Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

U.S. Policy in Syria

Paul S. Rowe


July 8, 2011
by Paul S. Rowe

The pace of events in the Middle East continues to shock and surprise.  Few predicted the political earthquakes of January and February 2011.  Those revolutionary movements took place in relatively open societies with authoritarian regimes that proved unable to draw upon the violence necessary to quell the protests.   In the months that have followed, the uprisings have spread to more repressive societies like Libya and Syria.   The case of Syria is one of the most sensitive, due to the sectarian divide in that country and the central role of Syria in Lebanese and Palestinian politics as well as the peace process involving Israel. 

For Christians, Syria presents a particularly difficult problem.  In this region, numerous Christians remain of the Syriac Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches, among others.  Syrian Christians, who make up about 10% of the population, have had a leading role in contributing to public life over the past few decades, acquiescing to rule by the Baathist leadership.  Christians and other minority communities of Alawis, Druze, and Shi’i adhere to the Baath in deference to its non-sectarian, pan-Arab ideology.  For many Christians in Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Asad represents the best of a bad set of options.  All the minority communities have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo against the possibility of an Islamist takeover or rule by the Sunni majority.  They fear that regime change could usher in a period of extreme instability or Islamist chauvinism that would prove disastrous.

However, perpetuation of the status quo will only come at the cost of horrendous injustice.  Syria has been an intrusive police state since the 1970s.  Torture and prolonged detention are used as a means of terrorizing the population.  When the opposition has organized public demonstrations or other forms of resistance, the regime has crushed dissent through brutal violence.  The most famous of these incidents was in 1982 when the city of Hama was put under siege and military units purged thousands of suspected Islamist militants.  In the past several months, the Asad regime has demonstrated similar disregard for the Syrian people, engaging in violent actions to suppress the pro-democracy movement in places such as Daraa and Jisr al-Shughour.   Though the violence is aimed at maintaining regime stability, it is only likely to inflame sectarian divisions in the future, as the Sunni majority finds reason to blame the minorities for their role in the crackdown.  In this calculation, Lebanon also figures prominently. While Syria has long avoided the sectarian tensions of its western neighbor, a breakdown in order in Syria would have implications for both states, raising the odds of conflict in the region.

For these reasons, Western governments have been wary of seeking the demise of the Syrian government.  While few in the West have sympathy for the regime, there is widespread concern that the devil we know is better than one we do not.  Syria’s demand for the full return of the Golan Heights remains one of the chief impediments to the negotiation of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.  Its support for Hezballah in Lebanon and Hamas among the Palestinians makes it a constant irritant to U.S. and Israeli foreign policy.  Nonetheless, the regime is viewed as manageable, and internal changes in Syria might bring a more revolutionary or revisionist government to power rather than a more pliable one. 

The incremental reforms recently promised by President Asad are merely a tactic to maintain control over the country.  The Asads are survivors who have little interest in truly broadening the political base of their government.   The U.S. should instead support the Syrian opposition in a measured way, particularly the peaceful demonstrations now taking place. It should be wary of contributing to an already volatile situation by favoring or seeking to undermine one particular faction.  Continued broad-based liberalization will contribute to a thaw in the frozen state of Syrian politics.  This will not be a dramatic move toward democratization but it will lay the groundwork for enduring political change in years to come.

—Paul S. Rowe is an Associate Professor of Political Studies at Trinity Western University in Canada.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”