Marches in Syria’s southern city of Daraa, calling for — according to reports — reform tending toward more freedom, were met by security forces this week, and the encounter was ugly. Scores of people — at least three dozen people according to doctors treating injured in hospitals, from which it is not unreasonable to extrapolate in powers of three or four — were killed and the well-rehearsed repressive apparatus of the Assad regime is coming down on the Syrian south, predominantly populated by people of the Sunni persuasion.
President Bashir el-Assad’s father, Hafez el-Assad, came to power in Damascus in 1970; it was the last stage in a lengthy power struggle that had begun in 1963 with a coup by the Ba’ath (Arab Socialist) party against the government then in place, itself the product of coups too numerous to mention since independence from France after World War II.
The Assad regime took no prisoners. Hafez was a leading member of a minority within the Shia minority, the Alawites, whose geographic base lies in Syria’s mountainous west near Lebanon. The Alawites, as a poor and oppressed minority, had found in the military a path to upward mobility during the French mandate period in the inter-world war years; it was a revolutionary phenomenon, unique in the Middle East, for a despised and oppressed group to come to power (rather than obtain an almost arithmetically determined share of power, as happened with the 1943 National Pact in Lebanon), and it was all the more striking as they took over Damascus, an ancient and prestigious Arab and Muslim capital. It did not happen by means an open, negotiated, compromise-laden political deal. It happened by means of treachery and intrigue.
One hates to get psychopolitical and in any case the political consequences are what we must deal with, not the clinical diagnosis, but the Alawite leaders are paranoiac crazies, obsessively secretive and conspiratorial. There is no safety except in absolute power, and any challenge must be met with immediate and swift repression. Most famously, the city of Hama was practically razed to the ground in 1982 and anywhere from 10 to 40 thousand (statistics in this part of the word are unreliable) of its inhabitants slaughtered when the regime found that it was hotbed of fundamentalist Sunni opposition to the Assad clan. The case may have been extreme, but it is characteristic.
The Syrians, including until they say otherwise those who oppose the Assad regime, have never renounced their claim of what they refer to as Greater Syria, which includes Lebanon and the former Ottoman province of Palestine. Which means that renouncing interference in Lebanon’s affairs, let alone peace with Israel, is basically not on the agenda. There may be truces, negotiations, deals, even retreats, but the goal is the reconstitution of Greater Syria. Israel is properly wary of any deal involving the Golan Heights, a territory in Israel’s north claimed by Syria — but on what legal, political, or cultural basis is it Syrian, no one really has ever persuasively said. After all, if you go by the kind of logic the Syrians (and for that matter others, including the Palestinians) rely on to make territorial claims, they themselves should not exist except as subjects of an empire that expired during World War I.
In the wake of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Syrians officially pulled out of Lebanon, which they had occupied militarily and dominated politically since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. The Lebanese Shia are viewed by the Syrians as useful allies in their plans to dominate the neighborhood, but they must share them with the Iranians and their Lebanese militia, the Hezbollah.
The withdrawal occurred in 2005 when the Lebanese president, Rafiq Hariri, was murdered after refusing political conditions demanded by Bashir el Assad. The outrage led to the Cedar Revolution, which promised independence for Lebanon and its restoration as a Mediterranean jewel. It might not be Switzerland, but the politics would be played according to rules of mutual respect among the religious and tribal communities, while commerce thrived. Hariri symbolized this Lebanon and strived for it. Admittedly it is, or was, a somewhat legendary place, but still much more enviable than any alternatives since the civil war. Rafiq’s son Saad Hariri has since the murder taken up the legacy, which means, politically, serving as prime minister while positioning himself as a leader of the Sunni community and a viable leader for all Lebanese.
As such, he is an enemy of the Syrians and the Hezbollah. On January 14 of this year, he was ousted as prime minister by what most observers called a Syrian-Hezbollah coup; in effect the Hezbollah leaders and their militia put guns to the heads of Hariri’s allies from other communities, of whom the best known is the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Since then there has been a stalemate, with Hezbollah’s candidate for the premiership, Najib Mikati, unable to form a government, and the Sunnis demanding the disarming of the militias.
The brutal repression in Daraa, by the same regime that massacred its people in Hama, cannot be unconnected to events in Lebanon, nor to those in Jordan (Daraa is a few kilometers from the Jordanian border), where the monarch, Abdullah, is striving mightily with a restive population for a middle ground between repression and abdication. If Assad shows that he is open to compromise, Saad Hariri and his people will be emboldened to keep pressing for the disarming of Hezbollah, a terrorist state within the Lebanese state. But it can cut both ways. If Jordan’s government gives a few inches, anti-regime activists in Daraa are encouraged to press on, and Assad may take fright (and as a leading Alawi he has a very low threshold) and come down even harder on the protesters. While mentioning vague reforms in public, including press freedom, his regime is going after journalists, internet-media, and human rights activists and preparing the Alawi hard core for another “correction,” as the elder Assad used to describe purges and consolidations of his power.
In this context, it is difficult not to see in the recent Hamas attacks on Israel a calculated effort to keep the Palestinian population in Gaza from getting interested in reforms, while diverting regional attention from the failures of the regimes in place. And without wanting to disparage the real sufferings of real people, specifically including the sufferings of the Palestinians at the hands of their gangster leaders, is this not, at least in large part, what the Palestinian issue always has been about?
AND IF THAT IS SO, why on earth are we being so sensitive about Odyssey Dawn? The name, at least, is suggestive of a reality: it is going to take a long time, quite probably longer than Odysseus’ ten years of travels, to get anything resembling a free and open society on the rails in Libya. Beyond that, we seem to be in a fantasy. Unless it is all an elaborate deception the coalition is using to mask its resolve, it appears neither we nor the French nor the British can even agree to call a war a war.
True, sometimes it is well to be reticent in expressing war aims, because you have an interest in not wanting the other side to feel fatally cornered. In quite different international and regional environments, the U.S. did just this in past Middle Eastern crises — restraining the Anglo-French-Israel expedition at Suez in 1956, and again (Israel alone this time) in 1973. In the Arab revolts this year, there is the added factor of wanting to assure internal oppositions that we support them against tyrannical regimes and have nothing against their countries.
And also true, there are considerations of domestic politics. President Obama prefers not to call the expedition a war because he wants to establish the precedent that military-led humanitarian operations sanctioned by the United Nations do not require Congressional approval, which — correct me, Jeremy Rabkin, if I err — is to say they are somehow extra-Constitutional. President Sarkozy prefers to keep things low key, even though he was the one beating the drums to get the coalition going and to recognize the Benghazi-based National Council as a legitimate representative of Libya’s people, because his neighbors, especially Germany, are dead-set against it. Nonetheless, an agreement to put NATO formally in charge, worked out this week, may survive German grumbling.
At the same time, because he is deeply concerned about relations between Europe and the Islamic world, as well as the way large numbers of voters in France feel about relations with Muslims in their own country, he has not objected to Interior Minister Claude Guéant’s use of the term “crusade” to describe the operation. It would seem an old Catholic nation would be permitted to make use of a word that resonates heroically in its collective memory when sending its young men off to war. In the real-fantasy world of 2011, however, for a French public figure to refer to a croisade, is to bring down the wrath of the language police. Martine Aubry, leader of the opposition Socialists, even when so far as to call Guéant an amateur. Guéant’s boss, prime minister François Fillon, went rather more easily on him, merely saying that firing missiles from the commands of a Rafale fighter at live targets on the ground below is not a war. He did not say what it was exactly. But it is not a war.
We have, in Iraq and Afghanistan, gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate that we are not at war with those countries. We have, rather, injected ourselves into those countries’ civil wars. Some Arab critics argue that we provoked these civil wars, and some are loath to condemn us because they feel they were long overdue. (Interestingly, they are more likely to say this than to agree that the attacks of 9/11 justified our reaction.) Whether we understand the civil wars of the Arabs and describe them accurately with our language of democracy is far from certain. What is more distressing, though, is that our own president appears unwilling to put his famous oratorical talent to use in describing what he is asking them to do, pro Deo e patria, for us.
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