Article first published as Syria's Insurrection Cycle on Blogcritics.
Fouad Ajami writes in the Wall Street Journal about the latest iteration of the "Arab Spring" that was started when a college grad fruit & veggie vendor in a small town in Tunisia incinerated himself after local bureaucratic thugs took away his license and confiscated his entire inventory.
After regimes tumbled in Tunis, Cairo, and wobbled in Manama and Sana'a---Libya is now in a full-scale civil war with NATO helping the [relatively] unarmed civilized Eastern half centered on Benghazi. Strangely for those who are close to Middle East politics [I was a State Dept Arabist, a political officer in Beirut and Saudi Arabia, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Middle East Institute after I retired], the US and Egyptian Armed Forces have staged a biennial exercise in the Egyptian Western Desert close to the Libyan border called "Bright Star" for decades and could reactivate quickly---unless political unrest in Misr continues to froth and bubble. But the hesitant Obungler and a timid JCofS make any actual use of US military on-the-ground unlikely. But here's my former tenant [I was his landlord for a year when he first fetched up at SAIS] Fouad expatiating on the ongoing drama in Syria, the latest and very deserving candidate for violent overthrow of a hated regime:
Hama was one of the principal cities of the Syrian plains. With a history of tumult and disputation, this Muslim Sunni stronghold rose against the military rule of Hafez Assad in 1982. The regime was at stake, and the drab, merciless ruler at its helm fought back and threw everything he had into the fight.
A good deal of the center of the inner city was demolished, no quarter was given. There are estimates that 20,000 people were killed.
After Hama, Hafez Assad would rule uncontested for two more decades. Prior to his ascendancy, 14 rulers came and went in a quarter-century. Many perished in prison or exile or fell to assassins. Not so with that man of stealth. He died in 2000, and in a most astonishing twist, he bequeathed power to his son Bashar, a young man not yet 35 years of age and an ophthalmologist at that.
Side note: when I was PolMil Officer in Saudi Arabia, our USIA chief in the Embassy was Isa Sabbagh, who was Kissinger's favorite translator and who went along on the famous "shuttle diplomacy" charades of the mid-70s. Sabbagh [and later, another colleague Skip Gnehm, who was stationed in Damascus at the time] told me that Kissinger frequently confided with him that Hafez al-Assad was his favorite Middle East leader, now that Golda Meir was going downhill, because he was super-intelligent and one could count on him to keep the animals in his cage under control. And according to Sabbagh, the first half-hour of every session between Henry the K and Assad was relegated to hilarious jokes about how pig-headed the Israelis were [Kissinger] and how stupid the Arabs were [Hafez Assad]. Sabbagh would repeat some of the best, provided they were "not for attribution." And they were hilarious. But more on the serious disease Syria suffers from:
By then Syrians had fled into the privacy of their homes, eager to escape the ruler's whip and gaze. Rule became a matter of the barracks, the ruling caste hunkered down, and the once-feisty republic become a dynastic possession. Assad senior had come from crushing rural poverty, but the House of Assad became a huge financial and criminal enterprise.
Around Bashar Assad were siblings, cruel and entitled. At the commanding heights of the economy were the Assad in-laws, choking off the life of commerce, reducing the trading families of yesteryear to marginality and dependence. And there was the great sectarian truth of this country: The Alawis, a mountainous community of Shiite schismatics, for centuries cut off from wealth and power, comprising somewhere between 10% and 12% of the population, had hoarded for themselves supreme political power. The intelligence barons were drawn from the Alawis, as were the elite brigades entrusted with the defense of the regime.
When I had a one-to-one meeting with the Syrian Oil Minister in 1995 [while I was Entry Strategy/Risk Analyst for Amoco Corp], he turned up the TV set to keep the bugs in the office out-of-synch and whispered to me that there were five intelligence agencies who were so ubiquitous and well-known that one could tell from their license plates which of the five were in the vehicle following me. He gave me the codes on the plates which I wrote down for future reference. This is the sort of "respect" that disaffected Syrians, including at the Ministerial level, afford the despised Alawi ascendancy & the Al-Assad dictatorship. It was in the false dawn of Yitzhak Rabin's opening to the Arab World and the minister confided to me that Damascus merchants were snapping up the plots of land alongside the road between Damascus and the Israeli border in anticipation of an open border. Sadly, three months later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli fanatic and the dream died. But more historical background from the magisterial Ajami, a refugee from that troubled country of Lebanon, in which the Syrians have been manipulating and assassinating political actors for more than three decades.
For the rulers, this sectarian truth was a great taboo, for Damascus had historically been a great city of Sunni urban Islam. That chasm between state and society, between ruler and ruled, that we can see in practically all Arab lands under rebellion was most stark in Syria. It is unlikely that the Gadhafis and Mubaraks and the ruler of Yemen could have entertained thoughts of succession for their sons had they not seen the ease with which Syria became that odd creature—a republican monarchy.
When the Arab revolutions hit Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, Bashar Assad claimed that his country would be bypassed because it was the quintessential "frontline" state in the Arab confrontation with Israel. Let them eat anti-Zionism, the regime had long thought of its subjects. Tell them that their desire for freedom and bread and opportunities, their taste for the new world beyond the walls of the big Assad prison, would have to wait until the Syrian banners are raised over the Golan Heights.
But the Syrians who conquered fear and doubt, who were willing to put the searing memory of Hama behind them, were reading from a new script. Bashar could neither hear, nor fully understand, this rebellion.
He sacked a subservient cabinet and replaced it with an equally servile one. He would end the state of emergency, he promised—though a state of emergency that lasts nearly half-a-century is a way of life.
Fouad is right, of course, and speaks of the Sunnis with respect despite the fact that he comes from a Shi'ite background in S. Lebanon and that the Alawis are much closer to the Shi'ite version of Islam than the Sunni---hence the rapport and even covert cooperation between the Alawite regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Fouad sees a big reason to think that this time a true thawra, or revolution [ironically the name of the toadying Syrian official newspaper is Thawra] is at the door. This comes ironically after a fashion hyena queen named Wintour put Assad's comely wife on the cover of Vogue, or was it Cosmopolitan? The vicious Assad regime has truly wormed its way into the hearts of libtard gray matter, including that of the First Bungler and his insufferable Secretary of State, Hillarious.
But a new country is emerging from hibernation. When the Assads came into their dominion nearly 40 years ago, Syria was a largely rural society with six million people. The country has been remade: It has been urbanized. Some 15 million people have known no other rule than that of the Assads and their feared mukhabarat, the secret police. From smaller provincial towns, protests spread to the principal cities. The cult of the ruler—and hovering over him the gaze of his dead father—had cracked.
In the regime's arsenal, there is the ultimate threat that this upheaval would become a sectarian war between the Alawites and the Sunni majority. Syria is riven by sectarian differences—there are substantial Druze and Kurdish and Christian communities—and in the playbook of the regime those communities would be enlisted to keep the vast Sunni majority at bay. This is the true meaning of the refrain by Bashar and his loyalists that Syria is not Egypt or Tunisia—that it would be shades of Libya and worse.
Syria is a terrorist state and has harbored many terrorist organizations in the past---its own mukhabbaraat has a history of organizing and participating in covert acts of terror:
Terrorism has always been part of the Assad regime's arsenal. It killed and conquered its way into Lebanon over three decades starting in the late 1970s. It fought and bloodied American purposes in Iraq by facilitating the entry of jihadists who came to war against the Americans and the Shiites. And in the standoff between the Persian theocracy and its rivals in the region, the Syrians had long cast their fate with the Iranians.
Under Bashar, the Syrians slipped into a relationship of some subservience to the Iranians—yet other nations were always sure that Syria could be "peeled off" from Iran, that a bargain with Damascus was always a day, or a diplomatic mission, away. It had worked this way for Assad senior, as American statesmen including Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were confident that they could bring that man, at once an arsonist and a fireman in his region, into the fold.
The son learned the father's tricks. There is a litter of promises, predictions by outsiders that Bashar Assad is, at heart, a reformer. In 2000, our emissary to his father's funeral and to his own inauguration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, praised him in such terms. He was part of the Internet generation, she said.
Sadly, the US has had imbeciles like Albright, who believed North Korea was actually following through on its promises to close nuke uranium-enriching operations and that Assad was at heart, a "reformer." Her two successors were Colin Powell and Condi Rice [Condi was ingenuous enough to "persuade" Israel and the PLO to allow Hamas to participate in the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Authority---generating ANOTHER radical Islamofascist regime in Gaza]. Hillarious is still goggle-eyed and believes that Assad is an exception to the rule---instead of being "arsonist and fireman" in one person, as Fouad aptly puts it.
But Bashar is both this system's jailer and its captive. The years he spent in London, the polish of his foreign education, are on the margin of things. He and the clans—and the intelligence warlords and business/extortion syndicates around him—know no other system, no other way.
"We need our second independence in Syria," an astute dissident, Radwan Ziadeh, recently observed. "The first was the freedom from the French and the second will be from the Assad dynasty." Would that the second push for freedom be as easy and bloodless as the first.
One of my most bizarre experiences in the wonderful city of Damascus [if you are a well-off western tourist with a diplomat-in-residence as your personal tour guide] was a visit to the National Museum, which back when I first visited one of the oldest cities in the world still extant, had a big exhibition of the takeover from the French---which gave the United States of America full credit for arranging Syria's independence without bloodshed or retribution from the French. I was told by local Syrians I met through the Embassy that, yes, unlike our experience in Vietnam with the French, we were able to winkle them out of Syria, partly by increasing their pouvoir in neighboring Lebanon by a wink and a nod. So in a bizarre sense, the Syrians are not hostile to the US to their marrow, unlike Iran, which blames the US for the Mossadegh imbroglio in 1953 [although I had Kermit Roosevelt's son as a houseguest in my home in Jidda, and he gave me a different account of the events that eventuated in the return of a pusallanimous, vainglorious, silly Shah easily manipulated by his own belief in his mystic ties with the Iranian people and Persian history.]
More to the point, Bashar is a victim of the labyrinthine asylum his father set up to control the custodians of the family-owned member of the United Nations, and simply not smart enough to keep the thugs in line or keep all those balls in the air at the same time. Bashar is at heart an opthamologist and not a power-mad dictator, which is why he got the job as figurehead-in-chief in the first place---his own greedy extended family of Alawites and in-law criminals [remember Hafez's brother and Bashar's full-brother Rifaat had a home in McLean, Virginia that burned to the ground when he got too close to trying to succeed his wimpy stick-insect nephew---Bashar was "forcibly cajoled" into succeeding his father, as one of my Middle East friends memorably described it.
Instead of jumping up and down and holding his breath while making smoke come out of his ears, Obungler should consider using some very tough love on his wayward go-between who keeps saying that Syria can handle those Iranian hotheads. Israel is not going to have anything to do with Bashar, especially since former PM Barak just got bounced from Netanyahu's coalition for saying he was certain that Syria was NOT opposed to a settlement favorable to Israel. Like Albright, Rice, and Hillarious, is there something in the water Barak is drinking, or is he mesmerized somehow by Syrian Sufi voodoo of some sort? Netanyahu ain't buying it and Barak had to go, seriously affecting the balance in the Labor/Likud coalition which had the appearance of an unnatural coupling to begin with. So for the time, Israel is content, if that is the word, to sit on the sidelines.
It is hard enough for this strange POTUS Obama to get enough gumption to take on Qaddafi, a certified mass murderer and a terrorist in attacking his own people. Can he in any shape or manner see fit to get involved in another clear case of taking on a regime, even though the Syrian regime is closer to the socialist nonsense Obungler is trying dishonestly to foist on the US of A?
The Good Friday murders by this stick insect are enough reason to get more involved in effecting a transition to a non-terrorist regime. Let's hope our own narcissistic self-serving political hack in the Oval Office starts to grow a pair instead of attacking US patriots who assert American ideals in foreign countries. Something to hope for.