I know it is still a heresy, a lesser heresy than when we thought every culture was basically the same. Still, I actually believe in national character as a determining factor in international relations. But in states that are divisively multi-ethnic and multi-confessional, it is the essential character of the ruling group--more than likely incarnated in a brutal junta--that determines the behavior of the state towards its neighbors and towards its own inhabitants, besides.
This is the undeniable essence of Syrian politics. The junta is large, as opposed to the minority Muslim sect (Alawi) from which it springs, and corrupt but continues to rule because its cruelty is sustained by those it fears. The Syrians have something of an intrinsic history but it revolves mostly around delusions of empire, north and south, east and west.
The Assads, father and son, but also other members of the family, some alive, some murdered by the pater familias, have governed--if that's what you can call it--Syria for about four decades. If you think that ordinary civil life cannot be extinguished just look at Syria. Its antiquities have more verve than its people.
Nonetheless, it is immensely complicated, especially complicated in its relations to its neighbors. It is the partner of Hezbollah, the Shi'a cuckoos in Lebanon, who have a different agenda than Damascus. It is the partner of the Tehran clerisy which also has a different agenda from Damascus. The Assads are not truly of the faith at all. They are a family run business with pretensions. And, yes, they are fickle.
But they buy alliances. The Palestinians generally are excluded from Syrian affections except for three "liberation armies," two of which are almost in the grave, the last being Hamas, wanting to play but only on its own terms.
If you want to read a short essay explaining why clan cannot be trusted by anybody on anything link to this review by Fouad Ajami of
a book by Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's premier expert on Syria (former ambassador to the U.S. and president of Tel Aviv University), The View from Damascus. The review appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.