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Worth Reading

  • Juan Cole: The Dilemma over Whether to Intervene in Syria
  • Daniel Pipes: Fin de Regime in Syria?
  • Wadah Khanfar: Syria Between Two Massacres … Hama's Memory Endures
  • David W. Lesch: What Could Shake Syria's Regime
  • Background

    Syria has been embroiled in a civil war for over a year -- a war which has claimed over ten thousand lives. The uprising against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011 as part of the broader Arab Spring. Among the many factors in the uprising: discontent with the authoritarian regime; high youth unemployment (around 25 percent, about average for the Middle East -- but the unemployment rate for older adults was in 2007 only 4 percent, one of the largest imbalances in the world); and the fact that the Assad regime is dominated by the Sh'ia Alawis (of which Assad himself is one), while the rest of the country is majority Sunni Muslim.

    Mass protests against the Assad regime began back in Feburary 2011, which were met by beatings and other brutalities by police. As clashes between demonstrators and the authorities intensified, the death toll began to climb. By April, the Syrian Army was being deployed against the protesters, and by the end of the month fissures erupted within the military, as some soldiers showed reluctance to fire on their own people. By July, several major Syrian cities were effectively under siege by the military, though Syria's two largest cities, Damascus (the capital) and Aleppo have been relatively quiet.

    What began as a mass protest movement has morphed into a quasi-guerrilla campaign against government forces by the Free Syrian Army, a group of deserters from the government forces as well as civilian volunteers. The Assad government dismisses the rebels as a foreign-tainted insurgency.

    How has the crisis played out overseas? U.S. relations with Syria have generally been cool for the past several decades (Syria is Iran's most important Arab ally, and Syria has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. since 1979), and American politicians have universally condemned the recent actions of the Assad regime -- however, the Obama administration began a policy of rapproachment with Syria in 2010 -- Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Assad a "reformer" as late as March 2011. The past year has seen a reversal of that policy, particularly after the U.S. ambassador to Syria was recalled for fear of his safety after he was attacked by pro-Assad mobs.

    The regime has relied on the support of Russia and China to shield itself from United Nations intervention. Both Russia and China are on the U.N. Security Council and have indicated that they will veto any resolution authorizing the use of force against Assad, and they have already vetoed a U.N. resolution calling upon Assad to relinquish power. Russia continues to be a major weapons dealer to Syria, and China has its own economic interests in the country and the region generally.

    What the Right and Left Say

    Given the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign's focus on domestic matters, differences between liberals and conservatives on Syria have remained largely in the background, and are in any event ambiguous. President Obama has gone on record calling for Assad to step down, but some Republicans -- notably John McCain -- want the United States to go further and actively arm the anti-Assad forces.

    Notably, neither the president nor his Republican opponents are calling for airstrikes.

    Even Middle East experts, generally speaking a contentious group when it comes to politics, are ambivalent about intervention in Syria. Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator, has written that "I favor a U.S. policy of inaction, of letting events transpire as they might." Liberal historian Juan Cole, despite his support for the uprising, maintains that without a U.N. resolution, which does not appear to be forthcoming, any intervention in Syria would be illegal under international law.

    Historical Background

    Like many of the countries in the region, Syria has a history both profoundly ancient -- agriculture made its first appearance in Syria nearly 12,000 years ago -- and profoundly modern -- the independent state itself dates only to 1946. To give some idea of the centrality of Syria in the vast theater of history, the region was ruled at one time or another by the Assyrians (who lent the country their name), the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Romans (under whom the province of Syria peaked in population and influence),  the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Mameluks, the Ottoman Turks, and finally the French before becoming independent. Syria was critical to the growth and expansion of early Christanity, and Damascus served for a time as the capital of the Islamic Empire.

    The modern Syrian state was born in the fires of the two world wars. After World War I, the French took control of the Mandate of Syria the auspices of the League of Nations, and the country played host to fighting between pro-German and pro-British French forces in 1940. By 1946, however, the French were forced out and an independent Syrian republic was established. A series of military coups (one of which was probably sponsored by the CIA) left the country politically unstable, and by the late 1950s Syria was caught up in the great geopolitical games of the Cold War (Syria was an early and close ally of the Soviet Union in the Middle East) and pan-Arab nationalism (the country briefly unified with Gamal Nasser's Egypt as the United Arab Republic).

    In 1963, the Ba'ath Party, which mixed Arab nationalism and socialism in its ideological program, came to power in a coup. Ba'athism has played an important, if somewhat misunderstood, role in the Arab world since the 1960s -- the Ba'ath party came to power in Iraq in 1968 and eventually spawned Saddam Hussein's regime. But it's important to remember that the Ba'athist party split into pro-Syrian and pro-Iraqi factions in 1966, and that Syria even went so far as to support the U.S.-led coalition in the First Gulf War. What both Iraqi and Syrian Ba'athists shared, however, was an authoritarian bent that increasingly relied upon the military as a power base. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, father of current president Bashar al-Assad became president in a bloodless military coup.

    Assad's was the last of the successful military coups, but his regime has faced popular uprisings and insurgencies before, particularly from Muslim extremists. In February 1982, Assad leveled the city of Hama (also a hotbed of discontent in the current uprising), killing anywhere between 17,000 and 40,000 people.

    Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000 and his subsequent succession by his son sparked hopes in the West that the regime would relax its vise-like grip on the politics of the country and, perhaps, back away from the anti-American and anti-Israeli nature of its foreign policy (Syria was a major participant in the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars). Bashar al-Assad, after all, speaks French and English, was educated in London, has a British-born and educated investment-banker wife (who controversially appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine, but whom as subsequently been described as a Syrian Imelda Marcos") -- the very portrait of the modern transnational class of businesspersons and technocrats. This obviously hasn't prevented Assad from ordering a bloody and brutal crackdown against initially peaceful protesters in 2011.

    Discussion Topics

  • Should the U.S. and its allies aid the anti-government forces? Why or why not?
  • Why are Russia and China supporting the Syrian government
  • Why was Bashar al-Assad expected to be a liberalizer?