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Published: Friday, 4/1/2011

Syria's turmoil

Syria is unique among Middle Eastern and North African states in its history, government, political posture, and religious composition. But its regime appears vulnerable to the wave of change that is rolling across the region.

The nation of 23 million people has been a keystone of historic events in the region for 24 centuries. It isn’t especially rich, but its people are intensely political and modern developments there have frequently taken a military cast.

Syria has been ruled by the al-Assad family, first Hafez al-Assad from 1971 to 2000 and then his son, Bashar. President Assad is under serious pressure, including popular unrest in the streets, to open the political system to reform and greater participation. His response has been to crack down hard and give little.

Religion is a significant issue: The Assad family and many in the military are members of the Alawite sect of Islam, a small minority in Syria. The country’s majority, about 74 percent, are Sunni Muslims, while 10 percent are Christians. The Alawites are vulnerable because of their meager numbers and their exposed dominant position.

Some Syrians expected political and economic reform when the younger Mr. Assad took power in 2000. His wife, a Sunni, worked a while for the U.S. bank J.P. Morgan in London.

But Mr. Assad has provided only modest reform. He has promised more than he has delivered — not enough to keep him in a position of strength as the thunder rolls.

Syria is important to the region and the United States. Any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must involve Syria.

Palestinian refugees and important Palestinian leaders live in Syria. The Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war, remains on the negotiating table.

Americans should not be concerned that, even if the Assad government begins to abuse its people, President Obama will be tempted to intervene militarily. Syria would be too hard a nut to crack.

Still, Washington must closely follow events there, particularly given the need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Syria is far more important to the United States than Libya, and probably comparable to Egypt in its potential for regional impact.



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