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For Assad and the Alawis, the Iraqi insurgency amounted to a debate over the nature of the Middle East. The Bush administration thought that the region was ripe for democracy and pluralism, and that its furies could be tamed by giving Middle Easterners a voice in their own government. Syria countered that the Middle East could only be governed through violence. Its support for the insurgency was, at least in part, intended to give Washington no choice but to put away dangerous ideas like Arab democracy…

This is what the Syrians, and the Iranians, did in Iraq—but the Americans were also at fault, and not just because we failed to provide enough security early on. We should have given more consideration, and even respect, to the theory the Arabs had about us. While Washington may have thought it was laboring to bring democracy to the region, the Arabs believed we were on a deliberate course to set them at each other’s throats, with the goal of dividing and conquering. The sectarian warfare that Zarqawi was waging there was seen as just the first of many more conflagrations to come, conflagrations that the Arabs thought would be to our benefit, and of course to that of the Israelis.

Sometimes shows of power and diplomacy are, in fact, connected aspects of one player’s coherent and comprehensive Middle East policy. But often what appears to be a grand strategy is just a fantasy that Arab analysts, journalists, and cafe society have projected onto the map of the region in order to pass time and keep the mind nimble, like a narrative version of backgammon. That was the case with the Arab interpretation of U.S. policy in Iraq. We didn’t want to set the Sunnis and Shias against each other—we just wanted to take a few pieces off the table. But the Arabs find it impossible to believe that we do not understand the nature of the Middle East, and they therefore assume that our guile matches our power.

The assumption that democracy was all a plan to set the Arabs at each other’s throats also made sense to many Arabs because it fit the way they see their own societies. For the Americans, democracy meant investing the Arab man, woman, and child with the rights due every human being. From the Arab nationalist perspective, empowering the Arab individual would necessarily come at the expense of the Arab nation. And weakening the unity of the nation would animate the sectarian monster that has stalked the region for a millennium.

Nowhere were these fears stronger than in Damascus. For the Syrian regime, democracy would mean an end to the domestic peace cultivated through coercion and repression since the founding of the modern Syrian state, and the unleashing of violence at unprecedentedly lethal levels. Majority rule, meanwhile, would obviously not only spell the demise of the Alawi regime but also threaten the very existence of the Alawi community. As they watched what was happening in Lebanon and Iraq, it was easy for the Arabs to conclude that if representative government meant brother slaughtering brother, then the Americans could keep their precious democracy to themselves.

Hatred of America’s freedoms, the Bush White House liked to say, is why jihadis commit acts of terror against the United States. The Syrian regime reminded the Arab mainstream that it wasn’t American freedoms they hated, but their own. The Arabs feared each other.


From The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations by Lee Smith.


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