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Syria

 
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Syria

Government and Politics

[GIF]

Assyrian court officials from wall painting, c.a. 750 B.C., Tall Hariri

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.

Data as of April 1987

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