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News Flash: Syrian Regime Mob Attacks U.S. Embassy

By Barry Rubin

In Damascus, a mob organized by the Asad regime attacked the U.S. and French embassies. The French guards fired into the air, wounding two, and the demonstrators stopped. Three French embassy workers were injured. At the U.S. embassy while the U.S.-employed Syrian guards fired teargas, the Marines didn’t fire and the mob surged into the embassy breaking windows and wrecking at least part of the building for two and a half hours as Syrian security forces stood by.

Those are the basic facts. The question is: what does this mean and what will the Obama Administration do about it.

What this tells us about Syria's government

Syria, unlike Mubarak's Egypt, is a real totalitarian regime. The rulers believe, and experience has taught them, that violence and intimidation always win. It is the kind of government that President Barack Obama and the well-meaning peace processers and those holding university degrees in conflict resolution can't understand. It is Saddam Hussein's Iraq without any more-human face.

This is a regime that sponsors terrorism to kill Americans in Iraq. It has sponsored terrorism against Israel for 50 years and continues to do so. It has assassinated political leaders, journalists, and judges in Lebanon. A few blocks away from where visiting U.S. officials a few months ago were tweeting about the wonderful coffee in cafes, dissidents were being tortured.

And so let's reconsider the following exchange:

Question: “Aren’t you concerned that your outstretched hand has been interpreted by extremists, especially [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, [Hizballah leader] Nasrallah, [Hamas leader] Meshal, as weakness?”

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it’s not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness.

And yet this is precisely what's happened. The previous Bush Administration took a hard line on Syria with sanctions and other pressures. That didn't work, said the Obama team, so we're going to try a little tenderness. For 2.5 years it let Syria get away with murder. Senator John Kerry and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi attested to the reformist and moderate nature of this murderous regime. The White House did everything possible to reduce sanctions against Syria.

But that didn't work. The two sides were playing entirely different games. The idea that the United States had the slightest chance of splitting Syria from its Iranian patron was always absurd but the media and academia largely censored out the multiple, persuasive arguments on that point.

Only a few days ago, the Syrian ambassador was called into the State Department and told that the United States knew Syrian agents were filming demonstrations in America held by anti-Asad Syrian students and Syrian-Americans. Can anyone doubt that the next step was to intimidate through punishing their relatives back home?

Soon reporters will be writing that there must be a split in the regime: after all, why do some officials talk of democracy and compromise while others order shooting and torture? That's no contradiction; that's how this regime works. It believes that force, threats, and intimidation will always work. Other methods are useful to stall for time or fool the credulous and get concessions from them.

What Will the Obama Administration Do?

It should immediately drop the policy it has been following, lose its illusions, and return to a tough stance. A tough stance will not change the Syrian regime's mind but it might help change the Syrian regime. Moreover, the soft policy makes things even worse.

The attack on the embassy was a response to very mild U.S. criticisms and the visit of the U.S. ambassador to Hama. A Western-style regime, even a dictatorship, would say: Great! The Americans are leaving us alone except for a few gestures and meaningless statements. Let's play along with them.

But this is the Middle East and the Syrian regime demands of the United States and France what it also demands from its own people: total support or they get bludgeoned into submission.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is likely to do nothing and learn nothing. There will be harsh words and much stamping on the floor. But recognize that the Syrian regime is an enemy and act accordingly (and I am NOT repeat NOT talking about military responses)? Not going to happen.

Future of Syria

The starting point is that we should admit that nobody knows what will happen. The revolution isn't going away easily. Watch this video to understand that point.

But neither is the regime. The evidence shows that the government, and the Alawite elite behind it, believes that they must win or die.

I would predict:

Chance of the regime making reforms (what the Obama Administration has predicted until now): 0 percent.

Chance of the regime splitting near the top: 10 percent.

Chance of non-Alawite, non-elite units of the army defecting and beginning a civil war: 25 percent.

Chance of a lot of people being killed: 100 percent.

Would a revolution bring to power an Islamist regime? We cannot know for sure. I would emphasize that the chances are lower than in Egypt. Other organized political forces exist. Forty percent of the country is not Sunni Arab Muslim and would oppose an Islamist regime. The figure in Egypt is 10 percent, and they are all Christians who have absolutely no political influence.

I would also add that this is only the beginning. Whether U.S. policy opposes or supports existing regimes there is going to be an upsurge of anti-Americanism, a point that those who say the only problem is bad U.S. policies in the past cannot explain. In Egypt, where the Obama Administration enthusiastically backed a revolution, it is already building.

But let's conclude for the moment with a comparison between the Middle East according to Barack Obama and that according to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad:

Obama: "Well, it’s not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness."

Asad: "It's better to be feared than to be liked."

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pjmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org.