The Syrian wobble

The ambitious freedom policy unveiled by President Bush in his second inaugural speech aims at the complete social and political transformation of the Arab Middle East.  Philosophically, the President’s policy rests on the assumption that democracy is a universal craving – a “hunger in dark places” – of the human race.  Politically, his strategy hinges on the example of Iraq shattering the brittle status quo in the Middle East.

So far, the strategy appears to be working.  A sure indicator of success is the unwillingness of most Arab despots to challenge the President’s agenda.  They prefer to make token gestures toward democracy – a path followed by the Saudi royals, Mubarak of Egypt, the kings of Morocco and Jordan, and others.  Muammar Qaddafi has tried an  original approach:  resisting democracy while abjectly caving in to U.S. security demands.

The last rejectionist in the Arab world remains Syria’s Bashar Assad.  Charles Krauthammer has identified “a new axis of evil whose fulcrum is Syria” together with its Iranian ally and a cluster of terrorist groups – Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad – supported by both countries.

The new axis is openly at war with the President’s freedom policy, and must be defeated if that policy is to succeed.  But how?  Iran is too large and too rich, Krauthammer believes.  The terror gangs are “too shadowy.”  Syria, however, is just right:  poor, weak, and vulnerable.  “If Syria can be flipped,” Krauthammer writes, “the axis is broken.”

Interestingly, I see signs that Assad, whom Krauthammer calls “the dimmest eye doctor ever produced by British medical schools,” is starting to wobble.

Assad was caught flat-footed by the pro-democracy uprising in Lebanon.  His response was the opposite of rejectionism:  he insisted that Syrian troops would leave Lebanon if the Lebanese didn’t want them there.  Half the Syrian occupation troops have in fact left, and it’s not inconceivable that all will have departed before the Lebanese elections take place in May.  With Lebanon, Assad and his cronies lose a profitable racket, as well as a symbol of Syrian power.

More interesting still are developments at home.  Assad has released large numbers of Kurdish and Lebanese prisoners, a gesture of appeasement to his domestic public that, as always with such gestures, will be universally ascribed to weakness.

Then there is this post by Ammar Abdulhamid, the melodramatic author of A Heretic’s Blog from Damascus.  Ammarji, as he calls himself, relates a conversation with his official protector (or as he puts it, “my self-styled self-imposed Patron”), ostensibly a high-placed Baath Party official with direct access to Bashar Assad.  In the course of that conversation, the official raised “the possibility of – drum roll please – holding multi-candidate presidential elections coupled with free parliamentary elections where the Baath Party will compete on the same constitutional footing as any other party.”  Amarji claims that, coming from anyone else, he would have dismissed such talk as idiocy.

Being who he is, though, made me take what he said in this regard very seriously. These “people” seem to have finally realized how deep their crisis happens to be, how existential it really is, and this, it seems, has compelled them to finally accept the intimate link between the way out and the necessity of undertaking radical internal political reforms, something they would never have contemplated, I know, just a few short months ago.

If this is true, then Assad is doomed.  The “hunger in dark places” will swallow him whole should he attempt half measures.  The question I would ask, if we grant Amarji’s point about the “necessity” of reform, is whether Assad would rather play Gorbachev and embrace freedom as a transitional figure, or impersonate Qaddafi and opt for personal and political safety.



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