Security Studies Program Seminar
How to Understand Syrian Politics: One Historian's View
Dr. Philip Khoury, Professor of History, MIT
September 29, 2004
Many key ideas and trends in modern Middle East originated in
- Birth place of Arab nationalism
- First state to declare independence from colonialism
- First coup d'etat
- First political union with another Arab country
- Birthplace of Ba'ath party
- More wars against Israel
- Longest-serving president
Pull of Arabism faced competition from other forces: degree of contact with
west, rural/urban/Bedouin split, religious minorities, coastal vs. interior
regions. All of these things have made it difficult to establish a national
World War 2 set in motion most of the significant transformations in Syria's
20th century history
- Declaration of independence
- Agrarian, industrial capitalism emerged, along with modern education
- Ideology of Arab nationalism emerged
- 1960s: political and social revolutions occurred
- Rise of army as a major institution
Hafaz al Asad
- Hafaz al Asad emerged in 1970 and made a major effort to impose common political
identity; to extend influence over neighbors; and to regain Golan Heights.
- How did he get control of the country? Elites had long shunned careers in
the army; therefore they had no strong base there at the time of independence.
This opened opportunities for minorities like him. His group saw military
as one avenue of social advancement for rural people. Over time, he played
on Sunni divisions, played out internal battles, and Hafaz al Asad eventually
How much of Syrian policy was him, and how much connected to underlying institutions?
- Asad wasn't a charismatic leader; he was ruthless and developed cult of
- No Arab leader was more successful in imposing a stable political regime;
state institutions were extensions of his power.
- But he was also a consensus builder. Gave the urban merchants and Muslim
classes a stake in his regime. He turned the Ba'ath party into a mass party
and made it an instrument for social control and mobilization.
- Ruthlessly mowed down opposition, eliminating serious challenges and Arab
militarism in the country.
- Oversaw expansion of the welfare state.
- Israel's occupation of Syrian territory also gave Asad more room to assert
- Tried to prevent Soviet infiltration of his regime, like Nasser.
- Paid lip service to pan-Arabism but really focused more on Syrian nationalism.
- He and Arafat did not like each other.
- After 1991 Gulf War, he entered into negotiations with Israelis over Golan
Heights, which had been lost in 1967 when Asad was defense minister.
- Decision to turn Lebanon into protectorate in 1976: wanted to prevent sectarian
warfare from spilling over into Syria; had to be certain Lebanon maintained
unified front in any negotiations with Israel, especially after 1979; and
for socialist Syria's economy to grow, it needed a free trade zone. There
were also many Syrians working in Lebanon and sending money back home.
As powerful as he was, there were limits on Asad's power
- End of Soviet backing after end of Cold War, expanding U.S. presence
- Israeli's unquestioned military superiority
- Relative isolation from forces of globalization
- Yet he still managed to maneuver incredibly well in the region and the world
Bashar al Asad
- Father died in June 2000, not a big surprise. His successor is his second
son, Bashar al Asad, remarkably smooth transition. The first son, the chosen
successor, died in 1994 in car accident.
- There were no other serious contenders for the presidency, from within or
outside the family. Everyone preferred continued stability. "60 years
of tyranny is better than one hour of civil strife." Of course, others
did reject Bashar.
- Who is Bashar? Proponent of Internet, speaks English, married to British-born
modern woman who worked for J.P. Morganactive first lady and public
figure in her own right.
- Bashar has promoted ideas of political and economic reforms, specifically
forums on democratic ideas. Even encouraged surfacing of some dissident views.
At first these voices were tolerated and they gave Bashar more visibility.
But within a year there was a crackdown.
Does Bashar remain beholden to the old guard, or has he broken free? He hasn't
been able to build up his own governing team yet. The old guard is still the
one that's in charge, although he is making some changes. He knows that Syria's
economy needs to be modernized, and he wants to temper the authoritarianism
that characterized his father's rule.
Possible sources of opposition
- Asad family: Bashar's uncles have to be watched closely.
- Islamist pressures. Syria is becoming more socially conservative, especially
in education and legal systems. But this is a secular regime.
- Weak economy: it has been in bad shape for a long time, and social and economic
unrest is always possible. Invasion of Iraq has hurt Syria. Little economic
growth and foreign investment. Hence focus on reform of bureaucratic and Byzantine
- Potential water conflicts with Turkey.
- Opposition from Lebanon due to Bashar's intervention there to keep the same
pro-Syrian leader in power. He should have simply worked to ensure that another
pro-Syrian leader would succeed him.
- General changes in the balance of power in the Middle East. Already having
problems because of support for and alignment with Iran.
Relationship with the United States
- Washington began to lose its tolerance for Syria shortly before Asad's death.
- There had been hope he would agree to peace in exchange for return of Golan
- Relationship further deteriorated after 9/11: even though Syria provided
some intelligence on al Qaeda, Syria refused to provide information about
Hezbollah. Bashar needs Hezbollah to keep a presence in Syria and prevent
formation of separate Lebanese peace with Israel.
- War in Iraq has worsened the relationship. Talk of regime change in Syria
as well. As pressures mounted, he closed Syrian border with Iraq, and got
Palestinian groups to reduce activities, and asked Iraqi officials to leave
Damascus. He wanted to ensure that he could not be tied to these types of
activities. The threat of regime change seemed to work. But it soon became
clear that regime change was beyond what U.S. could do, given situation in
Iraq. But U.S. has not reduced pressure. In 2003, Congress passed sanctions
on Syria due to support of terrorism, WMD development, and other actions;
there is now a ban on all trade except food and medicine, no flights between
the two countries.
- Syria's actions in Lebanon have also earned ire from France.
- Imperatives of domestic politics make Syria's international relationships
more difficult. Very difficult line to walk.
What does Bashar want?
- Wants Syria to have a place in the new order U.S. has imposed in Middle
Problem is that Syria feels encircled by Turkey-Israel alliance, U.S. presence
- Either needs to distance regime from terrorist organizations, especially
Hezbollah, or demonstrate that Hezbollah is becoming a legitimate part of
establishment and that he is putting terrorism behind him. And this should
lead to Golan agreement with Israel. If there were peace with Israel, Lebanon
would be less necessary for security reasons. However, economic value would
still be very high. Israel and U.S. might continue to tolerate this presence
as a trade off for Syrian-Israel peace. Syria knows how to keep the lid on
this country. This may be in Israel's interest. But Sharon doesn't see things
- These realities won't change too much because of the U.S. election, either
- In absence of regime change, it is better to bring Syria in rather than
to continue to keep it isolated. Its fingers are in everything, and we need
to engage it creatively.
Rapporteur: Caitlan Talmadge
return to seminar summaries, Fall 2004