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The historical argument against intervention in Syria

COMMENTARY | June 03, 2011

The country's complicated and messy history offers plenty of cause for the U.S. to stay out of a civil war that has nothing to do with its national interests.

By Haviland Smith

As the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters becomes ever more brutal, calls for some sort of intervention on behalf of the popular uprising are inevitably getting louder. But advocates of such a move would be wise to consider the country's complicated history.

 Syria is not the kind of place where a little shove can set things right. In the current conflict, the country's rulers are likely to fight the rebels to the death, and with their trademark ugliness and brutality.

Like just about all of its neighbors in the region, Syria has been conquered and re-conquered by all the major culprits, Persian, Roman, Greek, Ottoman as well as others.

Since the Second World War, again like most of its neighbors, Syria has survived periods of severe instability and pure repression.  In its first ten years of existence, it went through four constitutional rewrites and twenty separate cabinets. It experienced numerous military coups and suffered often under martial law.  An Emergency Law, which effectively ended most of the protections afforded to its citizens by its various constitutions, was declared in 1962 and lasted until 2011.

In short, throughout its existence, Syria has been the victim of invasion, plotting, coups, instability and chaos. 

Like Iraq, Syria is an example of rule by a repressive minority.  Syria is roughly 74% Sunni, 16% Shia (Alawites) and 10% Christian and “others”, including a very few Jews.  The Alawites are a mystical minority of Shia Islam.  They came into power with Hafez al-Assad in 1970, which was something of an unwelcome surprise to the three quarters of the population that was Sunni and which had held power in Syria for centuries.

Assad's rule was characterized by automatic repression of any opposition.  This, of course, was made doubly difficult and  repressive by the minority status of the Alawites in Syria.  Assad ran a pervasive internal security apparatus comprised of thousands of agents reporting primarily on real and imagined dissent.  

Assad is accused of having been responsible for literally thousands of extra-judicial executions of Syrian citizens.  Perhaps the most memorable of these was the Hama massacre in February 1982, when the Syrian Army put down a revolt by Sunnis in Hama during which it is said that 10,000 to 40,000 Sunni civilians were killed and the city almost completely razed.

In foreign affairs, modern Syria has been involved in the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars with the Israelis.  They have been in the forefront of the opposition to Israeli occupation of Palestine, financing and assisting both Hamas and Hezbullah.

Lebanon, which is considered by Syrian irredentists to be rightfully theirs, has been a constant target for their military and political action.  During and even after the recent fifteen-year Lebanese civil war (1975-90), Syrian troops were invited into Lebanon by partisan factions seeking support from the Assad regime.  Particularly sensitive and contentious even today is the popular belief that in more recent years, Syrian agents assassinated a pro-Western Lebanese prime pinister and several other prominent leaders regarded by Damascus as hostile to Syria's historic ambitions to control Lebanon.

There are other neighbors who have conflicting stakes in the current Syrian rebellion.  For example, anti-American elements like Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, which have been closely allied to and supported by Syria, are finding today that many of their youthful members are sympathetic to the protesters being ruthlessly suppressed by the Assad regime. 

Since, 2000 when Assad died, Syria has been under new management.  His son and successor, Bashir Assad, had studied in Great Britain as an ophthalmologist, and there was some hope that Syria might enjoy a less repressive rule under his hand.  

That has not proven to be the case. The fact is that he is first and foremost a minority Alawite working in a government with other minority Alawites who are generally resented by the majority Sunnis whom they rule.  They have ruled for the past forty years because they have stuck together and terrorized the majority Sunnis.

The result here is simple and pervasive.  Those who are now in fairly full rebellion against the sitting Syrian government are not going to be handed the reigns of power.  

We have no dog in this fight. Direct American intervention of any kind and at any level would simply risk our being drawn into another potentially costly and bloody civil war in which vital U.S. national interests are clearly not at stake.

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