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SYRIA - The Islamist Factor.

Relative to the other major countries in the Arab World - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Algeria - Syria has remained unaffected by the virus of militancy. It appears that the Syrian leadership under former president Hafez Al Assad had with considerable foresight anticipated and put up checking measures to ensure that militancy did not break out in the country. This is partly because Islamic militancy did rear its head in Syria during the early 1980s. But it was silenced through a tough crackdown that, according to some estimates, caused up to 20,000 casualties in the town of Hama.

Islamist tendencies have never been given a chance to articulate their vision about Syrian-Israeli relations in the years following the Madrid Conference in October 1991. As such, they have virtually no chance of opposing whatever position Damascus talks in negotiations with Israel. Although there have been indications that Islamist tendencies have penetrated on a small scale into the country in recent years as a result of developments elsewhere in the Middle East, the chances of these tendencies threatening stability in the country are not high.

There are several reasons for this, including: (1) the internal security services, which has a deep presence and a vast network of informants throughout the country; (2) The long-standing friendship between Syria and Iran, forged in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, precludes much chances of Tehran backing any militant moves to challenge the Syrian regime; (3) Damascus was closely allied to Moscow and did not look favourably on its own citizens participating in the Afghan jihad, so the problem of returning "Afghanis" launching jihad in their homelands faced by Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, etc. did not affect Syria; (4) Syria has a long record of providing various kinds of support for the main Islamic groups in the region including Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others - so these groups had a vested interest in preventing any destabilisation of the Baathist regime; (5) mosques and other religious bodies in the country are closely monitored by the security agencies, and Damascus never allowed mosques to develop into channels for the expression of free political opinion; and (6) The Syrian republic is Baathist and secular, and although there has been no aggressive ideological push by the Baathists to instill their ideals, unlike Kemalism in Turkey, people in Syria tend to be liberal and quite Westernised especially in the urban centres.

The factors that operate against militancy gaining a major foothold in Syria are not likely to change in a big way in the foreseeable future. President Bashar is slowly consolidating his rule. Even in a scenario where the Assad dynasty is ousted, chances are that his successor will be from within the Baathist structure. It is highly unlikely that the successor will change fundamental aspects of state policy like its secular Baathist ideology, which is opposed by the Islamists.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Mar 12, 2001
Words:485
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