The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut on 14 February has provided the opportunity for US officials to turn the spotlight on Syria. The US was swift to accuse it of destablising Lebanon and sponsoring terrorism.
Last year the US imposed sanctions on Syria, accusing the Baathist government of aiding the resistance in Iraq. A few months later the UN security council passed a resolution demanding Syrian troops pull out of Lebanon.
The interest in Syria is not new. The countries of the Levant have been eyed up by imperialist powers since the 19th century, when the area that is now Syria and Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled from Istanbul. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Britain and France looked to divide the Levant between them in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This envisaged a French sphere of influence in Lebanon and Syria, while Britain would control Palestine, Iraq and a new kingdom of Jordan.
Even as they haggled over the small print with the French, British officials were encouraging Arab nobles to revolt against the Ottomans. In 1920 Emir Faisal, eldest son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca led an Arab rebellion that proclaimed an Arab kingdom in Damascus. But Faisal’s bid for independence was crushed by French troops and the emir was hastily packed off to Baghdad by the British to become king of Iraq.
For the next 25 years, Syria was governed by French colonial administrators under a mandate from the League of Nations. Colonialism left a bitter legacy of sectarianism, as the French played the politics of divide and rule. The French created a new state in Lebanon, drawing its borders to ensure a wafer-thin majority for their traditional allies, the Maronite Christians, who were given precedence over the Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslim populations.
In Syria there was widespread resistance to colonialism. Between 1925 and 1926 a massive revolt spread in opposition to colonial rule which the French crushed with difficulty, twice bombing the capital Damascus.
Finally, in 1946 another popular rebellion forced the French to evacuate their troops. The landowners and merchants who formed the first post-independence governments soon faced workers’ strikes for better pay and conditions, while peasants rebelled. Radical parties flourished. The first Communist MP in the Arab world was elected in 1954, while the nationalist Baath Party’s vision of pan-Arab unity to defeat imperialism found a growing audience.
The Baath Party, founded in 1947 by Syrian school teacher Michel Aflaq, based its strategy on the actions of an elite, although it was supported by many peasants.
In 1958, the Syrian Baathists urged Egypt’s military leader Gamal Abdul Nasser — hero to millions of Arabs for his nationalisation of the Suez Canal — to become president of a United Arab Republic made up of Syria and Egypt. But the republic fell apart in 1961, when Nasser faced a revolt by sections of the Syrian capitalists who opposed his land reforms and feared his plans to nationalise industry and the banks.
A military coup in Damascus handed power back to a liberal civilian government. The Baath seized power in 1963 in another coup. They combined anti-imperialist rhetoric and support for the emerging Palestinian guerrilla groups with state capitalist economic policies modelled on the Soviet Union.
Disaster struck in 1967, when Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria and seized the Golan Heights.
The 1967 defeat strengthened the position of the military wing of the Baath as Hafiz Assad, one of its leading figures, launched an internal coup — dubbed “the Corrective Revolution” — in 1970. Assad turned away from some of his predecessors’ more radical state capitalist policies, partially liberalising the economy.
Then in 1976, Syrian troops intervened in the Lebanese civil war. A rising nationalist movement in Lebanon brought together Palestinians living in refugee camps with the Lebanese left. It threatened Lebanon’s pro-Western government and challenged the sectarian system that favoured the country’s Maronite Christians.
The revolt triggered the Lebanese civil war in 1975 and initially defeated the right. Syria, at the behest of the US, invaded to block a nationalist victory. The US and Israel — which backed the Maronite militias — approved Syria’s occupation.
In April 1976 Syrian troops encircled a Palestinian camp at Tel al-Zaatar while the Christian militias carried out a massacre — the Israelis would do the same at Sabra and Shatilla camps in September 1982.
After the defeat of the left, the Lebanese right turned against Syria and made an alliance with Israel, which in turn invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982.
In 1989 after years of factional conflict and shifting alliances, Syria and the Arab governments sponsored a peace agreement, the Taif Accords, which officially ended the civil war. The agreement called for a gradual withdrawal of Syrian troops. But despite pulling back to areas in the north of Lebanon and the Bekaa valley, Syria continued to play a dominant role in Lebanese politics.
The war years also threatened the Syrian regime. Syrian troops encountered stiff resistance from the Lebanese national movement and intensified fighting contributed to growing anger back in Syria. In 1980 a prison revolt in the huge detention camp in the eastern desert near Tadmur was put down at the cost of 1,000 lives. Far more serious was the revolt in Hama, led by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which culminated in an uprising in 1982.
But the regime survived. In revenge for the uprising the Syrian army killed at least 30,000 civilians and practically razed Hama to the ground.
In the 1980s, the Syrian economy stagnated and its superpower supporter, the Soviet Union, went into terminal decline. But the 1991 Gulf War provided an opportunity for Syria to realign itself with the Western powers.
Assad’s regime joined the US-led coalition against Iraq. The shift did not lead to a resumption of US aid, but opened the door to an improved relationship with the European Union and Saudi Arabia. An expansion of oil production also powered economic growth during the 1990s. Shell, TotalFina and Elf-Aquitaine all invested in new oil fields. The Syrian ruling class brought in new laws to encourage foreign investment. But most ordinary Syrians lost out. More than three quarters of Syrian workers earn less than the bare minimum required to feed a family of five.
The 1990s saw increasing economic co-operation between Syria and Lebanon. In 1991 they signed the Treaty of Brotherhood and Co-operation, which formalised Syria’s dominant role in Lebanese politics.
Some sections of the Lebanese ruling class saw the liberalisation of the Syrian economy as a golden investment opportunity. Rafiq Hariri, despite his recent disillusionment with Syria, was long an advocate of this co-operation.
Lebanese bosses also enjoy the benefits of cheap Syrian labour. Up to a million Syrians work in Lebanon. But Lebanese unemployment is rising fast and the economy is stagnating. This is one of the factors behind the growing resentment at Syria expressed by an estimated 200,000 mourners at Hariri’s funeral procession.
The death of Syrian leader Hafiz Assad in 2000 and the stage managed transfer of power to his son, Bashar, raised prospects for economic and political liberalisation. At first the new government seemed prepared to tolerate greater openness, and forums discussing political ideas sprang up around the country. But the honeymoon period did not last long and the authorities closed most of the civil society forums in early 2001, imprisoning many of the movement’s leading activists.
Syria’s relations with the Palestinians have also remained contradictory. Palestinian groups have often received political, financial and military support from the Syrian government — although Syrian leaders have sought to curtail the Palestinian movement’s independence to protect their own interests.
Syria’s rulers had allowed the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas to organise in the Palestinian refugee camps in Damascus and several Hamas leaders were based in Syria. But as a result of pressure from the US and Israel, the Syrian government has recently leaned on Hamas to curtail its public activities in the country.
George Bush also accuses Syria of supporting Hezbollah (the Party of God) which has popular support among the Shia population of southern Lebanon and mobilised resistance to the Israeli invasion of 1982. In May 2000 Hezbollah inflicted the greatest military defeat in Israel’s history when its army was forced to evacuate southern Lebanon.
The US has no objection to the crimes of Syria’s rulers. That is not why Bush is threatening war. It is because Syria is opposed to a peace deal with Israel, offers verbal support to Hamas in Palestine and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Above all it has not joined the chorus of support for Bush’s occupation of Iraq. An attack by the US on Syria would be a blow against all those forces in the Middle East that have not bowed low enough to US interests.