As there continues to be much discussion about the consequences of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, what is typically left out of the discussion is how long we’ve already been actively and violently intervening in Syria. As involved as we are in the region today, it is crucial to remember that we are not much more than an endnote in the history of the area known as the Levant. Painting a realistic picture of U.S. involvement in Syria requires us to acknowledge our past actions. If we choose an aggressive option for intervention, we are simply continuing the role we've played in the Syrian government's violent transfers of power since the end of World War II.
Contextually, the area called Syria got its conception under a mandate from the League of Nations, placing it under French control in 1920. It wasn’t until right after World War II in 1946 when Syria officially gained independence. It didn’t take America long to stick the barrel of our rifle scopes where they didn't belong, when the CIA tried to nudge General Husni al-Za’im into staging a military coup against President Shukri al-Kuwatli. He did so, but didn’t last too long, being overthrown by Col. Sami al-Hinnawi, who was overthrown by Col. Adib Shishakli. All of this happened within nine months. Turns out we weren't that great at promoting stability in the Middle East back then, either.
Shishakli remained in power for about five years, and then the Syrian people overthrew him after he abolished the parliamentary system. Around that time, there was the Suez Crisis, which pushed Syria into the Soviet Union’s political orbit as a result of policy choices in the Eisenhower Doctrine. Not content with further communist influence or non-compliant leaders, the CIA staged yet another coup that failed in 1957, resulting in strained ties until 1967 and the Six-Day War. This war continued Western expansion in the Middle East, and with America’s help, our BFF Israel took geopolitical control of many areas, including the Golan Heights from Syria. The conflicts were colored by water politics and involved diverting water from the Golan Heights to Israel at 770 million cubic meters of water annually. That’s a lot of water in the desert.
Around this time, Syrian and its geographic and cultural neighbor Iraq had both fallen under Ba’athist rule, the same party that brought Saddam Hussein to power. Relations remained strained until the unannounced launching of the Yom Kippur War by Syria and Egypt against Israel during in October 1973. The ceasefire that resulted made Iraq not too pleased with Syria's readiness to make peace with Israel after they complied with UN Resolution 338.
In the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s predecessor, Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, teamed up with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, signing a charter for Joint National Action, increasing ties between Syria and Iraq. This move threatened Saddam Hussein's place in the despot pecking order, who as deputy secretary of the Ba'ath Party stood the most to lose from increased Iraq-Syria ties. He deposed of al-Bakr and took control of Iraq, subsequently invading Kuwait. But our enemy’s enemy was our friend during the first Bush’s Iraq War. Syria and Saddam Hussein had a mutual hatred for each other, and Syria decided to side with us during our invasion. This resulted in limited diplomatic ties until 2000 when political involvement stopped with President Clinton.
Thirteen years later, much of America and the world is wondering how we will act. If history is any indication, we probably will make a terrible decision that will lead to a bad outcome. The hawks are still circling above the clouds, and Obama has to decide if he is going to fly a drone or fighter jet up there and act with them. He may decide otherwise, but the hawks know they can swoop in and pull an Iraq if the situation arises. If Obama truly cares about avoiding war, the recent agreement with Russia may be right step. If the Russians don’t follow through on their end of the bargain, he may have no choice but to be another footnote to the unproductive and violent history of Western involvement in Syria.