Ba'ath Party Rule

Upon assuming power, Hafez al-Assad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Assad's Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Ba'ath Party took 87 seats. The remaining seats were divided among "popular organizations" and other minor parties. In March 1971, the party held its regional congress and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Assad.

In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Assad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Assad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Ba'ath Party, and elections were held to establish local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962. The 1973 Constitution defines Syria officially as a secular socialist state with Islam recognised as the majority religion.

On 6 October 1973, Syria and Egypt initiated the Yom Kippur War by launching a multi-front surprise attack against Israeli forces stationed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. After intense fighting the Israel Defense Forces blunted the Syrians and reversed the initial Syrian gains, ejecting the Syrian army from the Golan and pushing deeper into Syrian territory beyond the 1967 boundary. As a result, Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights as part of the Israeli-occupied territories.

In early 1976, the Lebanese civil war was going poorly for the Maronite Christians. Syria then invaded Lebanon with 40,000 troops ostensibly to prevent the Maronites from being overrun, but abruptly switched sides soon thereafter and became embroiled in the Lebanese Civil War, beginning the thirty-year Syrian military occupation. Many crimes in Lebanon, including the assassinations of Rafik Hariri, Kamal Jumblat and Bachir Gemayel were attributed to the Syrian forces and intelligence services.[48] Over the following 15 years of civil war, Syria fought for control over Lebanon, and attempted to undermine Israel in southern Lebanon, through extensive use of proxy militias. Many saw the Syrian Army's presence in Lebanon as an occupation, especially following the end of the civil war in 1990, after the Syrian-sponsored Taif Agreement. Syria then remained in Lebanon until 2005, exerting a heavy-handed influence over Lebanese politics that was deeply resented by many. Following the assassination of the popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, blamed on Syria, pressure was put to bear on Syria to withdraw their forces from Lebanon. On April 26, 2005 the bulk of the Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon but some of its intelligence operatives remained, drawing further international rebuke.

 
About one million Syrian workers came into Lebanon after the war ended to find jobs in the reconstruction of the country. Syrian workers were preferred over Palestinian and Lebanese workers because they could be paid lower wages. In 1994, under pressure from Damascus,[citation needed] the Lebanese government controversially granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrian residents in the country.

 

The authoritarian government was not without its critics, though open dissent was repressed. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the government. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people either dead or wounded, mostly civilians (see Hama massacre). The Syrian government's actions at Hama have been described as possibly being "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East". Since then, public manifestations of anti-government activity have been limited.

Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the Western world. Syria participated in the multilateral Southwest Asia Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further direct Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafez al-Assad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.

Under Bashar al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following al-Assad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34. This allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On 10 July 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian Government statistics.

Bashar al-Assad's election in the summer of 2000 saw the birth of the Damascus Spring and hopes of reform. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons where groups of like minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. The phenomenon of salons spread rapidly in Damascus and to a lesser extent in other cities. Political activists, such as, Riad Seif, Haitham al-Maleh, Kamal al-Labwani, Riyad al-Turk, and Aref Dalila were important in mobilizing the movement. The most famous of the forums were the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi Forum. Pro-democracy activists mobilized around a number of political demands, expressed in the "Manifesto of the 99". However, by autumn 2001, the authorities had suppressed the movement, imprisoning some of the leading intellectuals who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience. Renewed opposition activity occurred in October 2005 when activist Michel Kilo launched with leading opposition figures the Damascus Declaration, which criticized the Syrian government as "authoritarian, totalitarian and cliquish" and called for democratic reform. Although the Damascus Spring lasted for a short period, its effects still echo during the political, cultural and intellectual debates in Syria today.

Although Bashar al-Assad said he would reform, the reforms have been limited to some market reforms.

Over the years the authorities have tightened Internet censorship with laws such as forcing Internet cafes to record all the comments users post on chat forums. While the authorities have relaxed rules so that radio channels can now play Western pop music, websites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook and Amazon have been blocked.

On 5 October 2003, Israel bombed a site near Damascus, charging it was a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad. The raid was in retaliation for the bombing of a restaurant in the Israeli town of Haifa that killed 19. Islamic Jihad said the camp was not in use; Syria said the attack was on a civilian area.

In May 2004, the United States moved closer to imposing sanctions on Syria, following the adoption of the Syria Accountability Act by the House of Representatives International Relations committee. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, all included in what the EU and the U.S view as terrorist groups, all take refuge and enjoy strong relationships with the Syrian government.

Following 2004 Al-Qamishli riots, the Syrian Kurds protested in Brussels, Geneva, in Germany, at the US and UK embassies, and in Turkey. The protesters pledged against violence in north-east Syria starting Friday, 12 March 2004, and reportedly extending over the weekend resulting in several deaths, according to reports. The Kurds allege the Syrian government encouraged and armed the attackers. Signs of rioting were seen in the towns of Qameshli and Hassakeh.

In 2005, under heavy international pressure, Syria withdrew 14,000 troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.

The authorities maintain close ties to Iran. On September 6, 2007, Israeli jet fighters carried out Operation Orchard against a suspected nuclear reactor under construction by North Korean technicians.

In April, 2008, President Assad told a Qatari newspaper that Syria and Israel had been discussing a peace treaty for a year, with Turkey acting as a mediator. This was confirmed in May, 2008, by a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The status of the Golan Heights, a major obstacle to a peace treaty, is being discussed.

 

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