Historian Philip S. Khoury, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, located Syria in the context of its own history and in the context of Middle Eastern and international relations in a 90-minute talk Sept. 29 sponsored by the Security Studies Program.
A skillful and efficient portraitist, Khoury provided listeners crowded into Room 38-615 with a memorable sense of the personality of Hafiz al-Asad, father of Bashar al-Asad, Syria's current ruler, and the forces uniting and dividing the country's population of 18 million people.
After independence in 1946, Syria, the birthplace of both Arab nationalism and the Baath Party, ranked second only to Bolivia in number of coups. Supported by his own Alawite religious sect with its extensive influence in the military and the Baath Party, Hafiz al-Asad seized exclusive power in 1970. He expanded his base by tying the merchant and industrial classes to his regime and by eliminating all serious challengers. His "widespread repression" of a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982 sent a "chilling message throughout the country that is remembered to this day," Khoury said. "No Arab leader or regime was more successful in imposing stability."
Despite his domestic political success, Asad lacked the charisma of better-known leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser (1918-1970), president of Egypt, or Saddam Hussein, formerly of Iraq. "He had an ascetic's personality, like Arafat; they hated each other," Khoury said.
The cramped conference room where Khoury spoke provided a sense of Asad's ruling style. "His toolkit for governance was to preside over exhaustingly long diplomatic meetings, conducted in windowless rooms with no access to bathrooms. He'd ply people with coffee and tea," Khoury said.
Bashar al-Asad's leadership of Syria (since 2000) confronts new challenges, including mitigating the country's economic and technological isolation, keeping his father's old guard under control, and maintaining the "repressive armature of the Syrian state" while not bowing too deeply to the forces of political Islam. Bashar must accomplish all this even as he attempts to nurture trade with other countries and goodwill with the United States, Khoury said.
Several participants in the session wondered aloud about Syria's ties to Al Qaeda, its relationships with Islamic resistance groups, especially Hezbollah and Hamas, and its third place on the Bush administration's regime-change priority list.
Khoury acknowledged that Damascus, like Beirut, has served as a Paris-like haven for exiles and dissidents from across the Arab world, and often for the most radical or militant among them. He also noted that Osama Bin Laden's mother is reportedly Syrian, perhaps a member of the Alawite minority, like the Asads. But he added that "the Syrian regime is bitterly opposed to Al-Qaeda."
"Syria is a fundamentally secular state. Nothing worries the Asad regime more than the rise of Islamism and Syria's stalled economy. He wants stability in Syria, stability in Iraq," Khoury said. Khoury is author of two books on Syria, "Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945" (Princeton University Press, 1987 and 1989), which received the George Louis Beer Prize of the American Historical Association, and "Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860-1920" (Cambridge University Press, 1993 and 2004).
Khoury is author of two books on Syria, "Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945" (Princeton University Press, 1987 and 1989), which received the George Louis Beer Prize of the American Historical Association, and "Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860-1920" (Cambridge University Press, 1993 and 2004).
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 6, 2004 (download PDF).