MADRID – The English author and priest William Ralph Inge once said that “A man may build himself a throne of bayonets, but he cannot sit on it.” Syria’s Assad dynasty, however, seems to believe that it can defy that dictum.
Historically, few autocrats have understood that change produced peacefully by government is the most viable conservative solution to popular demands, and the best way to avoid violent revolution. This is the wisdom that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh all failed to learn. It is the central lesson of the Arab Spring, and one that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has bloodily ignored.
A country whose weight in Middle East politics has stemmed more from its role as an engine of the Arab-Israeli conflict than from its objective military or economic power, Syria under the Assads always feared that abandoning ideological confrontation with the Zionist enemy would undermine the regime. Indeed, pundits explained Syria’s initial immunity to the Arab Spring by pointing to the regime’s staunch defense of Arab dignity, reflected in its resolute hostility towards Israel.
But, as the younger Assad has been forced to recognize, times have changed. The new Arab generation’s quest for dignity is rooted in a yearning for decent government and civil rights that was long denied under the pretext of conflict with the “Zionist crusaders.”
One of the most secular regimes in the Arab world – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was another – the Syrian Baath system, based on a trinity of party, army, and ethnic loyalty, has now drawn the country into a sectarian war between its Sunni majority and the small Shia-Alawite minority that has ruled for the last 45 years. Since the rebel Free Syria Army, which is mostly Sunni, split from the regular army, Assad has used the Alawite core of his forces and the shabeeha – a notorious Alawite paramilitary group – to conduct his ruthless campaign for survival.
The regime is now facing its moment of truth. The disintegration of Assad’s iron rule into a bloody civil war shows once again that the disorderly collapse of dictatorships, such as Josip Broz Tito’s in Yugoslavia, or Hussein’s in Iraq, tends to foment inter-ethnic war and national dismemberment.
Other minorities in Syria, such as Christians, Druze, and Kurds, have reason to dread a change for the worse. The Christians, in particular, who were protected by Assad, now fear that if the Baath regime is overthrown, they will suffer the same consequences as Christians in Iraq. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly warned the opposition recently that, thus far, they have been unable to unite the minorities behind them precisely because it is unclear to these groups that they will fare better without Assad than with him.
The Sunni al-Qaeda flourishes in conditions of mayhem. Denied their Iraqi and Afghan bases by Western intervention, al-Qaeda militants are now flocking into Syria from Libya and Iraq, and are probably responsible for some of the recent terrorist atrocities in Aleppo and Homs. Al-Qaeda’s move to the Levant also threatens to spark a momentous confrontation between Sunni radicals – some of whom have recently taken control of part of the Syrian-Lebanese border – and the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon. Assad would welcome extending the conflict to Lebanon as a distraction.
Indeed, as in Iraq, Syria’s sectarian strife looks increasingly like a jihadist religious war. Sunni clerics in Syria and throughout the Arab world are issuing fatwas to give the Free Syria Army the halo of holy warriors fighting the Alawite infidels who have denied Syria its true Sunni identity. Conspicuously, whole battalions of this splinter Sunni army are being named after early Muslim heroes, such as Khalid bin al-Walid, the companion to the prophet Muhammad who conquered the Levant; Saladin, who recaptured Palestine from the Crusaders; and Moawiyah Bin Abi Sufian, Muhammad’s brother-in-law.
Shielded by China and Russia from foreign intervention, Assad now has license to pursue his goals with no mercy for his opponents. Both China and Russia feel betrayed by the West’s behavior in Libya, where it clearly transcended the United Nations mandate by toppling the Qaddafi regime. And, given their own potentially explosive political and ethnic tensions at home, neither is inclined to support foreign intervention.
Moreover, Russia, still traumatized by its Cold War defeat, wants to maintain the Syria-Iran axis as a key bargaining chip in its difficult relations with the West, while both it and China are simply weary of the West’s naiveté. As they see it, the immediate choices in the Arab world are not between dictatorship and democracy, but between malevolent stability and apocalyptic mayhem.
And yet the West is also hesitant to act, owing to fears of a repeat of the Iraq debacle. Transforming Syria’s Baath regime into a workable democracy is practically impossible, just as it was in the case of Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq. But the prospect of a jihadist-style ethnic war that extends throughout the Levant is not especially attractive, either. For Russia and China, too, that cannot be a happy prospect.