Nine months after Syria’s President Bashar Assad confidently told a Western
journalist that his country was immune to the region’s political upheavals, he
must be wondering what hit him. After more than 4,000 fatalities, along with
looming sectarian strife, his abandonment by Turkey, suspension from the Arab
League, the threat of international sanctions and even the specter of foreign
intervention, the 41-year-old Assad dynasty and attendant Baath regime may be on
its last legs.
Some historical perspective may be instructive.
Geopolitically, Syria occupies a pivotal position in the Near East-Fertile
Crescent region, ensconced between five neighbors. During its first 25 years of
independence (1945-1970), Syria was a weak state that suffered from chronic
political instability, internal schisms and lack of cohesion. As such, it was
the object of rival regional and international ambitions which, in turn, further
destabilized domestic political life.
This weakness contrasted with
Syria’s claim to regional leadership as “the beating heart of Arabism,” which
was used by Syrian leaders as a legitimating tool vis-a-vis both domestic and
The outcome of this explosive cocktail was the 1967 Six
Day War with Israel, the final blow to the dream of radical
The ascent of Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, to power in
1970 inaugurated a new era. Syria became a brutal, albeit stable, dawlat
(“intelligence and security services state”), its leaders pampered
and all opposition crushed. Systematic repression was accompanied by alliances
between the Alawite core of the regime with Sunni merchant classes and mostly
Christian religious minorities, who valued the stability the regime
Regionally, Syria became a full-fledged actor, incorporating
Lebanon into its sphere of influence and seeking to do the same with the
Palestinians and Jordan, and maintaining a hard-line position towards Israel.
While it did not abandon its declared adherence to the principles of Arab
nationalism, Syria’s alliance with non-Arab, revolutionary Islamic Iran, which
began in 1979, placed Damascus in an awkward, minority position in the
constellation of Arab states.
Throughout his life, Hafez maneuvered
adroitly in the face of competing pressures and needs. Bashar, by contrast, has
been less cautious and more caustic, embracing Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite
Hezbollah client more fully, initiating a clandestine nuclear weapons program,
and openly scorning pro-Western Arab leaders as “half-men.”
cockiness led him to misread the new situation.
While brute force had
been previously successful in dealing with dissent, in the wake of the Arab
Spring it has had the opposite effect.
Moreover, his conservative Arab
rivals, particularly the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies,
who keep an eye on Iran’s looming shadow across the Persian Gulf, have decided
to assert their own brand of leadership, and not only in Bahrain and
In an unprecedented move, the six GCC states, together with the
new Egyptian government, activated the moribund and much-maligned Arab League
against Syria’s sometime ally, the mercurial Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. His
government was suspended from League membership and, more importantly, the
League provided vital legitimacy to NATO ’s intervention (on ostensibly
humanitarian grounds). This first-time intervention by the League in the internal
affairs of a member state was opposed by Syria and Algeria, but to no
A precedent had been set and now it has been activated again, this
time against Assad.
Two contrary factors have helped to bring the Arab
League mechanism into the center of regional diplomacy. The first is the dynamic
of popular protest; the second is geopolitical opportunity. An additional, third
factor, is the preference of Western powers to stay in the background and let
Syria’s neighbors take the lead.
The success of mass uprisings in
Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has created new benchmarks for the region, providing
encouragement and legitimacy for opposition movements elsewhere. Indeed,
conservative Gulf monarchies, as well as Jordan and Morocco, facing their own
restless populations, find it useful to identify with the Syrian opposition.
Even more importantly, they recognize that the fall of the House of Assad would
be of a different order of magnitude than that of Gaddafi.
for three decades to pry Syria loose from the Iranian embrace, the prospect of a
Sunni-dominated government in Damascus, one more attuned to Saudi, Turkish,
Egyptian (and Western) sensibilities and interests than to Tehran’s
nuclear-aspiring mullahs outweighs, in their minds, the very real risk of chaos
Hence, nearly the whole League membership was mobilized: 18
states voted to suspend Syria, with only Lebanon and Yemen opposing, and
abstaining. The League has offered an “Arab solution” to the crisis – an
violence and killing, release of prisoners, withdrawal of the army from
cities, and dialogue with the opposition under League auspices.
Damascus regime isn’t buying. Assad continued to exude confidence in a
rare video interview, but in private he must be wondering why his and
father’s methods are no longer sufficient.
With even the Arab League now
engaged in Syria’s internal affairs, and apparently preparing for the
era, Bashar may just remember former US vice president Spiro Agnew’s
being forced to resign after his practices of bribe taking and kickbacks
revealed: “The bastards went and changed the rules.”The writer is the Marcia
Israel Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle
and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.