Manual Syria: From the Ottoman Empire to the Rise of the Baath

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Kurdish forces have emerged among the biggest winners, controlling about a quarter of the country — territory rich in oil, water and farmland. It is the biggest chunk of Syria not in state hands, now with its own forces and bureaucracy. While the U. Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not seek partition but rather regional autonomy as part of Syria.

Since then, more than 40, people have been killed in the conflict. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in , tried and sentenced to death. That was later reduced to life in prison after Turkey abolished the death penalty. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has removed restrictions on using the Kurdish language. The government held talks with Ocalan, who is in jail on an island near Istanbul, in , but they broke down and the conflict has revived.

Kurds form percent of the population, mainly inhabiting the three northern provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan. The French, seeing the Alawite clans as potential allies in the old divide-and-rule method of colonial government, introduced schools to their villages.


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In Mr. Assad became the first member of his family to be sent down to Latakia, on the coast, to start his secondary education. He was soon caught up in the debates among Communists, Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists, which intensified as Syria gained independence in Assad joined the new Arab Baath Socialist Party, which preached that a secular, socialist state encompassing all the Arabs would revive their past glory and undermine Western dominance.

When he was elected to head his high school's student affairs committee, he used the position to try to foment nationwide student protests against other parties and the government. By the time he finished high school in , at the age of 20, his interest in politics was cemented even as he embarked on an air force career. Fees for military school were abolished with independence, so he enrolled in the new Air Force College in Aleppo.

The Alawites, like the underprivileged throughout the Middle East, used the military to gain an education and then to supplant the elite that scorned them. His years at Aleppo, from to , when he graduated as a lieutenant, coincided with Nassar's rise in Egypt. In Syria's government rushed to join Egypt in the United Arab Republic, imagining that the idea would prove so seductive that all Arab governments would either join or be swept aside.

The union collapsed in Soon after he returned his squadron was transferred to Egypt. He and a fellow group of officers, dismayed by the degree to which Syrians had been marginalized, formed a secret committee to plot to take control in Damascus. The years after the union brought turmoil. The highly politicized officer corps jockeyed for control of the country, with each faction taking power thinning the ranks of its rivals through execution or exile. By the time the Arab-Israeli war erupted in June , Syrian military officers were ill-prepared to do battle.

Assad was minister of defense during that war, having gained that position in February when the group of officers he helped found in Cairo seized power in a violent putsch. He was 35, serving in his first Syrian government, the most extreme the country had yet known. It was repressive at home, seeking to topple the old Sunni Muslim elite, and radical abroad, funneling aid to Palestinian guerrillas to attack Israel.

The war, over in a week, was as much a military as a mental blow to the Arabs. All their exaggerated oratory about the bankruptcy of the Zionist cause proved fruitless, and the Arabs suffered the embarrassment of losing the eastern sector of Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights in Syria. Assad came to power in the wake of another debacle, in September , when Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan sought to topple King Hussein.

Syria sent tanks over the border to support the guerrillas, then retreated under Jordanian air attacks, and King Hussein kept his throne. Assad used the disarray to stage a bloodless coup called ''the corrective movement. Assad ruled through the Baath Party, using its secular ideology as the cover for bringing the Alawite minority into key positions.

Eventually the commanders of the special forces, intelligence, the armored corps and key divisions were all Alawites, a remarkable achievement for a group that used to produce the servant class. His first priority as president was trying to erase the stain of the defeat. In that he had a ready ally in President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. The two profited from the superpower competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, with Moscow pouring billions of dollars of weaponry into both their arsenals and stationing thousands of advisers in both countries.


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  • They struck on Oct. The Israelis, while monitoring the troop buildup along their borders in the days preceding the attack, were caught unaware, seeing the massive mobilization as more bluster than threat. For days it seemed the survival of Israel was at stake, but it gradually gained the advantage. The Egyptians had basically captured the eastern shore of the Suez Canal and dug in, their two top generals at loggerheads over how much of the army could advance into the Sinai.

    President Assad believed bitterly that Mr.

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    Sadat had betrayed him. He thought Mr. Sadat had crossed the canal and then deliberately stopped, seeking a limited victory that would both restore the image of the Egyptian Army and, more important, attract American patronage. By the time of a shaky cease-fire at the end of October, it was clear the Arabs had again been defeated. The United States attempted to build a comprehensive peace settlement, Secretary Kissinger shuttling between Arab capitals and Israel. Kissinger was the first of many American officials to have their hopes dashed by the Syrian leader, discovering at the end of lengthy negotiations about a peace conference that Syria had no intention of taking part.

    Still, Mr.

    Stasis in Damascus

    Assad felt that the Americans got the upper hand because the talks paved the way for Egypt to forge a separate peace. The cease-fire negotiated then on the Golan did stick, however, and it became Israel's quietest border despite the upheaval that followed. The conflagration of was barely extinguished when the next crisis erupted, in Lebanon.

    Its civil war pitted the Lebanese Christians, whose power was enshrined in the Constitution despite their shrinking population, against the Palestine Liberation Organization and more economically deprived communities like the Shiites and the Druze. As the army and government fractured along sectarian lines, the Christian defeat by the more numerous Muslim factions seemed a foregone conclusion. Although Mr. Assad acknowledged that Syria and Lebanon were sovereign nations, Syrians had long viewed Lebanon as a natural part of their country that had been unfairly severed by European colonial meddling.

    Assad intervened with his army to preserve the status quo. Critics said his defense of the Christian minority reflected his own insecurity that majority rule in Lebanon might inspire attempts to unseat his Alawite minority. The intervention in Lebanon, though sanctioned by the Arab League, also gave Mr. Assad a chance to try to reassert control over the P.

    He had long been at odds with Mr. Arafat, even jailing him briefly in Damascus in for trying to dilute Syrian influence over the Palestinian movement. But the Lebanese chaos gave an opening to a deadlier conflict, providing Syria and Israel the space to fight another war. Assad retained his influence over his neighbor.

    The Hijackers

    In September , Syria was apparently the hand behind the assassination of the Lebanese leader Bashir Gemayel, which effectively aborted the attempt to negotiate a separate peace between Israel and Lebanon. Assad nonetheless put renewed emphasis on his doctrine of ''strategic parity'' with Israel. He believed that the Arabs would always be hindered unless they could use military aid from the Soviet bloc to build a credible force to face the high-tech weaponry that flowed to Israel from the United States.

    In Syria intervened militarily in the Lebanese civil war, leading to a brief but damaging clash with Israel in ; after Assad slowly reestablished limited Syrian control in Lebanon. Following the end of the Lebanese civil war in , Syria and Lebanon signed a series of treaties that granted special privileges to Syria by establishing joint institutions in the fields of defense, foreign policy, and economic matters.

    Novels, poems, short stories, plays, and paintings often emphasized historical themes, the Palestinian problem, Socialist Realism , folk art , and opposition to foreign imperialism. Rapid population increase hindered economic growth , while the intensification of agriculture ran into natural barriers, such as the limited availability of fresh water and the high cost of desalination.

    Industrial development was slowed by bottlenecks in production. Inflation, government corruption, smuggling, foreign debts, a stifling bureaucracy, and only very limited success in encouraging private sector investments also posed severe economic problems, as did spending on the military and on the intervention in Lebanon. Assad hoped to overcome some of these economic difficulties by obtaining aid from the rich oil states of the Middle East.

    As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Syria turned to China for military supplies.

    Learning from Sykes-Picot | Wilson Center

    Syria condemned the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August More than 20, Syrian troops joined the UN-authorized coalition in Saudi Arabia , and Syrian forces helped liberate Kuwait from Iraq during the brief war. Syria participated in Arab-Israeli peace talks starting with the Madrid conference in October and November and intermittently engaged in direct negotiations with Israel throughout the s over the return of the occupied Golan Heights and a possible peace accord between the two countries.

    Although the negotiations periodically showed promise, the climate of the discussion fluctuated considerably, and by the end of the decade, the dialogue between the two sides had garnered little success.