Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire

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Overview

Syria has long presented a difficult problem for American policymakers. Actively supportive of groups such as Hezbollah, it has occupied Lebanon for more than 20 years. Damascus remains intransigent on Israel's complete withdrawal from the disputed Golan Heights as the sine qua non for peace with that state. It is often mentioned in the same breath as members of the infamous "axis of evil." Syria occupies an important strategic position in the Middle East —one made even more significant as America considers long-term involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq.

As the policy challenges posed by Syria's problematic behavior have grown more pressing in the recent security environment, the United States has had difficulty formulating a coherent and effective policy toward Damascus. The death of long-time dictator Hafiz al Assad has forced renewed debate on its place in the region. The transition from Assad to his son Bashar has thrown Western consensus on how to deal with the Syrian leadership further into doubt.

In heriting Syria fills this void with a detailed analytic portrait of the Syrian regime under Bashar's leadership. It draws implications for U.S. policy, offering a bold new strategy for achieving American objectives, largely via a strategy of "coordinated engagement" employing both sticks and carrots. This strategy would be independent of the Arab-Israeli peace process, thus a historical departure for the United States. The author's long service in the foreign policy establishment has uniquely positioned him to provide valuable insights into this mysterious yet important country.

This book will be of high interest to those concerned about the Middle East, the war on terror, and the future of American foreign policy. Written for a general audience as well as the policymaking and academic communities,her iting Syria is is an important resource for all who seek deeper understanding of this enigmatic nation and its leadership.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Leverett offers an incisive analysis of how Hafez Assad operated and what motives underlay his endless maneuvering and calculation." —Thomas W. Lippman, The Washington Post, Book World, 6/12/2005

"This book is valuable for its account of Syria under Bashar al-Asad, but especially for its insights into the US policy process and the divisions within the US foreign policy establishment....Leverett's measured analysis (along with inside accounts of other moderates) gives hope that the voices of reason may yet prevail in the corridors of Washington power." —Raymond Hinnebusch, The Middle East Journal

"Inheriting Syria is recommended for public and academic libraries and to those interested in Middle Eastern affairs." — Curled Up, 11/16/2005

"At a time in Washington when policy interests chase down facts, near facts or fiction, what suffers is honest analysis, common sense and nuance. Fortunately, that is what Leverett offers in the discussions of Bashar's performance thus far in managing Syria's domestic- and foreign-policy." —Martha Neff Kessler, Middle East Policy

"an exhaustive study of the country's policies and ambitions under the young president." —Tim Boxer, 15 Minutes

"Flynt Leverett's book is one of the few that make sense. It is a sympathetic and well-researched account of Syria since the death of its long-time leader President Hafez al-Asad five years ago." —Amir Taheri, Asharq Alawsat, 10/24/2005

"This book, with no doubt, is destined to serve as an important source for studying contemporary Syria....In sum, Leverett's book is an important, interesting, and informative one. It will serve as a vital source of information for anyone interested in learning more about Syria and Bashshar al-Asad. It also offers important insights into Washington's mode of conduct vis-a-vis Syria in recent years." —Eyal Zisser, Middle Eastern Studies

"Leverett parts the veil to show us the complex workings of this state sponsor of terror, possessor of WMD, and important player in determining the future of the Middle East. From peace for Israel to the security of U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria has a veto. Leverett shows how the unlikely leader in Damascus is struggling with the strange regime his father built." —Richard A. Clarke, former U.S. national coordinator for counterterrorism and author of AGAINST ALL ENEMIES

"Flynt Leverett is a 'country specialist' in the best sense of the term. He is thoroughly familiar with Syria's politics and policies as well as the ins and outs of the U.S.-Syrian relationship. This is a well-balanced assessment of Bashar and his regime, offering a thoughtful analysis and critique of U.S. policy as well as alternative options." —Itamar Rabinovich, President, Tel Aviv University

"When I served as Director of Central Intelligence, Flynt Leverett was one of my 'go-to' analysts on the Middle East, particularly Syria. In 1996, his forthright analysis helped U.S. policymakers walk Israel and Syria back from the brink of armed conflict. He now brings that same analytic acumen and historical perspective to the difficult choices facing the United States. No matter what your point of view, this is a well-written and solidly argued book that could not be more timely." —George J. Tenet, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and former Director of Central Intelligence

"Bashar al-Asad's Syria has remained a mystery to most observers. Flynt Leverett's book begins to unravel the mystery. He offers an insightful picture of who the younger Asad is; how he seeks to follow the 'script' he inherited from his father; which political, familial, psychological, sectarian, and bureaucratic factors constrain him; and what approaches by the United States might most effectively alter Bashar's behavior and the balance of forces in Syria. For anyone interested in understanding Syria today and considering the options for dealing with it, this book is essential reading." —Dennis B. Ross, Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former special Middle East coordinator

Foreign Affairs
The death of Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000 ended what may well have been the longest "reign" (30 years) of anyone in Damascus since the rise of Islam. Only one Umayyad caliph lasted more than 20 years, and the most time any leader stayed at the top during independent Syria's stormy saga from the 1940s to 1970 was fewer than five years. Clearly, the father managed to put together a durable system. Is the son continuing in the same vein, or is he, in the Mafia metaphor proposed by Leverett, the son of Don Corleone who wants to make the family business legitimate? After surveying the last five years, Leverett concedes that "the jury is still out about Bashar's gradualist approach to internal reform." As for Bashar's foreign policy, Leverett, who tracked Syria as a U.S. government official from the late 1990s to 2002, tells the story largely in terms of U.S.-Syrian relations. He does not stint in relating how Syria has stymied U.S. goals (and often been maddeningly difficult in the process), but his reading of the record is that Washington now needs to offer Bashar's regime a more coherent policy of "conditional engagement."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815752042
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2005
  • Pages: 286
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Flynt Leverett is a senior fellow and director of the Global Energy Initiative in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. Most recently, Leverett was a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He has served as senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, and as a senior Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

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Read an Excerpt

Inheriting Syria

Bashar's Trial by Fire
By Flynt Leverett

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2005 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-5204-0


Chapter One

The Syrian Paradox

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

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

Apparent Weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges for U.S. Policy

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

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

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

Syria and Regional Stability

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

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

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

Continues...


Excerpted from Inheriting Syria by Flynt Leverett Copyright © 2005 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The Syrian paradox 1
2 Hafiz's legacy, Bashar's inheritance 22
3 Bashar and the possibilities of domestic reform 57
4 Bashar and Syria's place in the regional order 99
5 Options and recommendations for U.S. policy 147
App. A Chronology of Bashar al-Asad's presidency, June 2000 to December 2004 167
App. B The Statement of 99 and the Statement of 1,000 203
App. C UN Security Council Resolution 1559 213
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2006

    Required Reading for Learning About the Middle East

    Truly enjoyed reading this book and would have no reluctance about recommending it. Although this is the first book I have read about Syria, I truly learned a great deal. At times, the author writes the book in the fashion that I would expect an intelligence brief to look like - i.e. just facts with little fluff - and it can become a bit dull. But that probably comes from his years of preparing such intelligence reports. In parts the author starts to sound like a Syrian apologist, and I don't agree with some of his suggestions about the approach the US should be taking in its relations with Syria, but I found his opinions to be interesting and intellectually honest. All in all, great book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2005

    Syria - Almost Explained

    Despite somewhat dry writing and rapidly evolving events on the ground, this is a compelling book for anyone interested in the Middle East. Former U.S. State Department and C.I.A. Syria-expert Flynt Leverett covers the history, personalities and strategies of the late dictator, Hafiz Al-Asad, and his son, Bashar, Syria's current ruler. The author explains U.S. diplomatic options and traces the evolution of Syria, an impoverished rogue dictatorship long under U.S. sanctions as a state that supports terrorism. He devotes about 30% of his well-researched book to a chronology, appendix and footnotes. He provides extensive support materials to demonstrate why a country with so many internal needs has become such a devoted patron of terrorism, imbued with the purpose of destabilizing Western Democracies' policies and spoiling any regional peace efforts. Leverett also addresses the U.S. State Department's near tolerance of much of Syria's international troublemaking. While he presents clear descriptions, he offers no clear-cut answers - as if there are any - but offers possible scenarios, mostly stalemates, in this drawn-out international chess game. We recommend this book as important reading on U.S. foreign policy.

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