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Inheriting Syria

Bashar's Trial By Fire

by Flynt Leverett

Hardcover, 286 pages, Brookings Inst Pr, List Price: $29.95 |


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Bashar's Trial By Fire
Flynt Leverett

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Book Summary

"A detailed analytic portrait of Syria under the Asad dynasty, offering a new strategy for achieving American foreign policy and security objectives in the Middle East, largely independent of the Arab-Israeli peace process"—Provided by publisher.

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Inheriting Syria

Bashar's Trial by Fire

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2005Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-5204-0

Chapter One

The Syrian Paradox

Little about Syria's natural endowments would lead an analyst to predict that it would have such a central role in Middle Eastern affairs. By most indicators of strategic importance-including size, internal cohesiveness, and wealth-Syria would seem destined to be no more than a minor player, relatively easy for greater powers inside and outside the region to marginalize and ignore.

Despite these apparent manifestations of insignificance, vulnerability, and weakness, Syria has long been an important consideration in U.S. foreign policy toward the greater Middle East. Understanding this paradox is essential to understanding the challenges that Syria poses for U.S. policymakers. To that end, this chapter offers an overview of Syria's strategic place in the greater Middle East as well as an overview of the principal analytic questions surrounding Bashar al-Asad's presidency.

Apparent Weakness

Syria today has a population of about 18 million, placing it only in the middle third of Arab League states in terms of size. More than most Arab states, Syria's population is a "fragile mosaic" of ethnic and sectarian communities. 2 Arguably, among Arab states, only Iraq and Lebanon present comparable arrays of distinct communities.

Ninety percent of Syria's population is Arab in ethnicity; another roughly 9 percent is Kurdish, with Armenians, Circassians, and Turkomans filling out the mix. Syria's Arab majority, however, is riven with sectarian cleavages that diminish its coherence as a definer of individual identities. Sunni Muslims are 74 percent of Syria's overall population, but Kurds represent probably 8 percent of that figure, reducing the core Sunni Arab majority to roughly two-thirds of the populace. Another 16 percent of the population, while Arab in ethnicity, consists of various offshoots of Shi'a Islam-Alawis, Druze, and Isma'ilis. (This figure almost certainly includes a few tens of thousands of Twelver Shi'a who are not captured as a distinct community in official Syrian demographic data.) The Alawis are by far the largest community in the category of non-Sunni Muslims; demographers usually estimate Syria's Alawi community at 11-12 percent of the overall population. Christians, of various Orthodox and Uniate traditions and the Latin Rite, along with a smattering of Protestants, make up another 10 percent of the population. Syria's small but historic Jewish community has all but disappeared as a result of emigration in the early 1990s. (For maps of ethnic and religious demography, see p. 3.)

These ethnic and sectarian cleavages have for centuries been the source of considerable social tension in Syria. Even today, there are palpable, historically grounded antagonisms between the Sunni Arab majority and non-Sunni communities. Through much of the twentieth century, these antagonisms were reinforced by the traditional economic dominance of Sunnis in Syria's major cities. They have been reinforced as well by Sunni perceptions of non-Sunni Muslims as heretical and of Christians as willing collaborators with non-Muslims seeking to rule Syria.

In such a climate of ethnic and sectarian antagonism, it was virtually impossible for the entity that emerged as the modern nation-state of Syria in 1946 to integrate its society successfully or forge a cohesive political community. Of course, the difficulties of forging a coherent state structure and national identity in a culturally pluralist society are not unique to Syria; such problems have been felt in other places in the Arab world and, indeed, throughout the postcolonial third world. But these pressures have been undeniably acute in Syria.

To be sure, what many Syrians considered the lack of legitimacy of their country's territorial parameters exacerbated the problem of forging a state structure and a national identity. Most politically aware Syrians viewed their state's territory as having been truncated through Western imperialist intervention. This sense of deprivation went beyond frustration over the creation of the state of Israel in 1947. Politically conscious Syrians shared a historically grounded perception, rooted in the experience of the Arab revolt of 1916-20, that a single state should have been created in historic Syria-bilad al-Sham (literally, the northern region, in Arabic)-joining what are today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza in one sovereign entity.

The gap between the proposition that the Levant should be a single political unit (the notion of suriya al-kubra, or Greater Syria) and the far more modest territorial reality of postindependence Syria increased the difficulties in forging a stable state structure or overarching national identity within a fractured society. Of course, difficulties in forging such structures and identities in polities whose borders are incongruent with their social structure and political orientation have also been common experiences among postcolonial nations in other regions of the third world. But this problem was intensified for emerging polities in the Arab world by the apparent contradictions between the existence of individual nation-states, on the one hand, and deep attachments to a common Arab-Islamic culture and a pan-Arab political vision, on the other. And, in the case of Syria, the task was further complicated by the addition of a more specific pan-Syrian political construct.

Since Syria achieved its independence as a modern nation-state in 1946, this accumulated historical baggage has made it a challenging place to govern, always to some degree at apparent risk of coming apart as a society. The pull of supranational identities, whether Arab or Muslim, and subnational identities, either to minority sects or non-Arab ethnicity, has complicated the consolidation of a stable state structure or a genuinely national Syrian identity. For the first quarter-century of its independence, these internal difficulties helped to keep Syria weak and politically unstable, making it vulnerable to manipulation by outside actors. Today, nearly sixty years after independence, the traditional tensions within Syrian society still lie not far below the surface of Syrian politics.

Islamic revivalism among Sunni Muslims, while clearly a regionwide phenomenon during the last three decades or so, has had special resonance in countries like Syria, with a Sunni majority but also significant non-Sunni and non-Muslim communities. Historically, the main exponent of politically oriented Islamism among Syria's Sunnis has been the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a salafi movement self-consciously modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Brotherhood has a long history in Syria, originating before independence, and made a forceful play for political power in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although the Brotherhood as an organization has been suppressed in Syria for more than two decades, the strength and persistence of Islamic revivalism among a significant segment of Syria's Sunnis continues to reinforce the country's sectarian cleavages and adds another layer of complexity to the maintenance of political stability by secular (and non-Sunni) rulers.

Syria's problematic internal political environment is matched by an undistinguished economy. After more than five decades of effort at economic development, Syria remains comparatively unprepossessing in its economic performance. Its gross domestic product per capita is $3,300 a year, less than that of the most important non-oil-producing economies in the region, including Egypt ($4,000), Jordan ($4,300), Morocco ($4,000), and Tunisia ($6,900), and nowhere near that of the major oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf. More than a quarter of the labor force still works in the agricultural sector, which is focused on cultivation of cereals, cotton, fruits, and vegetables. Almost 30 percent of the labor force works in industry, but Syria's industrial sectors have long been either state-owned (the model for heavy industries) or heavily protected and subsidized by the state (the tendency for light industries, active predominantly in food processing and textile production). For the most part, these industrial enterprises are not internationally competitive. Syria has failed to develop substantial nonagricultural exports, and its agricultural exports do not earn sizable amounts of foreign exchange.

Syria's most important natural resources are deposits of oil and gas, but its proven reserves of both make it at best a second- or third-tier energy producer for international markets. Syria earns at least 50 percent of its trade revenues from crude oil exports; without this windfall, Syria's overall economic performance would be far less positive. More ominously, without development of new sources, Syria's current proven reserves of oil are projected to run out within a decade, prospectively setting the stage, barring compensating changes, for a precipitous deterioration in the country's economic situation.

Challenges for U.S. Policy

These apparent manifestations of weakness notwithstanding, Syria has long been an essential consideration in U.S. foreign policy toward the greater Middle East. Syria's centrality to the U.S. agenda in the region stems in part from its strategic location-at the heart of the Levant, in the heart of the Middle East as a whole. But Syria's regional status also stems from the ability of the regime established by Hafiz al-Asad in 1970 to consolidate a sufficiently stable domestic platform from which to assert Syrian interests on the regional stage. As he tenaciously worked to make Syria a real player in regional affairs, Asad frequently challenged and almost always complicated the efforts of U.S. policymakers dealing with the Middle East. Since Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father, in July 2000, these challenges have continued into the post-September 11 environment.

The Asad regime's inclination to challenge U.S. Middle East policy has not stemmed primarily from the personal obstreperousness of Syrian leaders, but from a particular assessment of what defending Syrian interests required in the face of the U.S. posture toward the region. The United States is, of course, the chief external backer of the state of Israel-from a Syrian perspective, an expansive power seeking regional hegemony. U.S. military and political support has been critical to allowing Israel to expand its territorial holdings and occupy these lands in defiance of what Syrian leaders frequently describe as "international legitimacy." From a Syrian vantage point, U.S. policy in the Middle East for much of the last thirty-five years has aimed principally at ensuring Israel's ability to consolidate and maintain its hegemonic position in the region.

Given this interpretation of the underlying rationale for America's Middle East policy, the Asad regime has long been concerned to forestall a worst-case scenario in which Syria would be encircled by regimes hostile to its interests, allied to the United States, and docile toward Israel (that is, a Lebanon that has made a separate peace with Israel, a pro-Western Turkey cooperating strategically with the Jewish state, an Iraq with a regime supported by and supportive of the United States, a Jordan ruled by pro-American Hashemites who have sold out the Palestinian cause and forged security ties to Israel, and a rump Palestinian entity). Under these conditions, Syria would be marginalized in regional affairs, with other states free to ignore or undermine its interests. The Asad regime's efforts to forestall such a scenario have frequently brought it into conflict with U.S. efforts to promote stability in the Middle East, whether in the Arab-Israeli arena or the region as a whole.

Syria and Regional Stability

Syria has long been a focus for U.S. efforts to stabilize the Arab-Israeli arena. Syria is a leading frontline state, and the Arab-Israeli diplomatic record contains important acknowledgments that a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world cannot be achieved without the conclusion of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. More recently, the Arab League's 2002 peace initiative made clear that a settlement between Israel and Syria is a predicate condition for peace between Israel and the Arab world as a whole.

U.S. policy toward Syria in the Arab-Israeli context has fluctuated between efforts to facilitate Israeli-Syrian agreements and attempts to isolate and pressure Damascus to change its terms and tactics for achieving a peaceful settlement. The 1974 Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement brokered by Henry Kissinger marked the beginning of serious U.S. involvement in Israeli-Syrian diplomacy. Jimmy Carter, who came to office eager to pursue a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, certainly recognized Syria's centrality to that project; in the face of Egyptian and Israeli pressure, however, Carter ultimately gave up on the quest for comprehensive peace, pursuing instead a separate Egyptian-Israeli settlement. During the Reagan administration, when Syria's isolation became an important objective of U.S. Middle East policy, the United States pursued a "Lebanon First" option for Arab-Israeli peacemaking as well as a "Jordanian option" with regard to the Palestinian question; neither course proved productive. The administration of George H.W. Bush returned to the goal of a comprehensive peace, with a concomitant refocusing of diplomatic effort on Syria, by convening the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. President Bill Clinton picked up on his predecessor's efforts and worked until his last year in office to broker an Israeli-Syrian settlement. The administration of George W. Bush, by contrast, has declined to engage on the Syrian track, preferring to press Damascus in the context of the war on terror. In the end, no administration, Democratic or Republican, has been able to escape the ineluctable logic of Kissinger's observation that the Arabs cannot make war without Egypt and cannot make peace without Syria.

More generally, Syria has been, and almost certainly will continue to be, an unavoidable point of reference for U.S. efforts to forge a regional order that is both more stable and more favorably disposed to the interests of the United States and its allies. Syria has long been considered a critical "swing state" in the regional balance. For the first two and a half decades after World War II, Syria was a constant point of struggle between and among Arab republics and their conservative monarchical rivals in an ongoing contest for regional influence. After 1970, when Hafiz al-Asad came to power, Syria became a considerable player in its own right in this contest.