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Syria -- GOVERNMENT
IN EARLY 1987, President Hafiz al Assad, in power since his November 1970 takeover in a bloodless military coup d'état, continued to lead Syria. His regime appeared to be resilient, if not altogether stable. Only a few years earlier, the regime had encountered several major threats. In 1982 the government of Syria endured nearly simultaneous major domestic and external challenges: the uprising of Muslim fundamentalist rebels and the Israeli attack on Syrian forces in Lebanon. Then, in late 1983 and early 1984, Assad became seriously ill, leading to splits within the regime as factions maneuvered to succeed him. These machinations proved to be premature, however, because Assad subsequently recovered and reasserted his power. Nonetheless, the domestic political infighting and external military clashes that occurred while Assad was incapacitated reminded Syrians of their nation's chronic instability of the 1950s and 1960s and foreshadowed the return of such instability after Assad. The crises also reinforced the perception that the strength of the Syrian government was not only vested in the president but derived from him personally. Consequently, although Assad had transformed Syria into a regional power in the Levant and had created domestic stability, his accomplishments could prove ephemeral because they were not buttressed by legitimate and viable institutions. Even more unsettling, in 1987 the question of a successor to President Assad was still unresolved.
Since 1970 Assad's pragmatism, ambition, and patience have helped transform Syria into a regional power. Syrian development has been motivated and hastened by the threat posed by Israel. In fact, in 1984 Assad announced Syria's determination to attain "strategic parity" with Israel and further stated that Syria would strive to match Israel's level of modernization across the wide spectrum of "political, demographic, social, educational, economic, and military aspects of life."
However, Syria's status as a regional power imposed costs and liabilities. For instance, in 1987 Syria was relatively isolated in the Arab world, primarily because of its maverick support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq War and its involvement in Lebanon. Also, its economy staggered under the weight of its military budget, and it depended heavily on the Soviet Union for military equipment.
Despite the outward appearance of radicalism and dogmatic rigidity, Syrian diplomacy was conducted on the basis of hardheaded and pragmatic calculation of perceived costs and benefits to the national interest. Its position on the ArabIsraeli conflict, once believed to be immutably rigid, changed not only in style but in substance. In the years after the October 1973 War, Syria modified its categorical refusal to negotiate directly with Israel. After 1973 it indicated its intention to negotiate, in return for Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territories and for a form of Palestinian selfdetermination .
The political effectiveness of Assad's leadership depended heavily on firm control of the pervasive military and internal security and intelligence apparatus--the only countercoup forces available to an incumbent regime. The officially sanctioned Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party, also played an increasingly important role in maintaining the regime.
Syria was a socialist state under the political influence of the Baath Party, which provided ideological legitimation and continuity to Assad's rule. However, Assad's implementation of Baath Party doctrines has been more pragmatic than ideological. To broaden the government's base, in 1972 Assad incorporated nonBaathist parties into the National Progressive Front. Although the front theoretically ruled Syria, the Baath Party remained the real power.
The authorities closely monitored political activities and dealt sternly with expressions of organized dissent or opposition--a source of grievance for the nation's intellectuals, students, some conservative Sunni religious leaders, and labor groups. Absence of open political channels other than through the Baathist-controlled framework made estimating the extent of popular support for Assad's regime difficult. Clearly, sectarian tensions persisted because the centers of power in 1987 remained in Alawi hands, whereas the majority of the population were Sunni Muslims who had traditionally held power until the Assad regime was installed in 1970. In 1987 Syrian popular opinion was split between those who supported and those who opposed President Assad's regime. However, those who opposed the regime did so vehemently, while those who supported Assad appeared ambivalent. The charismatic Assad continued to enjoy considerable personal popularity among the latter group, but its approval did not extend to his regime as a whole. Even many of Assad's supporters feared and loathed the draconian security measures that ensured the Assad regime's survival, and they were shocked at the regime's brutal repression of the Hamah insurrection in 1982. Yet this fear was mitigated by the feeling that any successor regime would be worse than Assad's, and his strong authoritarian and paternalistic management of political affairs was endorsed because it had provided Syria with its first uninterrupted period of stability since independence in 1946.
Between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1916 and promulgation of a permanent constitution in 1973, Syria adopted several constitutions, all reflecting an amalgam of West European (chiefly French), Arab, and Islamic political cultures. The initial impetus to constitutionalism came from Syrian nationalist leaders of the post-World War I era who had been educated in the West during the late nineteenth century. These leaders proposed a Western-style parliament and a separate, independent judiciary as a counterbalance to the untrammeled power of Ottoman and later French Mandate administrators. The system of government envisioned by Syrian nationalists and legal scholars was to provide for popular participation in the political process and constitutional safeguards of personal and political rights.
Constitutionalism failed to take hold, however, because of unremitting postindependence instability. A change in government leadership through a coup or a countercoup was almost always followed by a constitutional change intended to buttress the new political order.
In 1987 the governmental structure was based on the Permanent Constitution of March 13, 1973. This charter is similar to the provisional constitution of May 1, 1969, as amended in February and June 1971. The Constitution provides for a republican form of government in what it calls "a democratic, popular, socialist, and sovereign state" and stipulates that the people are the ultimate source of national sovereignty.
The Constitution reaffirms the long-held ideological premise that Syria is only a part of the one and indivisible "Arab nation" that is struggling for complete Arab unity. Syria is constitutionally declared still to be a member of the Federation of Arab Republics (FAR), which was inaugurated in April 1971 by Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Although the FAR was short lived, its constitutional formula provides a framework for ongoing Syrian efforts at unity with other Arab nations.
Among the principles in the Constitution is the stipulation that the president be a Muslim, that the main source of legislation be Islamic fikh(doctrine and jurisprudence), and that the Baath Party be "the vanguard party in the society and the state." In addition, the state is directed to safeguard the fundamental rights of citizens to enjoy freedom and to participate in political, economic, social, and cultural life within the limits of the law. Free exercise of religious belief is guaranteed as long as such exercise does not affect public order. In keeping with the Arab character of the nation, the purpose of the educational system is described as creation of "an Arab national socialist generation with scientific training"--a generation committed to establishment of a united Arab socialist nation.
The Constitution's economic principles not only set forth a planned socialist economy that should take into account "economic complementarity in the Arab homeland" but also recognize three categories of property. The three kinds are property of the people, including all natural resources, public domains, nationalized enterprises, and establishments created by the state; collective property, such as assets owned by popular and professional organizations; and private property. The Constitution states that the social function of private property shall be subordinated, under law, to the national economy and public interests. However, expropriation may occur only with just compensation.
Governmental powers are divided by the Constitution into executive, legislative, and judicial categories. The Constitution is notable for strengthening the already formidable role of the presidency; the framers of the Constitution were clearly more concerned with the supremacy and stability of presidential powers than with the issue of checks and balances among the three branches of government. Official concern for political and governmental stability is reflected in the relatively difficult procedures for amending the Constitution. A bill to amend the Constitution may be introduced by the president or one-third of the members of the People's Council (parliament), but its passage requires approval by a majority of three-fourths of the People's Council as well as by the president.
<"49.htm">The President and the Cabinet
<"50.htm">The People's Council
The president is elected for a seven-year term by universal suffrage. A candidate to the office must be a Syrian Arab Muslim, at least forty years of age, proposed by the Baath Party, and nominated by the People's Council. The nominee is submitted to a national referendum. To be elected, the candidate must receive an absolute majority of votes cast. If not, a new candidate must be selected by the Baath Party for formal nomination by the People's Council.
The Constitution states that in the case of the president's temporary disablement, the vice president becomes acting president. However, in 1982 Assad named three vice presidents-- Foreign Minister Abd al Halim Khaddam, Rifaat al Assad, and Baath Party deputy director Zuhayr Mashariqa--but none of the three was specifically designated as successor. If the presidency falls vacant by resignation or death, a referendum must be held within ninety days to elect a new president. Under certain circumstances, the prime minister may exercise presidential functions for up to ninety days.
The president cannot be removed except for high treason. Impeachment proceedings may be initiated through a petition signed by one-third of the members of the People's Council voting openly or by a petition of two-thirds of the council members voting at a special closed session. The president can be tried only by the High Constitutional Court, of which he is a member.
The president is both the head of state and the chief executive officer of the government. He is vested with sweeping powers that may be delegated, at his sole discretion, to his vice presidents. The president is also commander in chief of the armed forces. He appoints and dismisses the prime minister and other members of the Council of Ministers (the cabinet) and military officers.
Apart from executive authority relating to a wide range of governmental functions including foreign affairs, the president has the right to dissolve the People's Council, in which case a new council must be elected within ninety days from the date of dissolution. He may also exercise legislative power when the council is in recess, provided that all legislative acts promulgated by him are submitted to the legislature for approval at its first subsequent session. The Constitution also empowers the president to preempt legislative power even while the People's Council is in session "in case of absolute need relating to national security." It states, however, that all presidential decrees must be presented to the legislature for its endorsement. The council may, by a two-thirds vote, amend or rescind presidential decrees, provided that the two-thirds majority constitutes no fewer than the absolute majority of the council membership. The council's power to amend or nullify a presidential decree is only nominal, inasmuch as the council's action, whether for amendment or abrogation, is not to have a "retroactive effect."
Under the Constitution, presidential authority extends also to the broadly phrased "right to submit to popular referendum important matters relating to the higher interests of the country." However, the question of what constitutes "higher interests" is left undefined. The results of such a referendum are "binding and executory with effect from the date of their promulgation" by the president. The presidential emergency power granted under Article 113 provides a mandate that is beyond any legal challenge: "In case of grave danger threatening national unity or the security and independence of the national territory or impeding the government's exercise of its constitutional prerogatives, the President of the Republic has the right to take appropriate emergency measures." This article has been in effect since the late 1960s.
The Council of Ministers, headed by the prime minister, is responsible to the president and serves collectively as the executive and administrative arm of the president and of the state. A cabinet member can also be a member of the People's Council and, if so, is not answerable to the legislature for his official conduct while acting as a cabinet member.
As of 1987, the Council of Ministers had last been reshuffled in April 1985. The council was headed by Prime Minister Abd ar Rauf al Kassim, who had served as prime minister since 1980, and three deputy prime ministers, who also held the portfolios of defense, services, and economic affairs. Ministers were in charge of the following portfolios: agriculture and agrarian reform, communications, construction, culture and national guidance, defense, economy and foreign trade, education, electricity, finance, foreign affairs, health, higher education, housing and utilities, industry, information, interior, irrigation, justice, local administration, oil and mineral wealth, religious trusts (waqfs), social affairs and labor, supply and internal trade, tourism, and transportation. In addition, the Council of Ministers included ministers of state for cabinet affairs, foreign affairs, planning affairs, People's Council affairs, and presidential affairs and three newly elected ministers of state without portfolio.
The members of the People's Council are elected for four-year terms by universal suffrage of citizens eighteen years of age or older in direct and secret ballot. The members, the number of which is determined by law, are chosen on the basis of singlemember electoral districts. The Constitution requires that at least half of the council seats be set aside for "workers and peasants." The 195 members of the People's Council serving in 1987 were elected in 1986.
The People's Council sits in three regular sessions annually and may be called into special session by the speaker, by the president, or at the request of one-third of the council members. The lawmakers are granted parliamentary immunity, and even when they are charged with criminal offenses, prior consent of the speaker is required before any prosecution against a member may proceed.
The functions of the council include the nomination of a presidential candidate, enactment of laws, discussion of government policy, approval of the general budget and development plans, and ratification of treaties. In addition, as part of its monitoring of the executive branch, the People's Council is authorized to act on a motion of no-confidence in the Council of Ministers as a whole or in an individual minister. Such a motion must be initiated by at least one-fifth of the members and, to become effective, must be approved by the majority of the People's Council. If the motion is carried, the Council of Ministers or the individual minister concerned must resign. The president can dissolve the People's Council, although the Constitution does not specify grounds for dissolution. It does say that the council may not be dissolved more than once for the same cause.
In the 1980s, the Syrian judicial system remained a synthesis of Ottoman, French, and Islamic laws. The civil, commercial, and criminal codes in effect were, with some amendments, those promulgated in 1949 and were based primarily on French legal practices. In addition, special provisions sanctioned limited application of customary law among beduin and religious minorities. Islamic religious courts based on sharia (Muslim law) continued to function in some parts of the country, but their jurisdiction was limited to issues of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, paternity, custody of children, and inheritance. In 1955 a personal code pertaining to many aspects of personal status was developed. This law modified and modernized sharia by improving the status of women and clarifying the laws of inheritance.
The High Judicial Council is composed of senior civil judges and is charged with the appointment, transfer, and dismissal of judges. Article 131 of the Constitution states that the independence of the judiciary is to be guaranteed by the president in his role as chairman of the High Judicial Council. Article 133 stipulates that judges be autonomous and subject to no authority other than the law. Although the concept of an independent judiciary is enshrined in the Constitution, the president clearly exercises considerable power in the execution, as well as the formulation, of law.
In 1987 Syria had a three-tiered court system, in addition to the state security courts. The Court of Cassation, sitting in Damascus, was the supreme court and the highest court of appeals. It had the authority to resolve both jurisdictional and judicial issues. Below the Court of Cassation were courts of appeal, and at the lowest level were courts of first instance, designated variously as magistrate courts, summary courts, and peace courts. Also at the basic level were juvenile and other special courts and an administrative tribunal known as the Council of State. Under the 1973 Constitution, the High Constitutional Court was established to adjudicate electoral disputes, to rule on the constitutionality of a law or decree challenged by the president or People's Council, and to render opinions on the constitutionality of bills, decrees, and regulations when requested to do so by the president. The High Constitutional Court is forbidden, however, to question the validity of the popularly approved "laws submitted by the President of the Republic to popular referendums." The court consists of the president and four judges he appoints to serve a renewable term of four years.
In 1987 Syria was divided into thirteen provinces: Halab, Dimashq, Dar'a, Dayr az Zawr, Hamah, Al Hasakah, Hims, Idlib, Al Ladhiqiyah, Al Qunaytirah (which includes the Golan Heights), Ar Raqqah, As Suwayda, and Tartus. Damascus, as the national capital, was administered separately as a governorate until 1987, when it was designated as a province; the areas outside the city, which had constituted the separate Dimashq Province, were brought under the jurisdiction of the capital and were referred to as the "Province of Damascus rural area." In addition, Syrian maps included the Turkish province of Hatay, which the Syrians call Iskenderun. Each province is divided into districts, which in turn have subdistricts. Under Assad, government power remained highly centralized in Damascus, giving provincial governments little autonomy.
Each province is headed by a governor nominated by the minister of the interior and appointed by the central government. The governor is responsible for administration, health, social services, education, tourism, public works, transportation, domestic trade, agriculture, industry, civil defense, and maintenance of law and order in the province. The minister of local administration works closely with each governor to coordinate and supervise local development projects.
The governor is assisted by a provincial council, threequarters of whose members are popularly elected for a term of four years, the remainder being appointed by the minister of the interior and the governor. In addition, each council has an executive arm consisting of six to ten officers appointed by the central government from among the council's elected members. Each executive officer is charged with specific functions.
Districts and subdistricts are administered by officials appointed by the governor, subject to the approval of the minister of the interior. These officials work with elected district councils to attend to assorted local needs and serve as intermediaries between central government authority and traditional local leaders, such as village chiefs, clan leaders, and councils of elders.
Since Assad's 1970 Corrective Movement, the government has sought systematically to strengthen its control over local politics. The central government's firmer grasp on power has eroded the autonomy of both nomadic beduin and settled villagers who have until recently been allowed to practice self-government according to their own traditions and customs.
In urban areas, local municipal councils license businesses, control public services and utilities, and levy taxes. Some members of these councils are elected and some appointed. The councils are headed by mayors, who, in small towns, are responsible to the central government's district officer. If the town is the seat of the provincial government, the council is answerable directly to the governor of the province.
After independence in 1946, Syrian leaders established a parliamentary democracy, which failed because politics remained centered on personalities and because factional, sectarian, and tribal rivalries persisted. Such a situation was not conducive to domestic unity, much less to national consensus or political momentum. The multiparty political system gave way to a series of military dictatorships, then to Syria's subordination to Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic (UAR) from February 1958 to September 1961. Since 1963, when the Baath Party came to full power in Syria, political competition has evolved and shifted within the party. Under the party, the role of the military has been especially significant.
At independence, power was concentrated in the hands of a wealthy oligarchy of landlords, industrialists, merchants, and lawyers. Most of this aristocracy urban Sunni Muslims who derived their influence from inherited wealth and social position, as well as from their early involvement in the Arab nationalist movement. Their political experience, however, was entirely based on opposition, first to Ottoman Turkey and then to France and Zionism. They had no precedent for a more positive platform of national reconciliation and integration, mass mobilization, and popular welfare.
The most prominent political organization in 1946 was the National Bloc, a loose alliance originally formed in 1928 by leading members of landowning families and other well-known individuals. This group was wealthy and well educated, chiefly at French and Turkish universities or at French- and American- operated colleges in Lebanon and Egypt. Their priority was eliminating the French while maintaining their personal power. They had little contact with the masses and did not seek to bridge the traditional gap separating the upper classes from the rest of society.
Of the various political parties forming Syria, two had risen to prominence by mid-1947: the National Party and the People's Party. The National Party, which dominated the government until 1949, represented the industrialists of Damascus, leading businessmen, and prominent landlords. It was dedicated to continuing the power of men who had long worked together not only for independence but against union with Jordan and Iraq.
Until 1949 the People's Party was the principal opposition. It represented the interests of the merchants and landlords of Aleppo against domination by Damascus. The party had a strong interest in agricultural issues--in contrast to the National Party's focus on industry--and close ties with Iraq, with which many of the members had strong commercial and trade relationships. The two parties therefore embodied the major traditional political divisions within Syria: the rivalry between Aleppo and Damascus and that between those who favored unity with the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria) as opposed to those who favored unity with the Fertile Crescent (Iraq, Jordan and Syria).
Along with these parties, a new party was evolving. The Baath Party can be traced to 1940, when two Damascene secondary schoolteachers, Michel Aflaq and Salah ad Din al Bitar, were inspired by the Arab renaissance movement. In 1943 the term Baath (meaning resurrection) became associated with the movement, and in 1944 the movement was transformed into a party. In April 1947, the Baath Party held its first congress, which was attended by around 250 members. Most were Syrians, but Jordanian, Lebanese, and Iraqi students in Syrian schools were also present. Most of the original members were students, teachers, professionals, and public employees--the kernel of Syria's emerging new middle class. The congress elected Aflaq, the party's philosopher and ideologue, as "dean," the equivalent of secretary general. Bitar became the organizational and administrative leader.
In 1947 the Baath Party was a marginal political force. It was organizationally weak and unprepared to assert itself effectively. Gradually, it broadened its constituency beyond the narrow circle of students and intellectuals to include the urban lower middle class, which was attracted to the party's proposed program of social and economic reform. At the same time, the party's unflagging emphasis on Arab nationalism evoked considerable support from the military's officer corps.
The constitution adopted by the Baath founding congress of 1947 extolled the motto of "Unity, Freedom, and Socialism" as an integrated concept, in which no one element could be attained without the other two. Of the three, however, Arab unity was considered first among equals as the primary catalyst of Arab resurrection. Socialism was not an end in itself but a means to achieve the higher ends of freedom, unity, and socioeconomic justice.
Aflaq rejected a doctrinaire definition of socialism. He maintained that his socialism aimed at more than merely equalizing wealth and providing food, shelter, and clothing; instead, it aimed at the higher goal of freeing an individual's talents and abilities. This higher goal was to be attained not through evolution but revolution, which he described as a "violent wrenching away" and an awakening and self-purification. Baath dogma exalted the individual, who was to be free in action, thought, and opportunity in a democratic, parliamentary, constitutional state.
The doctrine of a single, indivisible Arab nation was central to Baathist ideology, and statehood was regarded as parochial, negative, and doomed to failure. Baathist doctrine condemned colonialist imperialism, which was and is held to include Zionism, negativism, restrictive state nationalism, sectarianism, and racial and ethnic prejudice. The Arab superstate envisioned by the Baathists was to be founded on a secular, rather than Islamic, framework. However, Christians and other religious minorities were admonished to regard Islam as a "beloved cultural heritage." Furthermore, religious life and values were to endure in an atmosphere of religious toleration. In foreign policy, the party advocated nonalignment with the superpowers and espoused neutrality. Aflaq and Bitar were impressed by Marxist visions of a utopian society free of exploitation but were not won over to communism, which they regarded as subservient to Soviet interests and therefore detrimental to Arab national self-determination.
In 1949 popular dissatisfaction with the performance of the conservative ruling elite reached a peak, giving the Baath Party an opportunity to play a more prominent role in Syrian politics. Army officers were angered by what they perceived as civilian bungling of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. This anger paved the way for Brigadier General Husni az Zaim to stage Syria's first army coup d'état, an event that presaged the rise of the military as the controlling force in Syrian politics. The bloodless takeover, which was widely applauded by the press, opposition politicians, and much of the public, marked the permanent transfer of political power from the traditional landowning elite to a new coalition of young intellectuals, army officers, and the small but growing middle class. The Baath Party welcomed the coup and hoped the Zaim regime would stamp out the government's endemic corruption and usher in parliamentary politics.
However, the Zaim government did not bring stability. Rather, four more military coups were staged prior to Syria's unification with Egypt in 1958. Beneath the facade of dictatorial rule, proliferating Syrian political parties were locked in chaotic competition with the Baath Party for dominance of Syrian politics. Partisan rivalry was particularly intense for the allegiance of the armed forces, which party organizers realized would control the government. The conservative National Party and People's Party waned in influence, while the semifascist Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded in 1933 by a Lebanese Christian, Antun Saadeh, gained numerous adherents. The SSNP called for the creation of a "Greater Syria" encompassing Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus. The Syrian Communist Party (SCP), headed by Khalid Bakdash, was small, but its tight organization and disciplined following gave it far greater importance than its size alone would have merited. Another party, the Arab Socialist Party (ASP), was a serious contender for the allegiance of the middle class. The ASP was founded in 1950 by Akram Hawrani as an outgrowth of the Youth Party he had established in 1939. His doctrine followed closely that of Aflaq and Bitar. Hawrani's followers were drawn mostly from Hamah and Homs; they included teachers, students, urban workers, and numerous associates organized by his relatives. In addition, he cultivated many followers in the armed forces.
In early 1953, the ASP merged with the Baath Party, combining the well-developed ideological framework of the Baath Party with Hawrani's grass-roots organizational base. No substantial changes were required in the merger except the insertion of the word socialist (ishtiraki) in the new party's name. Hawrani also found no difficulty in accepting Aflaq's 1947 constitution, which continued in toto as the scripture of Baathism, and the founding year of the Baath Party is still considered 1947.
The new Baath Party quickly became a serious challenge to all existing parties. The intense rivalry between the Baath Party and the SSNP climaxed in the April 1955 assassination of Colonel Adnan Malki, the deputy chief of staff and a leading Baathist, by a sergeant in the SSNP. Following the assassination, the SSNP was accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and its leaders either fled the country or were convicted of conspiracy. Consequently, the SSNP disappeared as an effective political force in Syria.
In 1957 the Baathists entered into a partnership with their erstwhile adversaries, the Communists, in order to crush the residual power of conservative parties. This left-wing alliance succeeded in eliminating the right wing. However, in the last months of 1957, the Communists and other radicals came to dominate the left-wing alliance, while the Baath Party's power eroded.
Fearing the Communists' growing power, the Baath Party drafted a bill in December 1957 for union between Syria and Egypt. Because Arab unity is a sacred aspiration, the Baathists knew that neither the Communists nor any other politicians could openly oppose it. In February 1958, Syria joined Egypt to form the UAR. The Baath Party realized that President Gamal Abdul Nasser's declared hostility to political parties would mean the end of its legal existence but gambled that the communist movement, which was being ruthlessly persecuted in Egypt at the time, would be damaged disproportionately.
The Baathists were partially correct. Hawrani, titular head of the Baath Party, was appointed vice president of the new republic. However, all real power resided in Nasser's hands, and Syria was governed as a virtual colony of Egypt. On September 28, 1961, a military coup took Syria out of the UAR, and in December 1961, a general election for the constituent assembly was held; Communists and Nasserites were banned from running for office. Although a few Baathists were elected, the majority of the new assembly consisted of members of the conservative People's Party and National Party. People's Party leader Nazim al Qudsi was elected president.
From 1961 to 1963, Syria was in a state of near anarchy. Coups and countercoups, street fighting between Nasserites, Communists, and Baathists, and battles between rival army factions plunged the nation into chaos.
Early in 1963, a group of senior officers conspired to stage yet another coup. To build their alliance within the military, they joined forces with a group of Baathist majors and lieutenant colonels, who turned out to be more formidable than they or anyone else realized. The original group of officers had been transferred to Egypt during the union as a form of internal exile because of their suspected opposition to the UAR. Irritated at Egyptian dominance of the union, they organized the secret Military Committee, which was dedicated to seizing power. They deviated from the Baath Party's pan-Arabism in championing Syrian nationalism. Having grown up for the most part in relatively poor rural areas of Syria, these men strongly advocated land reform and other socialist measures. Most of the committee belonged to minority groups. For example, the original core of conspirators consisted of three Alawis and two Ismailis. Later, the Military Committee was enlarged to include fifteen members. Only six of these members were Sunni Muslims; the remainder consisted of five Alawis, two Druzes, and two Ismailis.
The coup, subsequently called the Baath Revolution, occurred on March 8, 1963. Baath Party cofounder Bitar was installed as prime minister, and, within several months, the Baathists had maneuvered their non-Baathist associates out of power. The Baath, Party, especially its military component and its "Regional Command as opposed to its National Command, has dominated Syria since.
Although the Baath Revolution was bracketed chronologically by prior and subsequent coups, countercoups, and power struggles, it was far more than another convulsion in the body politic. Rather, it marked a crucial turning point in Syria's postindependence history. Because of the coup, the focus of Syrian politics shifted markedly to the left, where it has remained since. However, just as the Baath Party became ascendant, the military officers who had commandeered it as a vehicle for their own rise to power abandoned its original egalitarian ideology by establishing a military dictatorship. In 1966 the party's cofounders, Aflaq and Bitar, were expelled from the party and exiled from Syria. Bitar, in an interview conducted several weeks before he was assassinated in Paris in July 1980, reportedly at the hands of Syrian intelligence, said "The major deviation of the Baath is having renounced democracy . . . the two real bases of the regime are dictatorship and confessionalism. The Baath Party, as a party, does not exist." Assad's November 1970 takeover of Syria in a bloodless coup--the Corrective Movement--cemented Baath Party dominance in Syrian politics. Yet, as Assad created the political institutions through which he would rule, he sought to liberalize the political situation, albeit within carefully circumscribed limits, to diversify support for his new regime. For example, in February 1971 he established the People's Council as an appointed deliberative body; following adoption of the Permanent Constitution in 1973, it became an elected body.
In 1972 Assad instituted a multiparty system by creating the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of the Baath Party, the SCP, and three small left-wing parties--the ASP, the Nasserite Syrian Arab Socialist Union, and the Socialist Union Movement. In 1987 this coalition continued to govern Syria with its seventeen-member Central Command, which coordinated the activities of the five parties. Although the Baath Party was unquestionably the dominant party in the coalition, and the other parties were nearly invisible, Syria remained one of the few Arab nations with multiple legal political parties.
In 1978 Assad pledged to implement a "new formula" that would rehabilitate and incorporate some of the old conservative political parties from the pre-Baath regime under the NPF umbrella. Although the new formula was never implemented because Syria was beset with internal security problems, in 1987 the NPF retained an open-ended framework that could expand to include diverse elements. Assad appeared committed to broadening his regime's support, so long as broadening did not diminish his power.
<"54.htm">The Baath Party Apparatus
<"55.htm">The Syrian Communist Party
<"56.htm">The Power Elite
<"57.htm">1982 - 1987 Political Developments
The Baath Party has never been a mass party. Although party membership has expanded considerably beyond the several hundred activists of the 1963 revolution, regime policy has kept membership relatively small. Although Aflaq and Bitar rejected communism, they intentionally emulated the Leninist organizational model of a vanguard elite. Party admission has been highly selective, particularly at higher echelons. Recruits must be nominated by a member and pass through a rigorous initiation period of at least two years before becoming members. The Baath Party has attempted to limit membership to the ideologically committed, believing that indiscriminate recruitment would dilute the party's effectiveness. In the late 1960s, for example, class origin was a determining criterion, and anyone from a class judged hostile to the party's goals, regardless of his or her personal political beliefs, was excluded.
In the Assad era, however, membership criteria were relaxed. In 1987 the Baath Party had approximately 50,000 full members and a further 200,000 candidate members in probationary status. The Baath Party administered a panoply of "popular organizations" whose membership was not exclusively, or even primarily, Baathist. Thus the party incorporated many Syrian citizens while restricting full-fleged membership.
Nominally, the highest body within the Baath Party was the National Command, whose status dated from before the party split in 1966. This twenty-one-member body was composed of about half Syrians and half Arabs from other countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as Palestinians. Theoretically, the National Command was the embryonic government of a future unified Arab nation, and it embodied the fiction that Syria continued to place priority on pan-Arabism. Although Syria in 1987 still paid lip service to the pan-Arab slogans that were a driving force in the party in the 1940s and 1950s, the National Command's power was more symbolic than real. Although the National Command potentially could play an evangelical role in creating new Baath Party branches in Arab countries and could support existing branches, Syrian policymakers have de-emphasized such a role. In actuality, the National Command, headed by Assad in 1987, provided honorary posts for some figures who had been retired from active Syrian political life and for others waiting in the wings to assume greater responsibility.
The actual executive core of the Baath Party was the twentyone -member Regional Command, also headed by Assad, which directed Baath activities in Syria. Its name referred to the Baath consideration of Syria as one region within the larger Arab nation. In 1987 Syria's three vice presidents, prime minister, minister of defense, armed forces chief of staff, and speaker of the People's Council held positions on the Regional Command. The other Regional Command members were solely Baath Party functionaries, including the party secretaries of Aleppo and Hamah, and the party representatives who headed the party bureaus of higher education, trade unions, and economy.
Below the Regional Command was the Central Committee, created in January 1980 at the seventh Baath Party regional congress as a conduit for consultation and communication between the Regional Command and its subordinate local branches. At the eighth Baath Party regional congress in January 1985, the Central Committee's membership was increased from seventy-five to ninety-five. Its most important task was to elect the Regional Command, a task that had previously been the responsibility of the delegates to the regional congress meeting in plenary session. The Central Committee was also intended to represent the regional congress when the latter was not in session.
Subordinate to the Regional Command was a layer of nineteen branch commands: one in each of the thirteen provinces, one each in Damascus and Aleppo, and one in each of the country's four universities. Typically, the provincial governor, chief of police, mayor, and other local officials were members of the Branch Command, but the branch secretary and other executive posts were held by full-time party functionaries. Farther down the organizational chart, each provincial district or quarter of a city had a party organization commensurate with its size. At the grass-roots level, the party was organized into circles or cells of three to seven members, a remnant from the party's past as a secret organization. Three to seven circles in turn comprised a division, and several divisions formed a section. Each section represented a village or neighborhood.
The Regional Command and the Central Committee were elected every four years at the regional congress. Delegates of the branch organizations elected the Central Committee, which in turn elected the Regional Command. Although Assad and his intimates set the agenda and controlled results of the regional congresses, the rank and file nevertheless had an opportunity to complain and voice opinions about important national issues. During the eighth regional congress in January 1985, the 771 branch delegates expressed remarkably candid criticism of corruption and economic stagnation.
Baath Party presence in the armed forces was separate but parallel to that in the civilian apparatus. The two wings of the Baath Party joined only at the Regional Command, where both military and civilian members belonged to the Regional Command and where delegates from party organizations in military units met at regional congresses. The military wing of the Baath Party has established branches down to the battalion level. The leader of such a branch was called a tawjihi (political guide). Not all military officers were party members, but it was almost a prerequisite for advancement to flag rank.
Baath Party appointees included a five-member Inspection and Control Committee, elected in 1980 and charged with enforcing the statutes of the Baath Party and monitoring internal affairs, discipline, and deviation from party norms. "Deviation" was defined in the Party Security Law, passed in 1979, which imposed a prison term of between five and ten years for any party member joining another political organization or anyone infiltrating the Baath Party to work for the interests of another party. Prison terms were also set for such offenses as attacking party offices, obstructing party activities, and attempting to obtain classified party documents or confidential information. If carried out at the instigation of foreign interests, such infractions carried the death penalty.
Through its People's Organizations Bureau, the Baath Party administered a number of organizations, including its own militia, the People's Army. Other organizations were the Revolutionary Youth Organization, Union of Students, Women's Organization, Peasants' Federation, and General Federation of Trade Unions. Each organization was supervised by a member of the Regional Command; a popular organization with a large membership in a given province might have a provincial branch command responsible for its activities. These organizations inculcated Baath values in their members, provided new recruits, and extended services to various social groups.
The coming generation was carefully cultivated by the party. Indoctrination began with membership in the Vanguards, an organization for grade-school boys and girls. Vanguard members attended summer paramilitary training camps operated by the armed forces. Later, youth joined the Revolutionary Youth Organization, Union of Students, or General Federation of Trade Unions.
As befitted a party founded by teachers and that for many years recruited its members from secondary schools and universities, the Baath Party still catered to the intellectual and educated elite. The organizational parity of party branches in universities, having student bodies of only several thousands, with party branches in provinces, having populations of hundreds of thousands, testified to this partiality. Furthermore, the Baath Party operated its own school system, the apex of which was the Higher Political Institute, which was the graduate department of political science at the University of Damascus.
Nevertheless, the party has been working assiduously for years to increase the number of peasants and workers in its ranks. In the mid-1970s, the Baath Party instituted a special mobilization campaign throughout rural agricultural areas of Syria to swell enlistment in the Peasants' Federation. It was claimed that union membership was growing by 30,000 people per year.
The Syrian Communist Party (SCP), the bitter adversary of the Baath Party in the late 1950s, was in 1987 the second largest legal political party in Syria and an important constituent element of the NPF. The venerable Khalid Bakdash, a Kurd from Damascus who has been called the "dean of Arab communism," remained the SCP's secretary general. Politburo member Daniel Nimah represented the party on the Central Command of the NPF and accompanied Assad on his state visits to Moscow. In the early 1980s, the SCP was temporarily banned by Assad; however, in 1986 it was restored to favor, partially as a concession to the Soviet Union. Nine SCP members were elected to the People's Council in early 1986 elections, and the SCP held its sixth party congress in Damascus in July. During the congress, SCP Central Committee members who had precipitated the rift with Assad through strident criticism of the regime were purged from the party.
The SCP was organized like other communist parties and had a Politburo, Secretariat, Central Committee, and official publication, a magazine entitled Nidal ash Shaab(The People's Struggle). In the mid-1980s, the SCP stressed its political and ideological independence from the Syrian regime and operated to a limited extent as a genuine opposition party. It criticized Baath Party economic policies, refereed regime relations with the Soviet Union, and, through its Committee for Solidarity with African and Asian Nations, acted as a conduit for Syrian relations with some Third World nations.
SCP criticism of the Syrian government has been surprisingly candid. Politburo member Khalid Hammami wrote in 1984 that "Syria has abandoned its progressive socioeconomic policy" and stated that the "ruling quarters are suspicious and fearful of the masses" and curtail democratic freedoms. SCP deputy secretary general Yusuf Faysal has excoriated the "parasitic and bureaucratic bourgeoisie" in the Syrian government. However, the SCP is careful to limit its criticism to lower level Syrian politicians and more often acts as a silent partner to the Baath Party in Syrian politics.
In early 1987, the Syrian government remained an autocracy in which power was concentrated in the hands of President Assad. Assad (the name means "lion" in Arabic and was chosen by Assad to replace his actual family name of Al Wahash, which means "beast") had tightened his grip in sixteen years as chief of state. Assad's leadership was legitimized through such governmental structures as the Baath Party apparatus, the People's Council, and the Council of Ministers. These institutions, however, were a veneer for military rule, and the holders of nominally important political posts rarely wielded independent power. Assad's true base of support lay in his control of key military units, various praetorian guards, and the intelligence and security services. The commando forces, bodyguards, and secret police--referred to generically by Syrian citizens as the mukhabarat--were instrumental in maintaining the Assad regime's power. The men Assad entrusted with command of these forces often exerted political influence disproportionate to their official positions and had a greater political voice than civilian politicians. Ultimately, however, Assad was more inclined to designate responsibility to his underlings than to delegate authority to them.
Until the mid-1980s, the Syrian power elite was composed of Assad and his family. The president's younger brother, Rifaat, commanded a division-sized praetorian guard called the Defense Companies (Saraya ad Difa), which was stationed in Damascus as a countercoup force. His older brother, Jamil al Assad, commanded a militia called the Murtada. A nephew, Adnan al Assad, commanded the Struggle Companies (Saraya as Sira), while another nephew, Fawwaz, led a security force stationed in Latakia. These commando forces were not under the command of the regular armed forces; rather, they were constructed as counterweights to the power of the regular military. Jamil was put under house arrest in 1981 after an unsuccessful challenge to his brother, and in 1984 Rifaat was exiled to Europe and his Defense Companies incorporated into the army when he likewise sought to attain power. Assad was therefore compelled to dilute the power of his family members because they posed a threat to him.
In 1987 Assad was not the apex of a pyramid of power nor had he created a hierarchical power elite below him. Rather, he relied on a coterie of about a dozen men with approximately equal power who commanded key military units or security services. In competing to protect their positions, they counterbalanced and neutralized each other. Their areas of responsibility were compartmentalized and overlapping, and they reported directly to the president rather than coordinating with their counterparts. Consequently, they could not easily build their own power bases or form coalitions that might pose a threat to Assad's rule.
This cell structure allowed Assad to retain power in Syria for an unprecedented period of time. Most of the elite group belonged to Assad's Alawi minority, and many belonged to Assad's own Numaylatillah clan and Matawirah tribe within the Alawi minority. Some were related to the president and to each other by blood or marriage, further ensuring their loyalty. Moreover, Assad reportedly had been assiduous in paying homage to the Alawi traditional tribal elders to reinforce this minority power base.
In theory, the most important men in Syria after the president were the vice presidents. However, Assad's appointment of three vice presidents in 1985 reflected the divide-and-rule strategy he applied elsewhere in the government. In order to maintain family solidarity, Rifaat al Assad was made vice president for security affairs, but by 1987, stripped of his military command, he had no real power. As a matter of protocol to symbolize the continued importance of the party, Baath Party functionary Zuhayr Mashariqa, a Sunni Muslim, was appointed vice president for party affairs. Abd al Halim Khaddam, the former foreign minister, was promoted to vice president for political and foreign affairs. Of the three vice presidents, Khaddam acted as the true deputy to Assad and was firmly ensconced in the president's inner circle. In early 1987, foreign observers tended to view Khaddam as a candidate to succeed Assad as a compromise leader.
Non-Alawis were also influential in the Assad regime. Khaddam, for example, was a Sunni Muslim (athough his wife was a Matawirah Alawi). Prime Minister Abd ar Rauf al Kassim, Speaker of the People's Council Mahmud az Zubi, Baath Party assistant secretary general Abdallah al Ahmar, and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi were other Sunni Muslims holding high government positions in 1987. Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlas was also a Sunni Muslim, although his mother was an Alawi. Most Sunnis who had risen to prominence in the military since the Baath Revolution, including Shihabi and Tlas, had a similar background: they were born in and grew up in rural villages, rather than in Damascus or other large cities. Such men, although belonging to the nation's Sunni majority, were never members of the old privileged Sunni elite and shared a common socioeconomic class origin with the new minority elite. Assad's refusal to designate a successor was typical of his refusal to share political power. His mysterious demeanor seemed to justify his nickname, "the sphinx," which he earned while a member of the secret officers' conspiracy in Egypt in the late 1950s.
In 1980, however, Assad began to cultivate the support of members of the old Sunni Damascene elite, a class that contained many of Syria's influential technocrats, intellectuals, and merchants. He propelled some of these people into high-profile (if not powerful) positions in his government. Assad's patronage gave the Sunni elite a vested interest in accommodating itself to the new order, which helped legitimize and stabilize his regime. For example, Prime Minister Kassim is from an old Damascene family. Minister of Culture Najah al Attar is the sister of exiled Muslim Brotherhood opposition leader Issam al Attar. Because the Attar family is respected by Damascene Sunni Muslims, her appointment served to discourage the Muslim fundamentalist opposition from operating in Damascus.
Another less-known pillar of regime support was the tacit coalition of minorities that Assad had constructed. Non-Muslims such as Christians and Druze's, heterodox Muslims such as Ismailis and Yazidis, and non-Arab Muslims such as Kurds and Circassians had made common cause with the Alawi minority because of the shared fear that they would be persecuted under an orthodox Sunni government. Consequently, members of such minority groups were appointed to important posts in the Assad government.
In addition to these groups, several important and influential military figures supported Assad in 1987. Major General Muhammad Khawli, chief of air force intelligence and head of the National Security Council, was Assad's right-hand man. Khawli was a Matawirah Alawi and a long-time trusted friend of Assad. His position was especially sensitive because Assad rose to power through the air force, and this service has been the breeding ground for several abortive coup attempts. Khawli's deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Haitam as Said, was allegedly involved in sponsorship of terrorism in Europe. Ali Aslan, also a Matawirah Alawi, was deputy chief of staff of the armed forces. Aslan, a rising political star, was promoted to army corps general in 1984, a rank shared only by the minister of defense and the armed forces chief of staff. Both Khawli and Aslan were elected to the Baath Party Central Committee in 1984. Adnan Makhluf, the president's brother-in-law, commanded the Republican Guard, a presidential protection force. Other core members of the Syrian power elite in 1987 included Air Defense Commander Ali Salih and Army Intelligence Chief Ali Duba, both Alawis of the Matawirah tribe. In 1987 Duba reportedly was leader of a clique that included Army First Division Commander Ibrahim Safi and Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan; this coterie was competing for influence with a group led by Khawli and Aslan.
Members of the power elite occasionally fall from grace. After the 1984 power struggle, General Intelligence Directorate Chief Ahmad Diab, a staunch supporter of Rifaat's bid for succession, was demoted. However, Assad, pursuing his evenhanded policy, also chastised Rifaat's rivals for power; Ali Haydar, commander of the Special Forces, and commander of the army's Third Division Shafiq al Fayyad were removed from their commands as well. Rifaat al Assad was exiled to Western Europe once again in early 1986, where he remained in early 1987. These men probably could be rehabilitated and restored to rank if they proved their renewed loyalty to Assad.
In 1987 the power elite remained in a state of flux in which people were rising to power, being demoted, being rehabilitated, and forming and breaking alliances. Assad permitted and manipulated much of this maneuvering because it both revealed and dissipated the ambitions of potential rivals.
In 1987 the question of who will eventually succeed Assad as president remained open. In a 1984 interview, Assad stated that his successor would be nominated by the Baath Party and the People's Council, which constituted the "supreme legitimate authority in the country," and elected by public referendum. Although Assad has governed Syria through a power elite, his answer expressed his desire for Syria to be governed in the future by institutions rather than personalities.
In 1982 Syria neutralized nearly simultaneous foreign and domestic challenges: it maintained its dominance in Lebanon in the face of the Israeli invasion through strategic, if not tactical, victory, and it crushed the internal insurrection of Muslim Brotherhood rebels. Although the victories may have been Pyrrhic, the regime emerged in an apparently strong position.
However, just as Syria was poised to exploit its new strength and assert greater regional dominance, a new crisis threatened to topple the government. In November 1983, Assad, a diabetic, suffered a severe heart attack, complicated by phlebitis. He was hospitalized for a protracted time, and the government was essentially paralyzed. Then, fissures began to appear within the regime. The president's younger brother, Rifaat, plastered public places in Damascus with his own photograph, bearing the caption "the commander," along with photographs of the eldest Assad brother, Jamil, bearing the caption "the spiritual father." In February 1984 Rifaat, in a premature attempt to succeed his ailing brother, dispatched his Defense Companies to positions around Damascus. The Defense Companies were confronted by other military units loyal to the president: the Special Forces under the command of Haydar, the army's Third Division commanded by Fayyad, and the Republican Guard commanded by Makhluf. The two sides engaged in skirmishes, and shots were fired near the presidential palace.
In March the president recovered sufficiently to regain control of the situation. He demobilized the army units, and on March 11 he shuffled his cabinet and appointed the three vice presidents. Syria had not had a vice president since the resignation of Mahmud al Ayyubi in 1974, and the appointments were clearly aimed at defusing the struggle for succession. The vice presidents were announced in the following order: Khaddam, former minister of foreign affairs; Rifaat; and Mashariqa, deputy secretary of the Baath Party Regional Command. The minister of state for foreign affairs, Faruq Sharaa, was named minister of foreign affairs, and the governor of Damascus, Yassin Rajjuh, was appointed minister of information to replace Ahmad Iskander Ahmad, who had died. Tlas, who retained his portfolio as minister of defense, was also named deputy prime minister. The president's actions were stopgap measures designed to disperse power among the rival contenders and to dilute his work load.
In early May, Assad suffered a relapse, and Rifaat once again attempted to seize power, surrounding radio and television broadcasting stations in Damascus and stationing surface-to-air missiles atop Mount Qasiyun overlooking the capital. Fierce street fighting broke out in the northern city of Latakia between Rifaat's Defense Companies and the Special Forces. In a week of combat, nine officers and and about 200 soldiers died. The repercussions of the clash far outweighed the number of casualties, for a miniature civil war between Alawi military units in the Alawis' home province of Al Ladhiqiyah posed a grave danger to the minority regime. Syrian opposition leaders, exiled in Western Europe and the Middle East, applauded what they believed to be the imminent downfall of the Assad regime, but, lacking a base within Syria, they were powerless to take advantage of the factional fighting.
Assad acted at first tentatively, and then more boldly, to reassert his power and restore public confidence in his regime. First, the Alawi clans held a reconciliation meeting. Then, at the end of May, Rifaat and his two chief competitors, General Haydar and General Fayyad, were dispatched first to Moscow and then to Western Europe on lengthy "diplomatic missions." Around 150 lower ranking officers and officials who had played a part in the power struggle were also sent to Western Europe. On July 1, the day a semiannual round of military retirements and rotations traditionally occurs, Assad transferred to administrative positions military figures who had sided too aggressively with either camp. Also in July, Rabitah,Rifaat's public relations organ, was disbanded and his newspaper, Al Fursan,was suppressed. A month later, the Baath Party's National Command was purged of seven members loyal to Rifaat, including Suhayl Suhayl, head of the People's Organizations Buearu; foreign relations head Muhammad Haydar, head of the foreign relations section; Naji Jamil, former airforce commander, who joined Rifaat's camp in Switzerland.
The president also acted to discipline the armed forces as a whole by conducting an anticorruption and antismuggling campaign. The public had long been irritated by the apparent immunity from the law of many military officers. The rampant and open smuggling across the Lebanese border was particularly visible. Assad first closed down the smugglers' market in downtown Damascus, where contraband was unloaded from military trucks and sold by men in uniform. Next, several army commanders were court-martialed. Then, in another military reform, Assad began to organize a new corps structure in the armed services, a move that added a protective layer of bureaucratic insulation between the troops in the field and national-level politics.
Internal stability remained precarious, however, and on July 10, 1984, newly appointed Vice President Khaddam narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a car bomb exploded near his entourage. Khaddam publicly implied that Rifaat was to blame for the attempt, and in a September interview Minister of Defense Tlas claimed that Rifaat was "persona non grata forever" in Syria, and that if he returned, he would be "shorter by a head."
Nonetheless, the president felt secure enough to invite his prodigal brother back to Syria, ending his six-month-long banishment. To bolster his reputation as a statesman, Rifaat, who had moved to Paris and established an antiregime newspaper, timed his arrival on November 26, 1984, to coincide with a visit of French president François Mitterrand. Although Rifaat returned to great fanfare, his wings had been clipped; he was stripped of command of the powerful Defense Companies. In addition, Rifaat's efforts to delegate the command to his brother-in-law, Muayyin Nassif, were blocked by President Assad, who instead appointed loyalist Hikmat Ibrahim to the post. Furthermore, the Defense Companies were stripped of their organic air defense elements and several of their commando units and were eventually absorbed into the regular army as Unit 569.
In the wake of these chaotic events, in 1985 President Assad acted decisively to restore public faith in his government, to reassert his personal leadership, and to dispel the popular perception that he was an ailing figurehead. For example, Assad raised his public profile with a series of inspirational speeches to various university, military, and Baath Party audiences. Whereas Syria had pursued a policy of attempting to match unilaterally Israel's military capability since the 1978 Camp David Agreements between Israel and Egypt, Assad ambitiously expanded the concept of strategic parity with Israel to include the political, demographic, social, educational, economic, and military spheres.
Simultaneously, for the first time in his presidency, Assad began to promote a personality cult. Praise and panegyric for his presidency dominated the media, which compared him to President Nasser and called Assad the "new Saladin." Also, the government organized massive demonstrations in Assad's support. In one such rally, enthusiastic crowds carried his limousine through the streets of Damascus. Assad's twenty-six-year-old son, Basil, who had previously been hidden from the public spotlight, suddenly was given a higher public profile and started training to become an air force officer, leading to speculation that he was being groomed to inherit the presidency and that an Assad dynasty would be established.
To prove to Syrian citizens that the government was functioning normally, in January 1985 (after a two-year delay), the Baath Party convened its first congress since 1980. The most important item on the agenda was the election of a new Regional Command. Assad retained his position at the helm of the party, party Assistant Secretary General Abdallah al Ahmar and Vice President for Party Affairs Zuhayr Mashariqa kept the second and third slots in the hierarchy, and Vice President Abd al Halim Khaddam was put in the fourth position. Rifaat al Assad was put in the fifth position; however, three of his principal allies-- one-time Interior Minister Nasir ad Din Nasir, Security Chief Ahmad Diab, and party official Ilyas al Lati--were banished from the inner circle of power; in fact, these men were the only Regional Command members not re-elected. Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi, the front man in the military's confrontation with Rifaat in 1984, remained in sixteenth place.
At the congress, Assad's keynote speech set the tone when he adhered to a hard line on Syria's regional aspirations, the Palestinian issue, the military balance with Israel, and the Lebanese situation. Assad's emphasis on foreign affairs deflected attention from the still-turbulent domestic situation, focusing instead on undeniable Syrian successes in using its military power to attain regional political goals. Syria's ascendant regional power was underlined by visits by regional clients, proxies, and allies, who came to Damascus to pay homage to President Assad. At the congress, George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Khalid al Fahoum of the Palestine National Council represented the pro-Syria Palestinians. Lebanese leaders Walid Jumblatt, Nabih Berri, and Mahdi Shams ad Din were also in attendance, as was Libyan vice premier Abdul Salam Jallud.
The delegates to the congress endorsed Syria's continued military buildup, but in doing so, they faced the classic choice between guns and butter. Syria's economy was faltering under a staggering burden of military expenditure that consumed at least one-third of the budget. To deal with the problem, the delegates rubber-stamped Assad's controversial initiative to modify Syria's statist approach to economic planning and liberalize the private sector. Taking their cue from Assad's crackdown on military smuggling, the delegates also voiced blunt criticism of the widespread high-level government corruption, patronage, and bribery, which hampered economic development. Such corruption was so pervasive that the Syrian government was described as a "kleptocracy." Many delegates confessed to being guilty of corruption, and a number of officials were dismissed from their posts.
There had been speculation that Assad would withdraw his candidacy or postpone his re-election when his second seven-year term expired in March. However, Assad felt enough confidence in his position to hold a referendum on February 10, 1985. Assad won approval in the yes-or-no vote by the predictable nearly unanimous total of over 99.97 percent.
In a further display of confidence, Assad announced that as a result of contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood's "vanguard organization" in Western Europe, the government had decided to pardon and grant amnesty to former members of the opposition. Accordingly, over 500 Muslim Brotherhood members were freed from Syrian prisons.
On April 8, Assad formed a new cabinet. Perhaps the most significant appointment was that of Muhammad Imadi as minister of economy and foreign trade. Because Imadi was a recognized proponent of free market economics, the Syrian private sector regarded his appointment as heralding a liberalization of Syria's planned socialist economy.
As a whole, Assad's shake-up of the Syrian power elite and his rearrangement of the military and the Baath Party effected significant changes in Syria's domestic political apparatus. Some editorials exuberantly referred to the new changes as representing a revolutionary "second corrective movement," a sequel to the Corrective Movement in 1970 when Assad first took power.
The government tried to conduct business as usual in 1986. Elections were held for the People's Council, with approximately 2 million of the 5.3 million eligible voters participating. The Baath Party won 129 of the 195 seats. The other parties in the NPF won fifty-seven seats. The SCP, which had not been represented in the previous People's Council, won nine seats. The number of women in the assembly grew from twelve to eighteen.
However, in March and April 1986, terrorist bombings in Syria shattered the tranquillity that the Assad regime had been trying to restore. These attacks, and other recurrent internal and external threats, revealed the permeability of Syria's borders and the inextricable link between Syria's internal security and its foreign policy. The relative stability in Damascus in early 1987 appeared to many Syrians to be no more than the calm at the eye of the storm.
At gatherings in Syria, politics is often the chief topic of conversation; the Middle Eastern stereotype of fervent political coffeehouse discussions applies in part to Syria. Politics absorbs much of the active energy of the Syrian male. Most Syrians have strong opinions about what is wrong in Damascus or in their subdistrict centers and about what should be done. Urban Syrians, whether wealthy or poor, educated or illiterate, talk of political personalities and the central government. Rural Syrians talk of local political personalities, agricultural problems, and local politics. However, public criticism of the regime is muted and circumspect. Among the tribes and in more isolated villages, political discussion exists, but primarily on the basis of relations between villagers or tribes.
Political energy generally has been channeled toward clandestine opposition to the government in power and surreptitious criticism of other political forces and even other members of one's own political group, rather than toward active party participation. There are two reasons for this. First, few political parties have attempted to gain broad membership; many have been mere collections of prominent personalities without organization below the top central committees. Second, most citizens have questioned the efficacy of party activity as a means to political ends and personal advancement. The fortunes of political parties have been uncertain; some party members have been exiled or have gone to jail if the party has lost power. Consequently, persons with political ambitions often preferred to operate as independents rather than affiliate with a party.
Popular awareness of broader issues has expanded substantially in recent years as a result of radiobroadcasts and the expanding press, both of which have remained under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information. Headed in 1987 by Yassin Rajjuh, the ministry played a key role in the dissemination of information and, through editorials, the formulation of public opinion. The ministry censored the domestic and foreign press, controlled radio and television networks, and published newspapers and magazines. It supervised the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the country's only domestic news service, and the Al Baath publishing house, which printed Al Baath, the organ of the ruling Baath Party and the nation's most widely circulated daily newspaper, and At Talia (The Vanguard), the fortnightly magazine of the Baath Party. Other major dailies included Ath Thawrah (The Revolution), and Tishrin (October, named after the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War) in Damascus; Al Jamahir Al Arabiyya (The Arab Masses) in Aleppo; and Al Fida' (The Sacrificer) in Hamah. The Ministry of Defense published the magazine Jaysh ash Shaab (The People's Army).
In Syria, individuals interested in politics have historically had limited means of expressing opinion. Often frustrated, they have seized upon the most direct means available of registering opposition: strikes, demonstrations, personal conflicts with politicians, and even, at times, violence and assassination. The method used most frequently is the demonstration, which has often led to rioting.
Industrial workers, merchants, farmers, and other groups have all used demonstrations to demand or protest government actions. Although demonstrations have not always been successful in achieving the aims of the instigators, they have served as useful barometers of public opinion. The skill of the Baath Party in initiating demonstrations was an important factor in the party's rise to power. The government has tolerated spontaneous public demonstrations, but more often it has stage-managed large public rallies in support of its policies.
Most Syrians have a strong libertarian streak and are wary of any government. This suspicion has been most pronounced in rural areas, where authority has been represented in the person of a tax collector or policeman. Moreover, government officials were usually townspeople, and members of villages and tribes felt that urban officials did not understand their problems and were condescending. Government officials often contributed to this attitude by posing as patrons or masters of the rural population. Indeed, urban officials still refer to prosperous peasants as "kulaks." As a result, any government effort to assist villagers or tribesmen was apt to be met, at least initially, with an uncooperative attitude.
Although distrust of the government has been less intense in urban centers, it has existed there as well. Regional jealousies have played a part in the lack of trust. People of Aleppo, Homs, and Hamah have felt that politicians in Damascus were primarily interested in maintaining the ascendancy of the national capital over the provincial capitals. Nevertheless, townspeople attach considerable prestige to holding a government position.
After 1958 the negative attitude of townspeople and villagers toward government began to diminish as people became increasingly aware that government could be an instrument for satisfying some of their needs. Successive governments attempted to bolster this process with a constant barrage of propaganda aimed at creating trust and building loyalty, not only to the government as a social institution but to the particular regime in Damascus. The regimes appealed to citizens on the basis of economic selfinterest , as well as on the broader and more emotional grounds of Arab and Syrian nationalism. The appeals found a wide and enthusiastic response, although the individual citizen incurred few obligations or duties that would test the sincerity of the response.
<"59.htm">Concepts of Nationalism, Unity, and the Arab Nation
<"60.htm">Attitudes Toward Foreign Ideologies and Systems
Because it entails definition of where the national boundaries should be drawn, nationalism is a controversial concept for Syrians. Shortly after independence, most Syrians retained a strong ethnocentrism based on the city or region where they were born and grew up; they owed their first allegiance to their tribe, clan, or ethnic group, rather than to the new nation-state. Over the years, these forces have diminished, but not disappeared, and now nearly all Syrians manifest an intense patriotism, coupled with a strong desire for the recovery of what they feel are integral areas of Syria split off from the nation by French Mandate authorities. A small minority of Syrians, however, have not been assimilated into the Syrian identity. For example, beduin in eastern Syria feel a strong affinity for their neighbors in Iraq and Jordan, and some Christians and Druzes look for guidance to their coreligionists in Lebanon.
The Syrian government has never recognized the legality of Turkey's possession of Hatay Province, which was the Syrian province of Iskenderun until it was ceded to Turkey by France in 1939. Syrian maps still describe the Syrian-Turkish frontier at Iskenderun as a "temporary border." The Syrian attitude toward Lebanon is more ambivalent: Syria officially recognizes Lebanon's de jure existence but has refused to open formal diplomatic relations. Syria feels justified in exerting hegemony over Lebanon and ensuring that it remains a Syrian satellite. In fact, since 1976 Syria has virtually annexed parts of Lebanon. Finally, Syria views the recovery of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights as a national priority. Syrian citizens support their government's policy toward these three areas almost unanimously.
Many Syrians advocate the more far-reaching goal of restoring Greater Syria. Adherents of this concept believe Syria should encompass the entire Levant, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel or Palestine. The Greater Syria concept was formulated in response to a centuries-old, and now quiescent, Middle Eastern dynamic in which Iraq and Egypt traditionally vied for dominance over the Arab heartland between the Euphrates and the Nile rivers. The Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), which is banned in Syria but has numerous surreptitious supporters, has made the quest for a Greater Syria the cornerstone of its ideology; the SSNP also includes Cyprus as a part of Greater Syria. Although it bears the word Syrian in its title, the SSNP was, ironically, actually established in Lebanon and has become a Syrian proxy force in that country.
At a broader level, Baath Party ideology reflects the viewpoint of many Syrian citizens in championing pan-Arab nationalism and proposing unification of all Arab countries into one Arab nation stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, transcending what are regarded as arbitrary and artificial borders drawn by Ottoman or European colonial rulers. However, this vision of Arab unity has not been limited to Baathists. Arab unity was the clarion call of most Arab nationalists during the struggles against European colonialism after World War I. Baathist ideology differs from this older sentiment in making socialism an integral element of pan-Arab nationalism.
Although most Syrians support pan-Arabism, some view it negatively. In many respects, the notion of pan-Arab nationalism contradicts Syrian nationalism because Syria would be subsumed in the larger entity and its identity subordinated to that of the new superstate. Aware of this paradox, Syrian officials reserve for Syria a special place in their utopian ideal as the "beating heart" of the Arab nation. However, Syrian religious minorities fear that extreme pan-Arab nationalism would entail Islamic fundamentalism because Islam is an important common denominator of many Arabs and a potential vehicle for uniting the Arab countries. Therefore, religious minorities, particularly Christians, have stridently resisted proposed unification with other Arab nations, while at the same time supporting the notion of a Greater Syria, which includes Lebanon and other areas with a large Christian population. Some minorities oppose unification; for example, Kurds and Assyrians in northeastern Syria have vivid memories of persecution in Iraq, from which they sought refuge in Syria, and naturally oppose being brought again under Iraqi jurisdiction.
Because using Islam as the defining criterion of Arabism is prejudicial to minorities, Syrians have instead emphasized the common cultural heritage of all Arabs. Specifically, the Arabic language is perceived as the root of Arab nationalism. Additionally, the nearly universal antipathy toward Zionism is another factor around which Arabs can rally, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
This secular rather than religious emphasis has succeeded to the extent that religious minorities have often been in the forefront of Arab nationalist drives. Nevertheless, much of the appeal of Arab nationalism among uneducated or rural citizens has a strong Islamic component. Such people look to an Arab nation that re-creates the Islamic empire, or Dar al Islam prescribed by the Quran and achieved under the Umayyad dynasty based in Damascus.
In any case, pan-Arab unity is a moot issue in Syria, an ideal rather than a practical policy. Syria's unification with Egypt in the UAR proved unpalatable to Syrian politicians. Although since 1980 Syria has been officially united with Libya and has studied merger with Jordan and Iraq, unification in these cases is simply a euphemism for what would be a regular alliance between autonomous nations elsewhere in the world. However, Syria has also been adept at wielding Arab unity as a propaganda weapon. When other Arab countries pressured Syria to improve relations with its enemy Iraq in 1986, it acquiesced in conducting negotiations but demanded complete and total unification. Iraq, as expected, rejected this proposal, giving Syria the moral high ground of appearing to favor pan-Arab unity.
Whatever their background, Syrians generally distrust foreigners on initial contact, although this wariness wanes over time. Syrian rejection of foreign ideologies and systems, especially those of the West, has deep historical roots. Muslim scholars divide the world into two realms: the Dar al Islam, the realm of Islam, and the Dar al Harb, the realm of warfare inhabited by infidels. It is in theory incumbent upon Muslims to convert the latter into the former, by persuasion if possible, by conquest if necessary. Moreover, Islam stipulates that Muslim nations cannot enter into peace agreements with nations of the Dar al Harb, only temporary truces, a distinction that causes disputes in translating peace treaties. Although few contemporary Syrians espouse such a categorical worldview, Syrian politicians do invoke the medieval Crusaders' invasion of the Dar al Islam to arouse nationalism and compare it to more modern European intervention in the area. Furthermore, the long periods of colonial control and exploitation of Syria by Ottoman Turks and the French are well remembered.
Indignation and a deep-seated sense of injustice are common among Syrians, who feel their country has been betrayed by European powers, which Syria, to its chagrin, must nevertheless emulate or solicit for development aid. Added to this sense of betrayal is an acute realization of Syrian's economic and social underdevelopment in comparison with modern industrialized nations, to which underdevelopment the Syrians attribute the succession of military defeats by Israel since 1948. Syrians find their country's underdevelopment is especially painful because they are aware that Syria was the ancient cradle of civilization and, during the Umayyad era, the world's preeminent empire.
These sentiments gave birth to a new, indigenous ideology of Arab renaissance and resurrection and the rejection of foreign ideologies. Although Syrian political parties were influenced by Western models, the first generation of Syrian political leaders sought to establish their nationalist credentials by dissociating themselves from French colonialism. Therefore, they avoided or denied the similarities between their new political parties and those of the West. In addition, although communism has a distinct political constituency in Syria, it is not popular among radical nationalists because of its non-Arab origin and its atheism, which offends traditionalists. However, the Soviet Union, having played little or no part in the historic reasons for the rejection of the West and having actively supported Syria and the Arab cause against Israel, is accepted as friendly, as are the East European states and China. However, Syria has attempted to adhere to a nonaligned foreign policy with regard to the EastWest confrontation, and in recent years it has tempered its strident anti-Westernism with growing tolerance and pragmatic adaptation.
In 1987 Syria's policy toward the superpowers and its Middle Eastern neighbors, as well as much of its domestic politics, continued to be affected profoundly by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because of the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Agreements, periodic Jordanian-Israeli mutual accommodation, and Israeli domination of southern Lebanon, Syria perceived itself as the last Arab confrontation state to share a border with Israel. Syria believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict had been reduced to a bilateral Syrian-Israeli conflict, in which other parties, including the Palestinians, were marginal.
Recovering the Golan Heights from Israel was the specific motive of Syria's policy, but it was only a part of a broader ambition of regional hegemony. Therefore, Syria's goal was to prevent Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), or Lebanon from formalizing Syria's isolation by entering into piecemeal settlements with Israel, while Syria simultaneously undermined Egypt's separate peace with Israel. Syria has declared that the Arab nations could extract maximum concessions from Israel only by acting in concert, a policy some regional observers refer to as the "Assad Doctrine." Implicit in the Assad Doctrine is the assumption that Damascus will orchestrate Arab negotiations. Syria's central role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, therefore, is predicated to some extent on the older ideology of Greater Syria, the notion that Syria should dominate its Arab neighbors.
Syria perceived regional politics in bipolar terms, dividing the Arab world into two camps: the rejectionist front of Syrian allies, and the capitulationists who advocated concessions to Israel. However, Syria's categorical classification of the Arab world seemed only to highlight its regional isolation. Syria's only partners in the "Arab Steadfastness and Confrontation Front" were Libya, Algeria, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen).
Relations with ...
<"66.htm">Iran and Iraq
<"67.htm"> the United States
<"68.htm"> the Soviet Union
As of 1987, Syria had successfully vetoed its neighbors' peace initiatives and constructed a credible unilateral military deterrent to Israel. It had also outlined its position on potential multilateral negotiated solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Syria had accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 338 of October 22, 1973, and indicated that such acceptace implied acceptance of Resolution 242, which was adopted after the June 1967 War. However, in 1986 Damascus suggested a willingness to negotiate only a state of "nonbelligerency" with Israel, not a comprehensive peace treaty. Whereas Resolution 242 specifically requires Arab recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, Resolution 338 more generally calls for negotiations between the parties concerned "under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East." Although Resolution 338 does, in fact, call on the parties to start implementation of Resolution 242, it does not spell out in its text Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist. Although the distinction appears to be semantic, Syria's refusal to endorse Resolution 242 without reservation remained a block to Syrian participation in Middle East peace negotiations. Syria has indicated that it would accept Resolution 242 only if Israel first withdrew from occupied Arab territory and guaranteed Palestinian rights. At the same time, some Syrian propagandists have maintained the more intransigent definition of the entire state of Israel, rather than the areas seized by Israel in the June 1967 War only, as occupied Arab territory. When the Israeli Knesset voted in December 1981 to permanently annex the Golan Heights, Syria perceived the action as a renunciation of Resolution 242 and the "land for peace" formula for resolution of the Middle East conflict. In 1987 Syria viewed Resolution 242 as a virtually obsolete framework for a settlement.
Instead, Syria advocated the implementation of the Fez Resolutions that were sponsored by Saudi Arabia at the Arab Summit at Fez, Morocco, in 1982. The Fez Resolutions demand settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute at an international conference to be attended by representatives of all Arab governments, Israel, the PLO, and both superpowers.
Although Syria wants involvement in such diplomatic initiatives, it has increasingly less faith that a negotiated, peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict will fulfill its demands. Accordingly, Syria has come to rely more heavily on the hope that its military will ultimately secure its objectives or, at the least, act as a credible deterrent to future Israeli aggression. The Syrian-Israeli combat in Lebanon in 1982 increased Syrian confidence in confronting Israel on the battlefield. Although the Syrian armed forces lost men and military matériel, they performed well in several crucial engagements.
Throughout 1985 and 1986, Syria and Israel engaged in brinkmanship and saber rattling, as Syria brandished its new military strength. For example, Syria deployed some of the troops it had withdrawn from Lebanon to the Golan Heights. Then, on November 19, 1985, Israel shot down two Syrian MiG-23 jets inside Syrian airspace. In December Syria retaliated by deploying mobile air defense missiles to Lebanon. Although the missiles posed an identical tactical threat to Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon whether they were stationed in Syria or just across the border, Israel regarded the move as a challenge to a longstanding tacit understanding that such missiles, if located in Lebanon, would be subject to Israeli attack. Syria withdrew the missiles within several weeks after the United States interceded and mediated the dispute. On February 4, 1986, Israel intercepted and forced down a Libyan executive jet, enroute from Tripoli to Damascus, which was carrying Baath Party assistant secretary general Abdallah al Ahmar and other senior Syrian politicians. Israel had ostensibly been searching for Palestinian terrorists, but Syria viewed the interception as a deliberate provocation and an act of air piracy. Finally, in May 1986, it was revealed that Syria had built revetments and entrenched fortifications in Lebanon that faced Israel. Although the construction was defensive, Israel viewed it as enhancing Syria's potentially offensive position on the Golan Heights.
To underscore Syria's increasing belligerence, in an important speech delivered to the People's Council in February 1986, Assad departed from his usually calm demeanor by declaring that Syria would work to put the Golan Heights "in the middle of Syria and not on its borders." Assad was engaging in hyperbole and exaggerating Syria's true intentions. Nevertheless, in 1987 most Syrian and Israeli officials believed that, because of the two countries' irreconcilable conflicts, the outbreak of war was inevitable in the future; some felt it to be in the distant future, while a minority, cognizant of the escalation of tensions in 1985 and 1986, believed it to be imminent.
Consistent with the Assad Doctrine, Syria stridently and successfully opposed the May 17, 1983, accord between Israel and Lebanon that would have normalized relations between the two countries. The February 26, 1984, withdrawal of United States Marines from Beirut, the June 1985 phased Israeli retreat from Lebanon, and the abrogation by the Lebanese government of the accord left Syria the dominant foreign power in Lebanon.
Emboldened by these victories, Syria attempted to capitalize on its position and impose a "Pax Syriana" on Lebanon. On December 28, 1985, it summoned representatives of three of Lebanon's factions--the Christians, Shias, and Druzes--to Damascus to sign the Tripartite Accord. The Tripartite Accord was essentially a new Lebanese constitution, drafted by Syria, that called for the elimination of the old confessional formula and replaced it with a new system of majority rule and minority representation. The Tripartite Accord guaranteed Lebanese sovereignty and independence. However, Chapter 4 of the accord stressed that Lebanon "must not allow itself to be the gateway through which Israel can deliver any blow to Syria" and called for "strategic integration" between Syria and Lebanon. The Syrian blueprint for Lebanon's future thus sustained Syrian suzerainty over Lebanese security affairs and sanctioned the continued deployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon. However, Syria's ambitious initiative failed when the Lebanese Christian community rebelled against the agreement and ousted Elie Hobeika, the Christian signatory.
As a result, Syria reverted to its previous policy toward Lebanon, a balancing act that it had pursued since its 1976 intervention in the civil war. The re-infiltration of PLO guerrillas into southern Lebanon and the reappearance of Israeli advisers in Christian East Beirut indicated that Lebanon was reverting to a situation similar to that before the 1982 Israeli invasion, and battle lines were being drawn for a rematch.
The February 1985 agreement between King Hussein of Jordan and Yasir Arafat of the PLO to form a joint delegation to negotiate with Israel was anathema to Syrian policy as outlined in the Assad Doctrine. Consequently, Syria exerted strong political pressure on Jordan to change its stance. For example, observers accused Syria of unleashing dissident Palestinian terrorists of the Abu Nidal organization, which it controlled, against Jordanian targets in retaliation for Jordan's pursuit of an independent policy. Syria also spread propaganda to persuade Jordanians that their king was giving in to Israeli demands without getting concessions from Israel. Syria also convinced other Arab rulers that Jordan was treacherously dealing with Israel. Within a year, Syria seemed to have succeeded in weaning Jordan from the moderate camp and bringing it into the Syrian sphere.
The December 30, 1985, visit by King Hussein to Damascus marked the end of seven years of unremitting hostility between the two nations. In conformity with the Assad Doctrine, Jordan renounced "partial, separate, and direct talks with Israel" and issued an abject apology and admission of guilt for having harbored and supported anti-Syrian Muslim Brotherhood terrorists in the early 1980s.
In another move consistent with the Assad Doctrine, Syria continued its attempts to control the Palestinian movement and to prevent any Palestinian-Israeli agreement. Accordingly, Syria sponsored the creation of the Palestine National Salvation Front, headquartered in Damascus, an umbrella organization comprising Palestinian splinter organizations that rejected any compromise with Israel. Syria supported these groups as proxy forces against Arafat's more moderate PLO, which had joined with Jordan to explore possible negotiations with Israel. In mid-1986 Syrian and PLO leaders met with inconclusive results to negotiate a reconciliation; such a rapprochement, however, would necessarily entail a return of the PLO to the rejectionist camp and its subservience to Syrian control.
Syrian support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq War and its enmity toward Iraq was modified in 1986. The Syrian-Iranian alliance had been cemented with a March 1982 economic accord that provided for shipments of subsidized Iranian oil to Syria, at which time Syria closed Iraq's oil pipeline through Syrian territory. Syria's support for Iran was not a reflection of any ideological affinity between Assad's regime and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalism but rather an instance of pragmatic politics. It seemed to illustrate the Arab saying that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Syria supported Iran because Iraq had been Syria's implacable foe for decades. Moreover, Syria's alliance with Iran allowed it to exert control over pro-Iranian Shia forces in Lebanon and use them as a proxy force to impose Syrian designs there. In supporting Iran, Syria broke ranks once again with a nearly unanimous Arab opinion favoring Iraq.
However, although Syria wanted Iraq weakened and neutralized, it did not envision the installation in Baghdad of a pro-Iranian fundamentalist Shia regime. As the beleaguered Iraqi regime lost ground to advancing Iranian forces, Assad stated in October 1986 that Syria could not accept the occupation of Iraqi land by anyone. Subsequently, Syrian and Iraqi officials met to explore the possibility of restoring relations. Assad's statement may have prompted the temporary kidnapping, the following day, of the Syrian chargé d'affaires in Tehran. Later in October, Assad met in Damascus with Iranian minister of the Revolutionary Guards Muhsin Rafiq-Dost to repair Syrian-Iranian relations. Rafiq-Dost stated that the Syrians had announced their resolute support of Iran until the downfall of the Iraqi regime and the "liberation of Iraq." However, Syria did not affirm the Iranian statement, and in early 1987, Syrian support for Iran appeared to be qualified.
Over the years, United States-Syrian bilateral relations ranged between grudging mutual accommodation and outright mutual hostility. But even when the relationship was strained severely, the fundamental United States policy toward Syria with regard to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict has remained consistent. The United States endorses United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, the implementation of which would entail the return of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights to Syrian control.
For its part, Syria has often vehemently criticized American policy in the Middle East. At the same time, however, it has recognized that Resolution 242 contains provisions in its favor. Syria has been willing to negotiate with the United States over the Arab-Israeli conflict and other regional issues, as long as the diplomacy is conducted quietly and behind the scenes. Syria has also adhered scrupulously to the commitments and promises it has made to American negotiators.
Since the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, the United States has strongly supported Israel but has simultaneously indicated, particularly after the October 1973 War, that it acknowledges the legitimacy of some of Syria's grievances against Israel. In the aftermath of Israel's attack on Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1982, the United States was forced to choose between irreconcilable Israeli and Syrian ambitions in Lebanon; the administration of Ronald Reagan chose to endorse the Israeli position. President Reagan supported the May 17, 1983, Lebanese-Israeli accords and linked this peace treaty to his attempts to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, Syria stymied the Reagan initiative, in part by inciting opposition to American policies among its surrogates and proxies in Lebanon. The United States also suspected Syria of having played a role in attacks on the United States Embassy and on the Marine barracks in Beirut. Although the degree of Syrian complicity was never determined, American officials believed that Syria at least had foreknowledge of and acquiesced in the attacks. Syrian-United States relations reached their nadir in December 1983, when the two nations engaged in near warfare. On December 4, United States carrier-based warplanes attacked Syrian antiaircraft installations in Lebanon's Biqa Valley (two were shot down), and on December 13 and 14, United States battleships shelled Syrian positions. From a military viewpoint, the clashes were not highly significant. However, they marked the first American-Syrian armed conflict and reinforced Syria's view of the United States regional policy as gunboat diplomacy.
In June 1985, Syrian-United States relations improved dramatically when Syria interceded on behalf of the United States after the hijacking to Beirut of Trans World Airlines flight 847. Reagan expressed his appreciation of Syria's role in securing release of the hostages, albeit in guarded language. Yet to some observers Syria's ability to impose its will on the hijackers confirmed Syrian links to terrorism. Although Syria had been accused repeatedly of supporting Palestinian terrorism against American, West European, and Israeli targets in the Middle East and in Western Europe, there had been little evidence, much less proof, of direct Syrian complicity in terrorist attacks against Western targets.
However, when a Jordanian, Nizar Hindawi, was apprehended on April 17, 1986, after attempting to smuggle a bomb aboard an Israeli El Al Airlines plane in London, he confessed that Syrian intelligence officers had masterminded the abortive attack and that Syria had provided him with the training, logistical support, and explosives to carry out the plot. Britain reportedly collected evidence that corroborated Hindawi's story. As a consequence, on May 6, 1986, Vice President George Bush said of Syria, "We are convinced their fingerprints have been on international terrorist acts," and on November 14, 1986, the United States imposed sanctions on Syria "in response to Syria's continued support for international terrorism." The White House, however, also stated that "Syria can play an important role in a key region of the world, but it cannot expect to be accepted as a responsible power or treated as one as long as it continues to use terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy."
In these statements, the United States censured Syria for sponsoring terrorism but also implied recognition of Syria's potentially central role in the Middle East. Even since Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's first visit to Damascus in December 1973, Assad has attempted to persuade successive American administrations of the truth of the old adage "There can be no war in the Middle East without Egypt, but there can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria." Assad sought to convince the United States that Syria, however intransigent its negotiating stance, should not be ignored in any comprehensive Middle East peace treaty because it could resume war with Israel and therefore exert veto power over an Arab-Israeli settlement. At the same time, however, Assad was convinced that the United States was indispensable in any Middle East peace because only the United States could force Israel to make concessions to the Arabs.
In 1987 the relationship between Syria and the Soviet Union appeared to be close and deep. Syria was clearly favored among Soviet client states in the Third World. For over twenty years, Syria had obtained most of its military equipment from the Soviet Union. In addition, there was a large Soviet military presence in Syria; by mid-1984 there were an estimated 13,000 Soviet and East European advisers in Syria. However, many of these advisers were withdrawn in 1985 during a dispute so that in 1986 between 2,000 and 5,000 remained.
Syrian-Soviet relations were upgraded and formalized in the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed by Assad in Moscow in October 1980. The treaty runs for twenty years and has automatic five-year extensions, unless one of the parties terminates the agreement. It provides for regular consultations on bilateral and multilateral issues of interest, coordination of responses in the event of a crisis, and military cooperation.
A secret protocol to the treaty reputedly details Soviet military obligations to Syria and may mandate the dispatch of Soviet troops to Syria in case of an Israeli invasion. Syrian defense minister Tlas warned in 1984 that the Soviet Union would dispatch two Soviet airborne divisions to Syria within eight hours in the event of a conflict with Israel. Tlas's has also stated that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons to protect Syria. Tlas' statements, however, were not endorsed by the Soviet Union. Syrian-Soviet nuclear cooperation is limited to a February 1983 agreement for cooperation and exchange for peaceful purposes.
Although the Syrian-Soviet relationship is close, Syria is not a Soviet proxy, and the Soviet Union has gained little leverage over Syrian domestic and regional policy in return for its military support. Although Syria may be aligned with the Soviet Union, its basic orientation is toward the West. Syrian leaders have little affinity with communism, and Moscow has been powerless to prevent Syrian repression of the SCP. Syria's pursuit of independent policies has caused considerable friction with the Soviet Union. Examples of Syrian intransigence include its 1983 rebuff of Soviet requests for a naval base at the port of Tartus and its deviation from Moscow with regard to the Palestinian issue.
Former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov appeared to be a staunch advocate of Syria, and the Soviet Union acquiesced to many of Syria's demands. However, after Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, the Soviet Union reassessed its relationship with Syria. Assad made a brief visit to Moscow in May 1985 and restated Syria's plea for a stronger Soviet military commitment. However, the Soviet leadership reprimanded him for Syria's hostility toward the PLO and Iraq and reminded him that Syria was not its only Middle Eastern ally. In June 1985, Assad again met Gorbachev in Moscow to debate the Palestinian issue, but there was no resolution. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets withdrew a significant number of their military advisers from Syria. In early 1987, it was not known whether Assad expelled the Soviet advisers in retaliation for his cold reception in Moscow or whether the withdrawal occurred at Soviet behest; however, the strain in relations was clear. Syria's persistent refusal to accede to Soviet desires regarding the PLO was becoming a test case of the relative power of the patron state and its client. At the same time, the Soviet Union could not afford to appear to abandon Syria.
In May 1986, Gorbachev renewed Soviet promises to supply Syria with military equipment and excoriated Israeli and American pressure on Syria. Yet Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, appeared prepared to pressure Syria for concessions in return for Soviet military aid. Gorbachev expected Syria to support his embryonic new agenda for the Middle East, which revived the longstanding Soviet plan for an international Middle East peace conference attended by all parties, including Israel.