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History, Baath Party Rule

Lebanese forces, Abdullah Ocalan, Lebanese capital, defense agreement, southeastern Turkey

A provisional constitution was approved in a referendum early in December 1961, and a new national government was established. On March 8, 1963, this government was overthrown in a bloodless military coup, and a national council of a revolutionary command assumed control. Major General Amin el-Hafez, a former military attache in Argentina, became chairman of the national council.

In May 1964 the national council was replaced by a presidency council of three civilian and two military members vested with full executive powers. Tensions within the ruling Baath Party, especially the long-standing hostility between its older civilian members and the extreme leftists among the young military officers, mounted steadily in 1964 and throughout 1965. In February 1966 the radicals seized power, placed several longtime Baathist leaders under arrest, and installed Nur ad-Din al-Atasi, a former deputy prime minister, as head of state.

In July and September 1966 two abortive attempts to overthrow the regime were followed by extensive purges in the army and the government. On November 4, 1966, Syria and Egypt entered into a defense agreement directed against Israel. This move was in part a response to increasing tension on the Syrian-Israeli border. During 1966 and early 1967 the border was repeatedly violated by Syrian-based guerrilla attacks and Israeli reprisals. Border incidents were an important catalyst in the chain of events leading to the outbreak of the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab nations in 1967. During the conflict Israeli forces overran the Syrian positions on the Golan Heights, advanced rapidly, and occupied Al Qunaytirah, only 65 km (40 mi) from Damascus. On June 10 the United Nations cease-fire proposal was accepted, and observers were placed between Israeli and Syrian forces. Charging the United Kingdom and the United States with active support of Israel, Syria broke relations with both countries on June 6.

In November 1970 General Hafez al-Assad seized power. Assad became president in March 1971; he formed a new cabinet in December 1972, giving the Baathists more than half the posts and dividing the rest among the other parties. Like Assad, many of the new members of the government belonged to the Alawite sect of Islam, which comprises about 11 percent of Syriaís population.

During the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, Syrian troops attacked Israel on the Golan Heights, while Egypt struck along the Suez Canal. After early Syrian gains, Israel drove the Syrian forces off the Golan Heights and advanced to within 32 km (20 mi) of Damascus. Syria belatedly agreed to a UN-sponsored cease-fire accepted by the other warring nations, but it refused to discuss prisoner exchanges. After mediation by United States Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement in May 1974; the accord provided for a neutral zone, patrolled by UN forces, and for the repatriation of prisoners of war. In June, Syria and the United States resumed diplomatic relations, severed in 1967.

As it became clear in 1975 that Egypt would pursue a bilateral agreement with Israel, Syria forged closer ties with Jordan. The following year, Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war and subsequently became mired in the continuing conflict. In 1980 Syria signed a 20-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with the USSR. Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 when it claimed legal and political authority in the region. Syrian and Israeli forces clashed the following year when Israel invaded Lebanon.

Domestically, Assadís regime was shaken by growing civil disturbances. An extremist group called the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of several assassinations. In 1982 government troops suppressed a full-scale rebellion by the brotherhood in and around ?amah, reducing much of the city to rubble. In 1986 the United Kingdom broke diplomatic relations with Syria and the United States imposed sanctions, both accusing Syria of sponsoring international terrorism.

Syria has been considered an occupying force within Lebanon since the mid-1970s, when it sent thousands of troops there. In February 1987 Syria ordered a force of 7,000 into the Muslim sector of Beirut (Bayrut) in an attempt to restore order between warring factions. In October 1990 a Syrian-led assault crushed resistance in East Beirut, reuniting the Lebanese capital. Although most of the fighting in Lebanon ended in 1990, and Syrian and Lebanese forces signed a friendship treaty in May 1991 calling for mutual cooperation, Syrian forces remained in the country. As of mid-1996 Syria still had an estimated 35,000 or more troops stationed in Lebanon and continued to exercise significant control over Lebanese politics.

Syria also has had a long and troubled history with neighboring Iraq. Syria was one of the few Arab nations to support Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Syria sent troops to Saudi Arabia and later joined the anti-Iraq coalition in the Persian Gulf War. Syriaís participation in the multinational coalition helped improve its relations with both the United States and the United Kingdom.

In October 1991 Syria and several other Arab nations entered into U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel. Syriaís chief concern was ownership of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but little progress was made, in part because Israel was involved in more immediate negotiations with its longtime enemy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In September 1993 Israel and the PLO signed a landmark peace accord. Assad expressed serious reservations about the agreement and regarded the secret negotiations that had produced it as having weakened the united Arab position. In January 1994 Assad met with U.S. president Bill Clinton in Geneva, Switzerland, regarding peace negotiations with Israel. This was his first such meeting with a U.S. leader since 1977.

Foreign relations remained strained in the late 1990s. The 1996 election of a conservative Israeli prime minister who was less inclined to make territorial concessions froze negotiations involving the Golan Heights. Although the United States removed Syria from its list of major drug-producing and drug-trafficking countries in 1997, it did not lift restrictions on economic aid and exports to Syria, because it still considered it a nation that encouraged terrorism. In October 1998 Turkey threatened to invade unless Syria stopped supporting the Kurdistan Workerís Party (PKK), a guerrilla force fighting for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey, and expelled the groupís leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The Turkish government has long considered the PKK a terrorist organization responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Turkey. Syria complied with Turkeyís demands, expelling Ocalan and signing an agreement banning PKK activity in Syria.

The election of a more liberal Israeli prime minister in 1999 opened the way for the resumption of peace talks with Israel. In December 1999 Israeli and Syrian leaders met in Washington, D.C., and agreed to begin another round of talks in January 2000. The new talks quickly broke down, and even a summit meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, between President Assad and U.S. president Bill Clinton in March 2000 failed to revive them.

In June 2000 Assad died from complications of heart disease. The Syrian legislature amended the nationís constitution to allow Assadís son Bashar al-Assad to succeed him as president. In July Bashar al-Assad was confirmed in office by a national referendum.

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