Syria's regime has changed little since the days of Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad. But the U.S. handling of Syria today contrasts sharply with Washington's behavior in the past. In the period with which I am most familiar, from 1974, when the embassy reopened after being closed for seven years following the Six-Day War and I became U.S. ambassador to Syria, until Hafiz al-Assad's death in 2000, the United States was little concerned with Assad's repressive domestic policies.
Assad came to power in 1970 after spending years rising through the ranks of the Syrian Air Force and the Baath Party, which had seized control of Syria in 1963. Once in office, he proceeded to build up the security services, which eventually came to consist of some 15 to 17 (often competing) forces. He controlled the senior appointments of each service and ensured that they all funneled their reports -- including reports on his citizens' movements and moods -- to his office. He ruled with a firm hand, and when, in the 1980s, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood intensified its campaign of violence against him, he authorized an unprecedented harsh response: the shelling of the city of Hama, the group's headquarters, in 1982. The campaign left at least 10,000 Syrians dead.
At the time, the United States said very little about the Hama shelling, and there was no suggestion that the United States intervene. Had we attempted to do so, Assad would have vigorously resisted and the Arab world would have joined him in rejecting an American-organized effort against the regime. From 1974 until the regional upheavals last spring, the United States was pursuing other interests in Syria.
Throughout Hafiz Assad's presidency, it was Syria's foreign policy that most concerned the United States. Primarily, Washington worked to bring about Assad's support for the Arab-Israeli peace process. After the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat promoted closer relations with Israel, Assad methodically molded Syria's role as leader of the Arab Steadfastness and Confrontation Front.