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As Bush escalates the pressure...
What's next in Syria?

March 18, 2005 | Page 5

LEE SUSTAR looks at the background to Bush's threats against Syria.

SYRIA'S MANEUVERS to survive pressure from the U.S. highlight how the regime has survived repeated Middle East crises in the past--and how Washington has alternately cast Syria as enemy or ally, depending on the strategy of the day.

The Syrian ruling party is a product of the same Arab nationalist Baathist movement that came to power in neighboring Iraq in the 1960s. Forged during the struggle against the French and British colonial "mandates" in the region after the First World War, Baathism looked to Arab unity to sweep away artificial states created by the imperial powers.

For example, the French created the state of Lebanon as a coastal enclave to the west, hiving it off from the Syrian region with which it had been historically integrated. Similarly, the British ruled Jordan to the south, much of which had been tied to Syria under the old Ottoman Turkish Empire--as well as Palestine.

Thus, from the moment the French colonists were ousted and an independent Syria created in 1946, Syria's viability as a state was in question, particularly after the creation of Israel through warfare in1948. While it contained rich farmland, Syria was not economically developed and had limited access to Lebanon's trade and agricultural produce. The 1956 Suez War that pitted Britain, France and Israel against Egypt increased the pressure on an unstable Syrian government.

Baathist politicians and the Syrian military looked to the nationalist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for support, forging a "United Arab Republic" between the two countries in 1958. But this fell apart within three years. Another attempt at pan-Arab unity with Egypt was made following Baath Party coups in both Iraq and Syria in 1963, but it, too, fizzled.

Israel's victory in its 1967 war with Arab countries led to the Israeli occupation of Syria's Golan Heights, which produced a crisis in Syria's ruling Baath party. Hafez al-Assad, then Syria's defense minister, headed a faction of more pragmatic leaders based in the military. He took power in coup in November 1970.

The military and the ruling Baath party structure soon became a means for members of Assad's Alawite religious sect--an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose largely poor followers had been long oppressed-- to consolidate control. Assad used police-state methods to eliminate rivals. He suppressed a Sunni Islamist revolt in 1982, in which the armed forces slaughtered 12,000 people in three days in the city of Hama.

But although Assad continued to use Baathist nationalist rhetoric, he was far more pragmatic towards Israel than his predecessors. He accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which called for a negotiated solution with Israel following Israel's withdrawal into "secure borders"--which meant implicitly accepting Israel's occupation of Palestinian land until a general Middle East peace had been achieved.

Israel's refusal to withdraw from the Golan Heights or Israeli-occupied Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula, however, led to another war--and another Arab military defeat--in 1973.

The Lebanese civil war in 1976 led to Syrian intervention on the side of the dominant Maronite Christian majority against the Sunni and Shiite Muslims and their Palestinian allies; Assad had longstanding personal ties with the politically powerful Gemayel family.

The twists and turns of the civil war saw Syria switch sides more than once, and the Syrian army withdrew from Beirut in 1982 to avoid a direct confrontation with the invading Israeli army. Within months, U.S. and European "peacekeepers" were driven out by Lebanese fighters, and Israel soon retreated to its "security zone" in South Lebanon. The U.S. and Israel then looked to Assad to bring stability to Lebanon, as did the contending communal political groupings within Lebanon itself. "In the absence of any practical alternative, Syria became the natural choice of many Lebanese, as well as of external players such as the United States," writes the Israeli author Eyal Zisser. "[Syria] had the strength, the determination and especially the military capability to do the job."

Dominance in Lebanon was crucial for the Syrian regime following the 1978 Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt, which led to Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, but left Israel in control of the strategic Golan Heights.

Assad's search for new allies led him to back Iran in its war against Iraq, and forge closer ties with the former USSR--which made Syria its top recipient of military aid by 1986. Syria also sponsored leftist factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization to counter Yassir Arafat's moves toward accommodating Israel. This turn led Syria to forge ties with Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite Islam party in Lebanon.

The collapse of the USSR in 1991, however, compelled Assad to sign up with the U.S. coalition against Iraq in the run-up to the first Gulf War. Assad was rewarded with billions of dollars in aid from the Gulf States, the U.S. blessing of Damascus' dominance of Lebanon and a favorable trade deal with the European Union.

Rafiq Hariri, a Lebanese businessman who had become a billionaire as a contractor for the Saudi royal family, personified Syria's post-Gulf War reconciliation with the conservative Arab regimes, becoming prime minister of Lebanon.

Although Assad was cut out of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord in 1993, he came close in the mid-1990s to formally backing the deal and recognizing Israel, in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The election of the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanhayu in 1998 torpedoed the proposal. Israeli intransigence toward the Palestinians, the Al-Aqsa Intifada of September 2000 and Assad's death that same year derailed further negotiations.

Since taking power in 2000, Assad's son, Bashar, has tried to open the state-dominated Syrian economy to market reforms, while preserving the police-state apparatus that guarantees the rule of his regionally based Alawite ruling group. An initial political thaw that involved the release of political prisoners proved limited, with critics of the regime soon facing censorship and jailing.

The U.S. war drive against Iraq under George Bush Jr. forced Bashar Assad to walk a tightrope. The weakened Iraq was no longer seen as a rival, and Syria had reopened an important oil pipeline from Iraq and renewed economic ties. So Syria opposed the U.S. war--but voted for the UN resolution calling on Iraq to allow weapons inspections. After the U.S. victory, Syria also voted for the UN resolution recognizing the U.S. as an occupying power.

This wasn't good enough for Washington--which sees Syria, as one observer put it, as "low-hanging fruit" in its drive to "remake" the Middle East.

The Syrian economy is weak. With a population of just 20 million, an unemployment rate of 20 percent, and per capita Gross Domestic Product of only $1,100 per year--down from $1,700 in 1981--Syria is highly vulnerable to economic sanctions imposed by the US. Oil revenue, while important, can't pick up the slack.

By trying to oust Syria from Lebanon--and possibly introducing "peacekeeping" troops--Washington aims to further pressure Damascus, which is already squeezed between U.S. forces in Iraq and Israeli forces in Golan. The U.S. aim isn't to "democratize" Syria, but to decisively break its regional influence--leaving in place a weak regime that would recognize Israel and be subservient to U.S. interests.

The mass pro-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon organized by Hezbollah have complicated matters for the U.S.--and Israel, Washington's regional enforcer. But if the Washington-approved "Cedar Revolution" doesn't accomplish U.S. aims in Lebanon, a more aggressive policy towards Syria can't be ruled out--as Congress' 2003 anti-Syrian sanctions and Israeli military strike that year make clear.

In Syria, as in Iraq, Washington's version of "peace" in the Middle East means threatening--or launching--war.

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