Belmont Club


On April 12 the Jerusalem Post cataloged the groups opposed to the Assad regime in Syria. Like the portaits of many opposition groups in totalitarian countries, it was a time capsule of all the political parties which had been driven underground in the last half century, a snapshot of arguments frozen in time. Their current popular support was difficult to guess. But at a hazard, the Jerusalem Post believed the main opposition groups to be the Muslim Brotherhood, which the current Assad’s father had slaughtered in the city of Hama and the Turkish separatist movements.

There were in addition a number of liberal reformers which the Bush administration and perhaps the Obama administration have sought to develop ties with.  It was not a situation which promised to install a Switzerland in the Middle East, but one guaranteed to produce fireworks. It was a measure of the fear with which Assad was recently held after the Hariri assassination that no one in Syria would take the money the Bush Administration offered. Eventually in 2007, the US found a taker, but just who is not detailed in published sources.

In February 2006, when relations with Damascus were at a nadir, the Bush administration announced that it would award $5 million in grants to “accelerate the work of reformers in Syria.”

But no dissidents inside Syria were willing to take the money, for fear it would lead to their arrest or execution for treason, according to a 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy, which reported that “no bona fide opposition member will be courageous enough to accept funding.”

Now the dissidents are back on the streets. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Kurds had been historically in conflict with the Ba’ath Party; the Muslim Brotherhood vying for the control of Syria itself. In fact, the Hama massacre was the culminating battle of the Ba’ath vs Muslim Brotherhood struggle. Even after Hama the conflict with the MB never really died. Now, with Bashar Assad reportedly turning loose his secret police and removing the last remaining vestiges of restraint, the fight looks to start again. The last time the Ba’ath ended the fight with Hama. Today can they do it again? Crushing the Kurds is probably beyond the power of Damascus. That far-flung nation has large populations in Iraq and Turkey.

One thing that can be confidently predicted in Syria, as in Libya and elsewhere, is future internal trouble for time to come.  This was inevitable.

The “Arab Spring” has been less about the region finally becoming “pro-American” than about restarting the political debate over the future of the Arab world. Beyond its tribes and nations, it has worn for centuries a Sunni Muslim mask, derived from Islam yet not coincident with it.  Recently, it tried on the guise of Arab Nationalism grafted to totalitarianism, the legacy of Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Khadaffy and Assad.  Yet more recently it has been riven by the return of the Shia on the back of the hapless, uncomprehending Jimmy Carter.

But it has never worn one mask. And each has vied in turn to impose its will over the other.  Yet the pan-regionalists, be they Islamic or “secular”, could never wholly transcend the tribes. Thus the Kurds, mostly Muslim but some Christian, some living in Syria but in Turkey and Iraq, remain a Joker. They will not fit neatly into any ideological solution. The depth of Assad’s troubles can be gauged by his decision this month to grant the Kurds citizenship.

Assad’s overture to Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the 20 million population, came after reports that authorities had released 48 Kurdish prisoners and that the president had met leaders in the eastern al-Hasaka region where many Kurds live earlier in the week.

It was not immediately clear how many would be granted Syrian nationality, but at least 150,000 Kurds are registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in al-Hasaka.

That concession set alarm bells jangling in Ankara,  with a large Kurdish population itself. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had daily phone calls with Bashar Assad as the demonstrations spread relentlessly in Syria to places near the Turkish border. “The head of the Turkish National Intelligence (MIT), Hakan Fidan, was dispatched on Sunday to Damascus to express his government’s concerns about spreading social unrest from Daraa, in Syria’s southwest, to larger cities such as Latakia, a Mediterranean port nearer the Turkish border.”

The Turkish Prime Minister offered to help in any “reform process” that might ensue. How he put that, without implying he was greasing the skids under the Great Opthamologist must have been artful indeed. But there was nothing for it, no hiding the gravity of the situation. Assad’s own concessions and Turkey’s amply confessed that while the regime in Damascus was not by any means finished, it was in real danger. If the buzzards are not exactly circling the carrion, they have spotted the signs of distress.

The sense that something was ‘about to happen’ in Syria was being felt along the Potomac by people who feel that DC should never be dealt out of things. The Washington Post in an Editorial Board Opinion, has called for greater American action in Syria.

According to Western news organizations, which mostly have had to gather information from outside the country, at least 75 people were gunned down in places that included the suburbs of Damascus, the city of Homs and a village near the southern town of Daraa, where the protests began.

Massacres on this scale usually prompt a strong response from Western democracies, as they should. Ambassadors are withdrawn; resolutions are introduced at the U.N. Security Council; international investigations are mounted and sanctions applied. In Syria’s case, none of this has happened. The Obama administration has denounced the violence — a presidential statement called Friday’s acts of repression “outrageous” — but otherwise remained passive. Even the ambassador it dispatched to Damascus during a congressional recess last year remains on post.

Thus the ground is being prepared for the possibility that the Syrian regime will fall. If it does, what succeeds it is hardly likely to be pro-American, at least not initially. As Lee Smith put it, anti-Americanism is the lingua franca of the Middle East, an obligatory attitude towards the single greatest outsider in Middle East in a place where outsiders, like interlopers at water wells, are automatically suspect. But Syria may fall anyway and if Egypt and Libya are any guides what will follow Assad as followed Mubarak, is a divided country, wracked by political conflict, sometimes peaceful but often violent.

But the Arab Spring marks end of two false narratives. It is the graveyard of the fiction purveyed since the Second War that the region’s troubles were caused by the West or by that even more unlikely bogeyman, the tiny state of Israel. Since the Arab Spring began, not one of the internal troubles has been about Israel. Not one has been about the United States. The year 2011 represents the first time that the problems of the Middle East have openly returned to where they really spring: the political and cultural contradictions of the region itself, even as they have always been since Mohammed himself tried to solve them through the vehicle of Islam.

That only created different kinds of Islam, which in turn led, after the Ottoman decline, to another attempt at synthesis in Nasserism. The Arab Spring represents an opportunity at once greater yet less dramatic than the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It is not the moment when Liberal Democracy triumphs in the region. Rather it marks the time when the Middle East — from its Muslims sects and oppressed minorities — returns to that pile of failures which is their history. It marks a return to the central problem of whether they, as tribes and believers can learn to live in peace without one religion or tribe, or one civilization lording it over all the others.

Perhaps they can live in peace; perhaps the quest for a new dominant civilization will forgotten for the satisfactions of commercial progress. Possibly they cannot. But the region unluckily comes to this crisis with a President in the White House least disposed to midwifing real change. Barack Obama’s policies are predicated on the two false narratives of Western Evil and Israel as the Central Problem in the Middle East — the very world view now falling to pieces before his very eyes. The narratives underpinned his entire strategy of engagement. Ironically, nearly all the potentates he sought to speak to “without preconditions” to apologize or fix the Israel problem with are being toppled from their palaces. The framework is shattered and the best replacement paradigm so far is the ridiculous doctrine of R2P, which is to say that having be on the wrong horse, the administration is now intellectually bankrupt. The Washington Post editorial senses that Washington’s engagement policy is now truly dead:

Yet the Obama administration has effectively sided with the regime against the protesters. Rather than repudiate Mr. Assad and take tangible steps to weaken his regime, it has proposed, with increasing implausibility, that his government “implement meaningful reforms,” as the president’s latest statement put it. As The Post’s Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson reported Friday, the administration, which made the “engagement” of Syria a key part of its Middle East policy, still clings to the belief that Mr. Assad could be part of a Middle East peace process; and it would rather not trade “a known quantity in Assad for an unknown future.”

As a practical matter, these considerations are misguided. Even if his massacres allow him to survive in power, Mr. Assad will hardly be a credible partner for Israel. And no matter what happens, Syria will not return to the police-state stability it has known during the past several decades.

As a moral matter, the stance of the United States is shameful. To stand by passively while hundreds of people seeking freedom are gunned down by their government makes a mockery of the U.S. commitment to human rights. In recent months President Obama has pledged repeatedly that he would support the aspiration of Arabs for greater freedom. In Syria, he has not kept his word.

The engagement policy is dead, but like the regimes in the Middle East, its successor is not yet in view.

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