Does Syria Matter?

By | Nov 09, 2011

Stewart Spread

For the first time in eight years, peace talks between Israel and Syria are underway. Eight veteran Syria-watchers —Tony Badran, Tom Dine, Martin Indyk, Joshua Landis, Moshe Ma’oz, Michael Oren, David Schenker and Andrew Tabler—weigh in on whether a deal is on the horizon.

The “Syrian Spring” arrived, it was said, when Hafez Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar. An ophthalmologist with refined British manners whose previous executive stint was as president of the Syrian Computer Society, Bashar was an unlikely replacement for the military strongman known as the “Lion of Damascus.” Many in the West saw his rise to power as an opportunity to transform Syria into an American ally that would make peace with Israel.

Bordering Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, Syria has been described as “the beating heart of Arabism.” During the elder Assad’s 30-year rule, he transformed the country into a hub of terrorism, managing to unite the disparate enmities and ideologies of the Middle East under the banners of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. Syria allied itself with Shi’ite Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. It supported the Palestine Liberation Organization, and when Hamas and Islamic Jihad replaced the PLO as Israel’s chief Palestinian enemies, Syria sponsored them, too, even as Assad dealt ruthlessly with Sunni extremists on his own turf.

The Syrian Spring never came: Bashar’s ascension coincided with the election of George W. Bush, and Syrian-American relations spiraled downwards. Syria opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and was implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which led the United States to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus. Pressured to end its nearly three-decade military control of Lebanon, Syria further angered Washington by backing Hezbollah in its 2006 summer war with Israel and by allowing terrorists to cross its eastern border into Iraq, fueling the insurgency there.

History did not foretell Syria’s evolution into a nemesis of the United States. Under President Harry Truman, the United States supported Syria’s anti-colonial struggle against the French. After gaining independence in 1946, Syria underwent multiple coups and briefly merged with Egypt before reestablishing its independence as the Syrian Arab Republic in 1961. Despite American efforts, Syria became a Soviet ally.

When the Ba’ath Party seized power in 1963, Syrian-American relations deteriorated further. Born after World War II, this party of “resurrection” espoused a secular, socialist and pan-Arab ideology and took root in both Syria and Iraq. In 1970, Hafez Assad, a Ba’athist and a member of the Alawite religious minority, considered heretical by both the Sunni and the Shi’a, staged yet another coup.

Syria fought an unsuccessful war against Israel in 1967, losing the Golan Heights, and then joined Egypt in the 1973 war against Israel, and lost again. So Hafez Assad adopted a new tactic for regional power: When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, Syria established a permanent presence there and backed Hezbollah, which spread throughout southern Lebanon in the early 1980s. By then, Egypt had made peace with Israel, and Iraq and Iran were bogged down in a bloody, decade-long conflict, leaving Syria as the main bastion of Arabism and resistance to Israel.

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