Syrian Turmoil Could Benefit the Region
Nobody expected the Syrian uprising. Syria has long been thought of as “stable” country, if not a nice one, but maybe it is just a country on which you could write your own script. The Obama administration saw a needy country that could be “weaned” away from Iran and moved toward the West through diplomatic and economic gifts. So we returned our ambassador to Damascus and eased the terrorism-related trade embargo, but oddly kept Syria on the list of terrorism-supporting countries.
Nobody expected the Syrian uprising. Syria has long been thought of as “stable” country, if not a nice one, but maybe it is just a country on which you could write your own script. The Obama administration saw a needy country that could be “weaned” away from Iran and moved toward the West through diplomatic and economic gifts. So we returned our ambassador to Damascus and eased the terrorism-related trade embargo, but oddly kept Syria on the list of terrorism-supporting countries. Vogue magazine paid an oily tribute to Asma Assad, wife of Bashar, as a thoroughly modern wife and mother in a country largely without crime – with only a small nod toward the security and intimidation that made it possible for Vogue to photograph the happy couple strolling in the streets of Damascus or driving their Range Rover. American politicos always find Syria “pragmatic” and ready to negotiate with Israel.
“Nobody” (meaning the New York and Washington elite) expected the wave of furious popular anger now engulfing the country, but they should have. The real Syria is the stuff of nightmares.
It has been ruled by “emergency law” since 1963, meaning whatever theoretical rights and protections accrue to the population can be overridden by the government – which has had exactly two leaders since then – Senior Assad and Junior Assad. Real stability eludes them, despite the bludgeon they wield. In 1982, Senior used artillery to pound the city of Hama, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people, the Red Cross estimated. Tens of thousands more were killed across the country before Senior re-establishing the security of his regime later in the decade. Junior killed large numbers of Kurds in 2004 and then again last year. Both Assads kept tight and violent rein on Lebanon, primarily through Hezbollah.
Syrian hegemony in Lebanon is an historical fact, but the Assad relationship with Hezbollah is both a cause and an effect of the Assads being a double minority. They are Shiites in a largely Sunni country, and Alawites within Shia Islam – not always considered acceptable by other Shiites. Senior Assad’s deal with the religious leadership of Iran provided a “hechsher” for Alawites in exchange for Iranian access to Lebanon. But while Senior kept an arm’s length from religious organizations, Junior embraced their leadership, including Hassan Nasrallah (at least until Nasrallah went underground). And not only Shiite terror organizations; Junior permitted al Qaeda to camp and train in eastern Syria from which its operatives would cross into Iraq to kill Americans and recalcitrant Iraqis.
Perhaps Junior thought befriending Sunni al Qaeda would buy some protection for the regime, or maybe it was like the hosting of myriad other terrorist organizations – Sunni Palestinians, Turkish Kurds from the PKK, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and more – simply a byproduct of an anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, totalitarian mindset.
The revolution spreading across the dictatorships of the Middle East provokes mixed feelings – hoping the bad guys lose and the good guys win, without being sure of who is which. Some of the revolutionaries have the same despotic background as the despots they would depose; others would be despotic in entirely new ways.
Unlike the other revolutions, however, which are primarily internal affairs (Egypt excepted), the uprising in Syria has the possibility of benefits beyond its borders. It could short-circuit the Shiite crescent coveted by Iran, reduce outside arms and money for Hezbollah, make it harder for Hezbollah to threaten Israel and Lebanon, and remove a threat to Iraq.
“Nobody” expects it, but here it is with at least as much promise as peril if we can figure out how to take advantage of it.