Revisionism versus Realpolitik: The Strategic Culture of Syria

The concept of strategic culture – which argues that culture can influence strategic behavior just as it can social behavior – remains somewhat controversial. On the one hand, idealists reject the notion that not all cultures share in the supposedly universal aspirations of humanity, while on the other hand, neorealists are often hostile to an alternative system of explanation that does not depend on rational calculations of the balance of power. (It is, however, very compatible with the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau)

In my opinion, neorealism is a much more flexible and inclusive paradigm than many of its critics (and proponents) give it credit for. Kenneth Waltz’s “third image” of international relations describes how the structure of the international system can itself be a cause of war and also permits wars that derive from non-systemic factors, such as megalomaniacal leaders or warlike governments; it is at these levels – the first and second “images” – that strategic culture can be a useful supplement to neorealism.

This post is based on a paper I wrote a couple years ago, which used the concept of strategic culture to identify the sources of Syrian foreign policy. I think it is a good – if amateurish – example of how the national security community tries to employ the concept, conducting extensive cultural analyses to identify key factors that influence the subject’s strategic thinking.

Syria is a difficult case study for students of strategic culture. Ever since the Assad regime rose to power in 1970, Syria’s international behavior has been largely consistent with that of a realist rational actor. However, strategic culture can help explain the origins of that behavior.


This post will argue that Syria’s foreign policy is derived from a “Sectarian-Survivalist” strategic culture that became dominant over a “Revisionist-Irredentist” culture after Assad came to power. The post first examines the historical origins of both cultures. The history of modern Syria is then briefly surveyed, with emphasis on events that illustrate the rise and decline of the Revisionist-Irredentist culture. This is followed by an examination of the man who was the consummate personification of modern Syria, Hafez al-Assad, and an analysis of his regime style. The article then describes how Syria’s strategic culture has manifested itself in recent history, and concludes with a discussion on the potential for change and the impact that the culture might have on Syria’s WMD program.

The Origins of Syria’s Strategic Culture

Prior to its independence from the French mandate in 1946, Syria had very little history as an independent state. The last time a sovereign Syrian entity existed was during the Umayyad period of the Islamic  Caliphate (660-750 AD), when Damascus was the capital of an empire that stretched from the Bay of Biscay to the Hindu Kush Mountains. The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750 AD and the capital of the empire was moved to Baghdad. Hereafter, as the unity of the Arab Empire began to disintegrate, Syria became the perpetual victim of power struggles between more dominant forces in the region. This was exacerbated by Syria’s geographic position, located on a fault line of West-East competition.

This turbulent history inhibited the development of a uniquely Syrian identity and contributed to the very heterogeneous population that now exists in the state of Syria. The lack of a major river system that could be used for communication and the localized development of economies around key cities further divided the people of the region. Overlaying ethnic divides were religious schisms formed over centuries of religious conflict that “riddled the region with antagonistic factions.”[1] This increased the complexity of Syria’s internal divides:

The entanglement of politics with religious differences produced factionalism and conflict which made community turn against community. It also created verifiable sacerdotal theocracies which made politics an affair of clan chieftains and prevented individuals from acquiring political rights and fulfilling a political function. Specialization of economic function along religious lines strengthened the particularist identity and tendencies of each community.[2]

With a Syrian national identity non-existent, tribal and sectarian loyalties filled the void. The intensity of this sectarian conflict was captured by the diary comments of the wife of a British consul who served in Syria in the late 19th century:

They hate one another. The Sunnis excommunicate the Shias and both hate the Druze; all detest the Alawis; the Maronites do not love anybody but themselves and are duly abhorred by all; the Greek Orthodox abominate the Greek Catholics and the Latins; all despise the Jews.[3]

Syria’s long history of being a province of greater powers led to the formation of a supranational, trans-state identity that came to exist in parallel with sectarian loyalties. This emphasized “imagined communities” with larger, semi-mythical forces. Thus, according to this sense of identity, Syria is only part of a larger empire, an Islamic ummah, or an Arab nation, with the final of the three being the most recent manifestation of the phenomenon, taking the form of the pan-Arab movement and the Ba’ath party.

Thus, Syria’s history has produced two forms of identity, each of which is the source of a particular strategic culture. The first is a “Sectarian-Survivalist” culture that derives from the constant conflict between sectarian identities, and is characterized by pragmatism, ruthlessness, zero-sum calculations of competition and power, and the general lack of a governing ideology. In short, incessant conflict between rival sectarian identities created a strategic culture that is very “realist” in nature. The modern symbol of this culture is the Assad regime itself, and its custodians are the regime and the security forces that the it is based upon.

The second is a “Revisionist-Irredentist” culture that derives from Syria’s identification with supranational trans-state forces, and seeks the unification and leadership of these forces. The modern symbol and custodians of this strategic culture is the pan-Arab movement and the Ba’ath party.

Historical Events Influencing Syria’s Strategic Culture

By briefly examining Syrian history from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of Hafez al-Assad, it is possible to draw an arc that charts the rise and fall of the Revisionist-Irredentist culture.

Immediately following independence from the French mandate, the irredentist culture was on the ascent to dominance. Syria had just emerged from over twenty years of European imperialism, which was for Syria a mostly negative experience. The British broke their promise of an independent Arab state in exchange for Arab assistance against the Ottomans. Instead, the historic Suriya al-Kubra (Greater Syria) was dismembered, with Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq being detached and subsequently occupied by either British or French forces, while the Syrian rump state was given to the French. The French practiced a divide and rule strategy within their mandate, deliberately arming minority groups to maintain control over the majority Sunni. This amplified sectarian tensions to the point of societal exhaustion.[4] Thus, during World War I, the British built up the irredentist culture to gain Arab support against the Ottomans, only to destroy it afterward by breaking their promise and carving up the independent state that the Arabs hoped to gain. “The truncated Syrian state was, from its very birth, seen by most Syrians as an artificial creation of imperialism, undeserving of affective loyalty.”[5] The British then promised the Jews a “national home” in what was once considered to be Syrian territory, permanently establishing what the Arabs consider to be a beachhead for Western imperialism. Therefore, by the time that the truncated Syrian state finally achieved independence from the French mandate, the irredentist culture had been severely agitated and was at its most dominant point; the time was ripe for leaders who were willing to seek the reunification of the region under Syrian leadership.

The Ba’ath party, which stepped into this void, was founded on 7 April 1947 by two French-educated intellectuals, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar.  As an Arab nationalist party, its key tenants were Arab unity, socialism, “freedom,” and secular non-sectarianism.[6] It found fertile ground in Syria, especially because the oligarchic government that succeeded the French mandate was extremely unpopular with the peasant population.[7] Syria’s disastrous military performance in the 1948 war against Israel exacerbated this unpopularity and energized the ascent of the Ba’ath party. Unfortunately for the Ba’ath, however, its recruiting was conducting mostly by younger members who simply returned to their home communities and recruited from their own ethnic and religious groups. Hafez Assad, an Alawite, was himself recruited into the party in this fashion. This short-sighted recruitment technique imported Syria’s sectarianism into the Ba’ath party, and gave it a distinct minority cast that put it in conflict with the country’s majority Sunni.[8]

Despite the tenuously increasing fortunes of the Ba’ath, by 1957 Syria was on the verge of political collapse, and its overtures to Nasser concerning a union between Egypt and Syria were motivated as much from a desire to avoid a breakdown of Syrian society as they were by the desire to fulfill pan-Arab ideology. Syria accepted nearly all of Nasser’s demands, and the resulting United Arab Republic was completely dominated by Egypt. This heavy-handedness on the part of Nasser quickly led to Syrian disillusionment. A military coup by a disaffected Syrian officer led to Damascus’ secession from the UAR in 1961.[9] Syria’s experience with the Union, which began in a fit of pan-Arab optimism and idealism, would end with Ba’ath ideology severely discredited. Six years later, Syria would suffer a devastating defeat in the Six Day War, losing the crucial Golan Heights that constitute the only natural barrier keeping Israeli armor out of the Syrian plain. The defeat was “a watershed in tempering irredentism. It was both a consequence of Syria’s failure to conform to the realist survival rules of a state system and a precipitant of the major changes needed for it survival in this system.”[10] In addition to discrediting the current Ba’ath government, the disastrous war had a profound impact on Hafez al-Assad, who at the time was the Syrian defense minister:

Without a doubt, the defeat was the decisive turning point in his life, jolting him into political maturity and spurring the ambition to rule Syria free from the constraints of colleagues and rivals who he felt had led the country to disaster. [11]

Assad considered the defeat to be the predictable consequence of an overzealous government unnecessarily provoking Israel, giving it a pretext to seize the Golan Heights, which it had long desired for its strategic military value. Assad later commented to a meeting of the National Congress that “it would have been better to refrain from gratuitous provocations which the enemy can exploit to trap us into a battle our army is in no state to fight, let alone win.”[12] Finally, in November 1970, Assad and a group of trusted officers seized power in a bloodless coup.

Hafez al-Assad

Machiavellian archetype?

When Assad came to power, the Sectarian-Survivalist strategic culture became dominant. Hafez al-Assad was appropriately described as a “tough Machiavellian,”[13] and making judgments about any ideology that he might have held is difficult, if not pointless. While Assad might not have completely abandoned Ba’ath ideology, he did effectively subordinate it to the interests of the Syrian state. Under Assad, the Ba’ath party became little more than the regime’s instrument for mass-mobilization, mass-incorporation, and patronage distribution. Pan-Arab rhetoric was still used to give legitimacy to the regime and its actions, but it underwent a subtle, yet profoundly significant change: instead of being simply one part of the larger Arab nation, Syria was now emphasized to be the leader of that nation.

[Assad’s] severity, detachment, and lack of strong ideological grounding stem from Alawi society, which, because of centuries of discrimination and separation from the mainstream of Syrian life, no doubt fostered such qualities.[14]

Geographic and material realities also contributed to the rise of the Sectarian-Survivalist culture. The modern Syrian state is small, has few natural resources, a relatively small population, very few natural defenses, and is surrounded on almost every side by stronger powers. This inherently weak position discourages policies based on irredentist ideologies and instead prescribes a strategy of realpolitik to ensure survival. Syria’s new outlook was made brutally clear by the comments of Mustafa Tlas, one of Assad’s defense ministers and a trusted confidant, in 1984:

We Syrians have a clear military strategy. We pursue definite political goals. Whoever joins us is welcome, whoever doesn’t want to get involved should stay away. We can do it alone.[15]

Style of Decision-making

The Syrian regime is a “presidential monarchy” with nearly all political power invested in the presidency.[16] As Murhaf Jouejati explains:

The president is supreme commander, declares war, concludes treaties, proposes and vetoes legislation, and may rule through decree under emergency powers. He appoints vice presidents, prime ministers, and the council of ministers – the cabinet or “government” – which may issue “decisions” having the force of law … Presidential appointees include army commanders, the heads of security apparatus, senior civil servants, heads of autonomous agencies, governors, newspaper editors, university presidents, judges, major religious officials, and public managers.[17]

The regime survived by utilizing four  instruments of power: (1) the mass-incorporating function of the Ba’ath party apparatus; (2) a massive state bureaucracy; (3) a large security apparatus led primarily by officers from Assad’s own Alawi sect[18]; and (4) a sophisticated personality cult to maintain popularity with the masses.

Assad’s regime style is analogous to the Ceausescu regime of Romania or North Korea, which were, by Assad’s own admission, regimes on which he modeled his own.[19] By concentrating power in this fashion, Assad effectively abolished the deliberative and decision-making functions of the bureaucracy. In Syria, “the ‘buck’ began and ended with the President.”[20] The Syrian bureaucracy never developed a structure comparable to the U.S. National Security Council; Assad utilized his subordinates and bureaucracy as sources of raw intelligence for analysis that would be conducted by him alone. However, Assad had a number of close advisers that he trusted, and he was willing to listen to dissenting arguments from those he thought worthy to issue such opinions. As a former prime minister for Assad commented, “one could argue with him and he would listen, but you had to be sure you had a good case.”[21] Those who received this trust were usually the men that accompanied him into power during the 1970 coup.

Similar decision making styles have proven disastrous for other countries, but Syria’s position largely improved because Assad was a masterful politician and an astute statesman that was alert to the needs of his country. While micromanaging the state often forced the president to occupy his time with mundane matters,[22] it allowed him to create the insulation necessary to achieve autonomy from the volatile politics of the country, giving him a wider latitude to pursue pragmatic foreign policy objectives.

With the death of Hafez al-Assad and his succession by his son Bashar, the hyper-centralized Syrian regime has begun to loosen. Bashar replaced many of his father’s old advisers and lacks the close relationship with them that characterized his father’s regime. His relationships with the security services are distant and he prefers a more delegative leadership style. His relative youth and lack of experience forces him to frequently defer to the advice of others.[23]

Strategic Culture in Action

Syrian foreign policy under the Assad regime has been characterized by the abandonment of the revisionist objectives of radical Ba’ath ideology and their replacement by a small number of more limited objectives. First among these is the recovery of the Golan Heights. Assad himself announced this in 1971, when he declared that the objective “for the advancement of which all resources and manpower [would be] mobilized [was to be] the liberation of the occupied territories.”[24] In addition to their importance as strategic terrain, the regime has invested a significant amount of legitimacy in the struggle over Golan, guaranteeing that it will remain a centerpiece of Syrian foreign policy for years to come.

Location of the Golan Heights

After Syria’s failed attempt to retake the Golan by force in 1973, realization set in that military victory over Israel was impossible due to its military superiority and the support of its superpower patron, the United States. The imbalance was exacerbated by Egypt’s “defection” from the Arab alliance, depriving Syria of a crucial ally. This reality demanded a new caution for Syria’s foreign policy and the result was an effort to achieve “strategic parity.”[25] The policy of strategic parity was the most visible artifact of Syrian strategic culture from the mid-1970s through the 1980s. Essentially, this was a policy intended to correct the balance of power to eliminate Israel’s military advantage. Syria undertook a massive military build-up to deter Israeli attack and to give Syria a credible military capability so that it could enter negotiations from a position of strength; Assad always refused to negotiate from a position of weakness. Furthermore, Syria established a close relationship with the Soviet Union to gain the necessary military hardware and to balance against Israel’s relationship with the United States.

With direct military confrontation with Israel unlikely, the conflict between the two states shifted to proxy wars in Lebanon and terrorism. Another component of the policy is to prevent additional states or entities from reaching a separate peace with Israel – in the manner of Egypt – which would leave Syria isolated and unable to press for the return of the Golan. The Assad regime engaged in constant diplomacy with the other Arab states to keep them in the anti-Israeli orbit. This protected Syrian interests by ensuring that no comprehensive peace could be reached without its consent. Continued control over Lebanon was required in order to (1) protect Syria’s extensive economic interests there; (2) prevent Israel from using the Bekaa valley as an invasion corridor into Syria; (3) prevent Lebanon from signing a separate peace with Israel; (4) maintain it as a base from which pressure could be applied on Israel, particularly via Hezbollah; and (5) pacify lingering pan-Arab and Ba’athist sentiment by maintaining dominion over a fragment of the historic Suriya al-Kubra.

Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a key pillar of Syria’s policy of strategic parity collapsed. Syria lost its superpower patron and its main supplier of military hardware and had to adapt to a unipolar world in which the remaining superpower was a close ally of Israel. Alert to Syria’s weakened position and the new realities of the international system, Assad responded characteristically by attempting rapprochement with the United States. He received a golden opportunity to do so when the U.S. assembled a military coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Iraq, despite it being a fellow Arab state, had been an arch enemy of Damascus since the mid-1960s, when a rival wing of the Ba’ath party consolidated power in Baghdad.  By joining the coalition against Iraq, Syria helped to eliminate a serious threat to its own existence and gained a new, though tenuous, relationship with the United States.

Changes in Syria’s Strategic Culture

Hafez Al-Assad, the man who built modern Syria, died in 2000. He was succeeded by his son Bashar. The ease with which this succession was consolidated highlights the strength of the regime that Bashar’s father built. Nevertheless, Syria entered the 21st century facing the most significant challenges of its modern existence. Syria’s military power has eroded following the loss of its Soviet patron, and the attempted rapprochement with the United States ultimately bore little fruit. Syria failed to prevent major developments in the Israeli-Arab peace process, such as agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and Jordanians, exacerbating Syria’s diplomatic isolation. The neomercantilist economy that Assad built to support his foreign policy objectives has remained stagnant. Events since the 9/11 terrorist attacks have increased the U.S. presence in the region and simultaneously aggravated militant Islam within Syria, which had long been ruthlessly suppressed by Bashar’s father. The man best suited to navigate Syria through these challenges is dead, and because Syria’s strategic culture is so dependent on the dominance of a single individual, any change in leadership could portend a shift in this culture.

The second son, in both age and ability

Bashar’s succession to the presidency was accompanied by a generational turnover in the regime. The “old guard” that served his father has been gradually purged, and the “young guard” replacing it is characterized by its vested interests, ideological pragmatism, consensus-based decision-making, and Western-leaning economic ideas. This corresponds with Bashar’s more delegative and impersonal leadership style. The impact that this will have on Syria’s strategic culture is still unknown. The “old guard” was known for its caution and prudence, traits acquired from military service and the experience of defeat; Bashar’s new advisers do not have these qualities. Bashar’s reactivation of the Ba’ath party and a brief intellectual revival in 2001 raised speculation that Syria was shifting back toward the Revisionist-Irredentist culture. However, it soon became apparent that Bashar was tapping the party only to gain legitimacy for the regime – the party itself remained intellectually dead, and the civil society movement was duly crushed after it became too political.

During his time in office, Bashar has displayed maladroit handling of critical foreign crises. During the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bashar issued vociferous rhetoric in support of Saddam Hussein, a policy that gained him nothing aside from the temporary adulations of the Arab world and the permanent hostility of the United States. In the aftermath of the 2005 Rafik Hariri assassination, Bashar bowed to international pressure to withdrawal conventional military forces from Lebanon with very little  in compensation. However, the key instruments of power remain firmly under the control of the regime, and Bashar’s errors may be attributed more to inexperience than a shift in strategic culture.[26]

Syria and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Syria is believed to possess a significant arsenal of chemical weapons and short range ballistic missiles in the form of Scuds and SS-21s. This arsenal was acquired during the 1980s as Assad sought “strategic parity” with Israel, and the objective of Syria’s WMD program can be understood in that context: with Israel is possession of both nuclear and chemical weapons in addition to an overwhelming conventional superiority, Syria sought chemical weapons to offset deficiencies in its conventional forces. Analysts had long assumed that Syria would not pursue nuclear weapons.[27] However, Israel’s 2007 air strike on a secret Syrian nuclear reactor has cast doubt on this assessment. If Syria is seeking nuclear weapons, its motives are no doubt related to its declining conventional posture and the need to maintain a credible deterrent against both Israel and the United States. A significant portion of Syria’s deterrent capabilities were invested in its once vast conventional force structure, and with that in a state of permanent decay, the regime may have decided that nuclear weapons are a cheaper alternative to achieve the same deterrent effect. Such a decision would be consistent with the Sectarian-Survivalist culture.

[1] Martha Neff Kessler, Syria: Fragile Mosaic of Power (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1987), 3-11.

[2]Tabitha Petran, Syria (New York, NY: Praeger, 1972), 26.

[3] Kessler, 22-23.

[4] Kessler, 24.

[5] Raymond Hinnebusch, Syria: Revolution from Above, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 19.

[6] Shmuel Bar, “Bashar’s Syria: The Regime and its Strategic Worldview,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 25, No. 5, (December 2006), 363-366.

[7] Hinnebusch, 22.

[8] Kessler, 50.

[9] Patrick Seale, Assad (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1989), 54-68.

[10] Hinnebusch, 164.

[11] Seale, 143.

[12] Ibid, 163.

[13] Hinnebusch, 68.

[14] Kessler, 76.

[15] Quoted in Kessler, 112.

[16] Hinnebusch, 67.

[17] Murhaf Joujati, “The Strategic Culture of Irredentist Small Powers: The Case of Syria,” 31 October 2006.

[18] Hinnebusch, 80-87.

[19] Bar,  354.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Abd al-Ra’uf al-Kasm, quoted in Patrick Seale, Assad (Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1988), 342.

[22] Patrick Seale recounts an incident when Assad’s intervention was required to resolve a dispute between a student and the dean at a medical college. Seale, 342.

[23] Bar, 374-378.

[24] Hinnebusch, 65.

[25] Kessler, 109-114. Hinnebusch, 139-164. Bar, 403.

[26] Bar, 353-421.

[27] Ellen Laipson, “Syria: Can the Myth be Maintained Without Nukes?” in The Nuclear Tipping Point, eds. Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Mitchell Reiss (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 83-110.


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