By Jay Holmes
On January 27 of this year, protests began in Syria against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Bashar (a.k.a. Assad 2.0) quickly attempted to crush the protests before they could gain any momentum. He was unable to declare a state of emergency because Syria was already under a state of emergency. He did not revoke the civil rights of the people because they didn’t have any civil rights to revoke. The state of emergency and revocation of civil rights happened in 1963, and Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad (a.k.a. Assad 1.0), never lifted the state of emergency after taking power in Syria in 1970.
Assad 2.0 — Contrary to appearances and popular belief, Bashar Assad was not kidnapped by Western scientists and replaced with a remote controlled robot. This is an actual picture of the actual Assad.
So who are these Syrian protestors, and what do they want? They are a variety of groups from culturally distinct areas across Syria. They are, basically, a combination of anyone in Syria who doesn’t happen to be a member of Assad’s Alawi Islamic sect.
Like his father before him, Assad 2.0 has relied on his fellow Alawi sect members to fill most of the important government positions, including military and police leadership. However, 88% of Syrians are not Alawi. Most of the protestors are from the 72% Sunni, 10% Christian, and 3% Druze populations.
Bashar Assad replaced his dead father as Syrian dictator in January 2000. He has spoken of economic reforms since then, but effective economic reform in Syria would require Assad to reduce corruption. In order to reduce corruption, he would have to remove from office the same Alawi officials who guarantee his security and replace them with non-Alawi officials, eliminating that security for the Assad clan. By violently suppressing the Syrian “Arab Spring” protestors, Assad avoided this scary task, but the road of protest suppression took him somewhere he had not intended to go.
On a windy March morning, Assad woke up to find himself on the wrong side of the Rubicon. While the Syrian protestors failed to gain his ear, they succeeded in gaining the ear of the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”). The ICJ did more than talk. They listened. Now, Assad can no longer take his money, his wife, and his mistresses and buy an estate and some social standing in England.
Bashar Assad is, in large part, the product of the powerful Alawi sect, but he is also the product of a British medical education. During his father’s three decades of bloody gang war rule that included a bloody gang war between his father and his uncle, Assad 2.0 had been given the luxury of living in the comparatively bucolic Western Europe as an ophthalmologist. Whatever pleasant visions he might have harbored concerning the future of Syria, they were quickly banished by the day-to-day reality of remaining in power in that country.
Standing now on the wrong side of the Rubicon with no way to cross to the peaceful, distant shore, Assad has few options and fewer friends. His minority ruling class can count as friends the Iranian-controlled Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and the distant Iranian government. Syria had, at times, fantasized that Turkey was it’s staunch ally, but Turkey has now opened its country to political asylum seekers from Syria.
Key Syrian anti-Assad activists, such as Syrian Ba’ath party founder Shibliy Aisamy, mistakenly sought safe haven in Lebanon, and have been kidnapped by Syrian police. Hezbollah holds sway in Lebanon and will continue to back Assad as long as it is told to by the Iran’s ruling mullahs.
Turkey is another story. Hezbollah has no power in Turkey, and it cannot influence Turkey’s friendly treatment of anti-Assad protestors.
The death of Libyan gangster Moammar Qaddafi was bad news for Bashar Assad. With Europe and NATO now free of their military obligations in Libya, Assad can no longer count on NATO nations being too busy to bother with him. But not all NATO nation taxpayers are anxious to burn more cash and spill more blood by intervening in Syria. If the future complexion of the Libyan government is difficult to discern, then any future Syrian government is nearly impossible to predict. NATO nations can’t know what they would be backing.
Hezbollah maintains a disciplined and ruthless rule in southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s puppet masters in Iran are desperate to prevent a secular government from forming in Syria. Various factions in the chaos that we call Iraq also want to avoid secular government in Syria. Saudi Arabia wants Saudi-friendly Sunni rule in that country, and Jordan, Israel, and the West would be happy to see a secular, democratic government installed.
So what do the Syrians want? It’s perfectly clear that the majority of them want the Assad cabal gone. It’s completely unclear as to what they want in its place.
In the short term, Assad will use what he calculates to be the minimum force necessary to remain in power. He does not want to attract intervention, but he does not want to leave, and his options for leaving Syria grow less attractive as the bodies pile up.
In order for the Syrian protestors to remove Assad from power, they will need outside help. To get that outside help, they will need to decide what their vision of Syria will look like, and they will need to share that vision with the outside world. If the Syrian uprising presents the world with a view of Syria’s future that is significantly more appealing to the West than the status quo, then Western governments might be motivated to intervene on their behalf.
That intervention, if it happens, need not be military. Everyone living on the shores of the Mediterranean understands what NATO is, and now they understand how far it will go in intervening to remove a despot from the Mediterranean shores. They also understand just how easily NATO can do that. Syria does not present Europe with the same petroleum motive that Libya did, but there are limits as to how much Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States will tolerate from Assad.
If the Syrian Transitional Council succeeds in forming and sharing a vision beyond Assad’s departure, there will still be an easy way out of the potential violent mess that is brewing in Syria. If Assad is offered an escape from the hell of his and his father’s own making, he might be willing to board that ferry to re-cross the Rubicon. Trying Assad in court is less valuable and less important to mankind than allowing the Syrian people a chance to move forward into the twenty-first century without a repeat of the chaos that we now see in Iraq.
Whatever hopes and visions others might harbor for the Syrian people, only they can form and communicate those visions.
When I gaze into my crystal ball I don’t see the opposition going away. What do you see in your crystal ball? Any questions?