Sunday, February 20, 2005

Problems for Assad in Syria

The Weekly Standard has an interesting analysis of the situation in Syria. Link.
"The ripple effect that the White House wanted in the Middle East is actually starting to happen," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian writer and rights activist who has just returned to Damascus after spending the last six months in Washington as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Since coming back, Abdulhamid has been put under a travel ban by the Syrian government for his sharp criticism of the regime in the Western and Arab
press, and has been repeatedly interrogated by several security branches. Nonetheless, he believes things are beginning to change. "The presence of U.S. forces in the region," he told me, "and the pressure brought to bear on the Syrian regime has begun to create a new political climate." (...)

Perhaps the best way to understand Syria's foreign policy--especially in Iraq and Lebanon right now--is as an expression of the regime's keening anxiety over its own lack of domestic credibility. The most serious taboo in Syrian political discourse is the subject of minorities. Like Iraq's former Sunni-dominated regime, Syria's ruling cadre is made up of a minority, the Alawites, adherents of a somewhat gnostic variation of Shia Islam. In Syria, the Sunnis are a majority, but to date, many are so taken with the "heroic resistance" to the occupation in Iraq that they have not even noticed how free elections might serve their interests. The idea that Syria's Sunnis might soon put two and two together terrifies the Alawite regime at least as much as the threat of a missile strike. (...)

It's worth noting, then, that the Bush administration and the Alawite regime fundamentally agree on what's wrong with the Arab Middle East: not Muslim fundamentalism per se, but Sunni Arab radicalism, whether Islamist or Arab nationalist in coloring. The Iraqi Baathists directing the insurgency from Damascus are a big headache for the White House, but they're potentially disastrous for Assad.

In 1982, the Sunni city of Hama rose up against then dictator Hafez al-Assad, father of the current dictator Bashar al-Assad. Assad sent troops under his brother, Rifaat, to put down the uprising. They razed the city and killed between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants. That is what it takes to maintain total power in the Middle East, when you are from a minority sect with only 10% of the population. When push comes to shove (i.e. a civil war), I doubt Bashar will be able to act as ruthlessly as his father had. If he does not, his Alawite regime will be history.


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