safe house in Damascus, but his partner, Val, is tracked down and seized by Syrian agents. When she resists breaking under torture, Val is murdered on direct orders by Rustum Hassan, the sadist head of the Syrian Republican Guard. CIA officials are shocked that the Syrians would commit such a brazen act: Even among ruthless rival spy services, there exists a code of conduct generally forbidding the murder of rival operatives. 

But the Syrians see themselves as fighting for survival; it takes Val’s death to force the realization among the Americans that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is willing to break the unspoken rules of the game.

The bloody contest is now engaged: Sam feels responsible and wants to avenge Val’s  death. His multi-pronged mission is to track down and identify her killers, establish new sources inside the Syrian government and seek out information about Assad’s latest plan to deploy weapons of mass destruction.

Sam’s key targets are Hassan, who ordered Val’s killing on direct orders from Assad—and his brother General Ali Hassan, head of the Mukhabarat state security service. 

Sam pursues the  brothers with surveillance assistance and monitoring from CIA headquarters, along with an extensive human network inside Syria. He also identifies a potential insider who can help—Mariam, whose family is tied in with the regime but who also has reason to harbor hatred for the system. Were she to be discovered as an opponent of the regime, Mariam and everyone around her would face certain death. 

It should be no surprise that the story is replete with realistic twists and turns: dead drops and bombs, spies in the sky and triple agents—the author has been there. McCloskey is a former CIA analyst and knows the turf he describes. One can almost smell the cardamom and jasmine in the stalls of the souk in the old city of Damascus and hear the prayers emanating from the Umayyad Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

The tension builds as we meet a cross-section of Syrian society, the impoverished, the falsely accused, the torturers themselves who pull out fingernails, then go home from work to play with their children.

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Damascus Station is a breathless ride; the best laid plans sometimes come tumbling down and brinkmanship can lead to miscalculations on both sides. It is easy to identify good and evil here, but McCloskey also mines the nuances of people on both sides fighting to survive. Therein, perhaps, lies the high praise delivered by the likes of retired Gen. David Petraeus, who served as CIA director for a time, and who gushes in a pre-publication blurb that Damascus Station “is the best spy novel I have ever read.” 

Overly kind, says McCloskey, who describes himself as a student of some of the stars of the genre—John LeCarre, David Ignatius and, more recently, Jason Matthews, the author of Red Sparrow, who died in April and who was also a former CIA officer. 

McCloskey says that the specifics of the story—time, place,and major characters—are purely fictional, including an instance of Sam engaging in a martial arts training session with his undercover operative and love interest, both being trained by an Israeli instructor. 

Falling in love with your agent—literally, in this case—is a cardinal sin in the espionage trade. But Sam cannot help himself, especially after she pummels him at the dojo.

“That is completely the figment of my imagination,” McCloskey said in an interview with SpyTalk. “We absolutely do provide pretty basic hand-to-hand combat training to case officers, far less than anyone would probably believe, or certainly what Hollywood would portray. But I think the idea of having a case officer doing this kind of felt reasonable to me from a recruitment standpoint, that you're trying to develop somebody and do something with them. You learn about them. It's kind of intimate.”

The story tracks complex, daylong SDR’s (surveillance detection routes to detect and lose the regime’s counterspies),innovative dead drops, a wealth of safehouses and prepositioned agents,  heat-absorbing diplomatic pouches that hide the importation of electronic and other gear, and so on. But if U.S. intelligence agencies are using new kinds of mini-drones or other exotic electronic gear, as has been reported, we don’t see them here.

As a result, he had an easy time when CIA censors reviewed his work.  “I did my own kind of filtering…I might have had one hundred fifty footnotes in there to show where stuff had already been through the PRB or where it just existed in the public domain, outside of WikiLeaks and stuff—which doesn't really count when you're trying to source things with them. So as a result, you know, they didn't touch much, to be honest.”

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More refreshing to Damascus Station is McCloskey’s interest in portraying the humanity of both sides, the foibles of the CIA operatives and the personal struggles of the antagonists. Here, the story hearkens back to a key teaching of The Art of War: Know thy enemy. Understand the motivation of those out to kill you and you may find a solution to thwarting them. Meanwhile, no one is safe, no one is free of blame. Sure, the Syrian antagonists are killers, but in McCloskey’s hands, we find insight into the motivation of every individual. It’s the kind of treatment that made the Israeli counterterrorism drama Fauda a breakout global TV  hit. 

“I'm trying to deal with the tension between moral clarity and moral ambiguity,” McCloskey said. “There are good guys and bad guys in the book for sure, but they're not, hopefully, paper-thin cartoonish villains, or superheroes or good guys that can kind of do no wrong.”

The story takes place in the early 2010s, while the United States was engaged and supporting Assad’s opponents in the Syrian civil war. The Syrian president does appear in the story as an unattractive walk-on character, the only real political figure in the book. McCloskey goes deeper on the supporting cast around the dictator. There are husbands and wives, family members who must be protected, human foibles even among the most unyielding enemies.

 “I think even in a place like Syria where, you know, the regime is horrendous and what it's perpetrated over the past 10 years is hellish and despicable,” McCloskey said, “...I wanted to capture what would it feel like to be in a position where you're sort of born into this system, and you still have choices and you have some agency. They are making decisions we wouldn't agree with, but what's going on there? And so how do you deal with a situation where you're trying to protect yourself and your family?”

Sam and his CIA team use that human factor to find weaknesses among their adversaries and to exploit those weaknesses. In Damascus Station, victory is never assured and there is more than one deadly encounter before it’s all over.  

But it’s not the last we’re going to hear from McCloskey (and maybe Sam, too). The erstwhile CIA man has outlines for two other Syria books, and hints at a third that focuses on Russia. 

“What would really happen if we got serious about sticking it to Vladimir Putin?” McCloskey wonders. “And what might that look like if the CIA were unleashed to do that?”  Stay tuned.