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Syria's Assad regime gets little sympathy from neighbors

Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, kept Syria stable for 40 years through Machiavellian guile and ruthlessness, while sowing havoc elsewhere in the region.

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The Assad dynasty, after all, had managed to survive 40 years in the turbulent Middle East using a combination of repression, guile, strategic foresight, and luck. Its neighbors – Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, all have been at odds with Syria at some point in the past four decades, complaining that Syria was meddling in their affairs, dispatching insurgents and militants into their territories, and providing support for their enemies.

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Now some of Syria’s neighbors are quietly gloating at the Assad regime’s discomfort, while others are worried that the instability will spill across their shared borders. But both Syria’s foes and friends recognize the country’s central role in the chaotic dynamics of the region – and its Machiavellian ability to act as a spoiler when marginalized or threatened.

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Domestically, the Syrian population either was cowed by the state’s omnipresent and ruthless security apparatus or quietly accepted that the lack of freedoms was a price worth paying to ensure internal stability. The ruling Baath Party’s Arab nationalist ideology papered over the sectarian and ethnic cracks that define Syria, which is ruled by the minority Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“Syria is the cockpit of the Middle East and optimizes the deep complexity of the region’s schizophrenic social geography,” says Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East Center at the University of Oklahoma. “On the one hand, it has always made a claim to be the beating heart of Arabism, calling for unity and secularism, and on the other, it is a deeply fragmented nation with a regime dominated by a religious minority.”

Assad senior: ruthless, but pragmatic

After Syria gained independence from France in 1946, Syria was plagued by successive coups – there were three in 1949 alone. In March 1963, the Baath Party launched its own coup. Seven years later, Hafez al-Assad seized power, ending several years of internal bickering within the party.

Under Assad’s leadership, Syria achieved stability for the first time in more than 20 years, but it came at the cost of personal freedoms. Assad was determined to preserve his regime against all threats and was not afraid to use maximum force to achieve that goal. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Assad regime faced its greatest domestic threat from a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brothers assassinated dozens of leading regime figures and even Assad narrowly escaped being killed in a grenade attack.

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