The CIA history in Syria


With pitched battles underway in Syria between the Assad regime and various insurrections across the country (including a huge demonstration in long-rebellious Hama last week) one can wonder why the US is not as actively engaged as it was with, say, the Egypt revolution.  In a long, uneven post on his personal BBC page, filmmaker Adam Curtis provides a welcome reminder of the history that constrains American action today: in particular, the CIA-sponsored coup in 1949 that precipitated five years of turmoil in Syria and led, eventually, to the country seeking support from the Soviets.  The US was instrumental in the overthrow of many Middle Eastern governments in the years that followed — including Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister Mossadegh in 1953 and the Baathist coup in Iraq in 1963 that later led to Saddam Hussein’s reign — usually acting in the name of anti-communism and for the purpose of furthering American oil interests.  Syria, for its part, never stabilized: it experienced parliamentary government, a succession of coups, and even a brief, disastrous union with Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Its current regime was founded by Hafez al-Assad, who played a leading role in coups in 1963 and 1966 and then finally consolidated power in 1970 in an internal maneuver known as the Corrective Revolution.  Assad ruled ruthlessly for three decades until his death in 2000.  He favored his son Basil as successor but he died in a car accident in 1994 so the father began grooming another son, Bashar, a shy ophthalmologist, and finagled him into power on his deathbed.  It is Bashar, the current president, who is now in a fight for his life.

In his post, Curtis appears to lean a little heavily on one source: Miles Copeland, an American spy with a showman’s gift for publicity, one of whose sons, Stewart, became the drummer for the band the Police and another, Miles (his class picture on the wall of the American Community School in Beirut is below) was the band’s manager.  Worse, Curtis’s disjointed summary of the admittedly bewildering succession of coups in Syria does little to clarify cause and effect.  However, the videos (both archival and Curtis’s own work) are priceless: unfortunately they can’t be embedded here — click here to open the videos on Curtis’s page in a new window — but the sight of a naive American journalist going to Syria in its pan-Arabist days and asking around for avowed communists is pathetic and disheartening.  Still, there is a special political pleasure to be taken in the collage (above) of Gamal Abdel Nasser heads pasted onto Hollywood starlets’ bodies — a witty repudiation of the failed Syria-Egypt union.


I write frequently about the Middle East, particularly Egypt where I lived for three years.  Click here to read about the post-revolution disillusionment in Cairo or here to read about whether Mubarak should be prosecuted for his crimes.  Or here for my thoughts on the military’s role as stewards of this transitional period or the architectural symbolism of downtown Cairo and why it became the center of the protests.

Click here to read the article I wrote for Travel + Leisure about contemporary art in Cairo during the late-Mubarak years or here for the article I wrote and photographed for Travel + Leisure about traveling in Libya and the Sahara.

The full list of pieces I’ve written about the Middle East is here.



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