Why Syria Goes to War: Thirty Years of Confrontation

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Rejecting conventional explanations for Syrian foreign policy, which emphasize the personalities and attitudes of leaders, cultural factors peculiar to Arab societies, or the machinations of the great powers, Fred H. Lawson describes key shifts in Damascus's response to regional adversaries in terms of changes in the intensity of political struggles at home. Periodic eruptions of domestic conflict have inspired Syria's ruling coalition to adopt a wide range of programs designed to buy off domestic rivals and perpetuate the predominance of individual coalition members. These programs have undermined the unity of the Ba'thi regime, increasing the chances that opponents will overturn the established order. Challenges to the Ba'thi regime become most threatening whenever crises of accumulation shake the domestic political economy, Lawson contends. Opposition forces gain strength when the state cannot sustain new investment or when competition increases between public and private enterprises. Political and economic trends inside Syria have determined why Damascus has since 1963 alternately escalated tensions with regional rivals and adopted more accommodating postures. Lawson traces this dynamic through five major episodes: the 1967 war with Israel; limited intervention in Jordan in 1970; the widening conflict in Lebanon in 1976; the defusing of conflict with Iraq in 1982; and the rapprochement with Turkey over Kurdish separatism in 1994. These patterns, Lawson suggests, may be characteristic of nations changing from one domestic economic system to a radically different one, as Syria has in the transition from state socialism to a privatized political economy.