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. He maintained that a united Arab world was the only way to confront Israel and to create a durable peace.

In 1974, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mediated a Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights, which restored to Syria control over a slice of territory that it had lost to Israel in 1973. Assad expected this to be the first among many such arrangements to restore Syria's 1967 borders. No such thing would happen. The Israelis concentrated on making peace with Egypt and, over the years, only periodically turned to Syria when they needed a foil to peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

For several years, Assad rejected U.S. attempts to move toward a peace agreement without an advance guarantee of total return of Syria's land. He maintained that getting the basic support of both peoples for a peace agreement would take a generation. Only in the late 1980s was he prepared to state publicly that he would support "a peace of the brave," and even then, to the general dissatisfaction of the United States and Israel, gave virtually no detail on his vision of what that peace would involve.

The second major American concern in Syria was the country's involvement in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. In 1976, after Beirut asked for Syrian military support against the Palestinian Liberation Army, Assad sent in troops, carefully observing Israeli strictures on the areas of their deployment. Once installed, the Syrians overstayed their welcome, and their presence came to be widely condemned as an occupation. In the course of the 1990s the United States imposed financial sanctions on the country, expanding a sanctions regime that eventually also targeted Damascus for its weapons of mass destruction programs, association with al Qaeda and the Taliban, and corruption.

The Syrians finally left Lebanon in 2005, after a public outcry over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which, many Lebanese believe, was instigated by the Syrian leadership. American criticism showed Washington's mounting unhappiness with Syrian policymakers and their system of governance. This discontent, however, still did not extend to intervening in Syria's domestic policies.

Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, brought a more outgoing personality and apparent interest in reforms. Syrians and the West initially hoped that he would fulfill that promise, but hope for reform soon faded. In contrast to his father, who made few promises but kept his word, Bashar was quick to promise reforms but failed to implement them. He took some steps to liberalize the economy, but the Baath Party, which had long since become mostly just a regime mouthpiece and a corrupt patronage network, retained its monopoly of power. He jailed political moderates who pushed for government reforms, and the reign of the security services continued unchallenged.

Bashar continued to engage in talks about peace with Israel for a few years in talks led by Turkey, but in the meantime Washington had become more concerned with Syria's long-standing friendship with Iran. Cultivated originally by Hafiz Assad as a function of his rivalry with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Syrian-Iranian relationship had, over the years, brought Damascus significant investment, trade, and political support. In Washington, the talk was of the need to wean Syria from its ties with Iran. Doing so was seen as a way to deliver a strategic setback to Iran.

Then came the Arab Spring. After the relatively bloodless departures of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and the successful fight to unseat Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, many assumed that Assad's fall was inevitable and imminent. From the very early days, Damascus maintained that all demonstrations were the work of imperialist thugs and Zionist terrorists and deserved the harshest possible destruction. In the southern town of Dera'a, where the regime arrested and reportedly tortured teenage graffiti writers, to the intensive shelling of Homs, Idlib, and other centers of resistance, Bashar reacted with the brutality that his father had displayed in 1982 but this time, thanks to amateur video makers within Syria and the new communications media of Facebook and Twitter, the world was watching.

Last August, President Barack Obama called on Assad to step aside. The regime repeated its accusations that the wave of demonstrations and violence was caused by outside agents of imperialism and Zionism. That played well with many Syrians, who have a highly developed sense of conspiracy politics and victimization at the hands of foreign powers. Washington then welcomed the Arab League's initiative to send a monitoring mission to the country and its referral of the Syrian situation to the Security Council. As the violence spiraled, Washington recalled its ambassador, as it had in 1986 and 2005. The Obama administration left behind no staff but at the same time made clear its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels, who had initially pursued peaceful demonstrations but some of whom, when faced with heavy artillery and tanks, decided that only armed rebellion would have any chance of success.  

Washington hopes that whenever the Assad regime is replaced, it will be by leadership guaranteeing a multiparty political structure and a foreign policy free of Iranian influence. What Washington can do to advance those goals is, however, very much in question. Russia and China vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria that would have given a measure of hope to the opposition and pause to the regime.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken out repeatedly against Syria's repression of its own citizens, but as yet there is no sign that their words, or those from any other quarter, are having an impact. Assad's reaction to the unrest has primarily been to apply more force. He benefits from the fact that the Syrian opposition remains highly fragmented, and that to train an effective military force to confront that of his regime would be time-consuming and difficult.

Washington is helping shape a more coherent political opposition. But U.S. policymakers must keep clearly in mind that the regime has its supporters in all walks of life and across Syria's religious communities. Over the last 40 years, the Assad family built a reputation for safeguarding the country's minorities and for providing a predictable (if repressed) life for Syrians. Its policies have created both resistance to change and inertia.

Washington was long irritated by Syrian criticisms of Egypt over its peace treaty with Israel, by Damascus' support for Iranian nurturing of Hezbollah and Hamas, and by Syria's own prolonged military presence in Lebanon. It took the Arab Spring and the United States' worry about Iran's nuclear program to bring all of these resentments into focus. There have been defections from the Syrian military. However, unless these increase massively or there is a coup from within the Syrian military ranks, the prospect of prolonged confrontation and bloodshed in Syria is likely.

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  • RICHARD W. MURPHY was the United States ambassador to Mauritania (1971–74), Syria (1974–78), the Philippines (1978–81), and Saudi Arabia (1981–83). He served as the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989.
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