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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

And if Bashar Assad falls?


LONDON — It's safe to say that we will never see an alliance between Israel and al-Qaida. Yet Syria's government-controlled media hint that this evil alliance exists as they grasp at any explanation, however implausible, that might discredit the anti-government protests that have shaken the Ba'ath Party's half-century grip on power.

The regime's security forces have killed more than 200 Syrians since the protests began in mid-March, but government spokesmen insist that they were shot down by "armed elements" who also attacked the police and the army. These armed elements are allegedly in the pay of the Israelis or of al-Qaida.

It's ridiculous, and nobody believes it, but what else are the official media going to say? That the Syrian people, without distinction of ethnicity or creed, are moving toward a non-violent revolution aimed at overthrowing President Bashar Assad and the whole Ba'athist apparatus of power? They can't admit that, so they tell preposterous lies instead.

Assad's response to the threat has followed the pattern of other Arab dictators who have already lost power: he makes concessions, but always too little and too late. On April 14, for example, he finally declared that the 48-year-old "state of emergency," which allowed the regime to arrest anybody and hold them without charge, has been lifted.

It wasn't much of a concession, really, since the security forces still have immunity no matter what they do and the courts are under the regime's thumb. But if Assad had announced it two weeks earlier, it might have taken some of the steam out of the protest movement. Now it's too late: a day later the protesters came out of the mosques after prayers as usual, and the regime's troops killed some of them as usual. Since then more protesters have been shot.

The Syrian regime seems even more unimaginative and inflexible than the regimes that have already gone under in Tunisia and Egypt, so it really could go down. It's time to ask what the fall of Assad and the Syrian Ba'athists would mean for the whole region. The answer is: it could change everything.

Syria is the lynch-pin of the alliance system that has defined the region's politics since the late 1970s. That was when Egypt made peace with Israel, and the "Islamic" revolution overthrew the shah in Iran. It was a complete reversal of the old order, for Egypt had previously led the Arab resistance to Israel's conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while Iran under the shah had been America's closest ally in the Middle East.

Egypt, in order to regain its own Israeli-occupied territory, effectively abandoned the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a tacit ally of Israel. Jordan also made peace with Israel, and after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 the south of that country remained under Israeli occupation for 20 years.

Of all Israel's Arab neighbors, only Syria remained a serious military opponent. Maybe the Ba'athist regime there would also have made peace with Israel if it could have got its own occupied territory in the Golan Heights back, but Israel was never willing to make that concession. So Syria was alone and desperately needed allies - and the only potential ally in sight was the new Islamic regime in Iran.

It was unusual for any Arab country to make an alliance with Iran. It was doubly strange for Syria to do so, because the Ba'athist regime there has always been militantly secular. But international politics makes for strange bed-fellows, so Syria got into bed with Iran.

When the Hezbollah guerilla resistance to Israeli occupation emerged in southern Lebanon, it also became a member of this peculiar Syria-Iran alliance. And when the Hamas movement emerged in the Gaza Strip, it also joined the club.

This ill-assorted group of countries and movements - Iran and Hezbollah run by Shiite extremists, Hamas dominated by Sunni fanatics, and Syria a totally secular state - has provided the only real opposition to Israeli policy in the region for the past thirty years. Without Syria, it would fall apart, and both Hezbollah and Hamas would be gravely weakened.

That could easily happen if the Ba'athists lose control in Syria - and almost every other government in the region is deeply worried by the prospect of a democratic Syria.

Iran fears the loss of its main Arab ally and condemns the Syrian protesters even as it praises the revolutionaries in other Arab countries. The remaining dictatorships in the Arab world are appalled that the rot has spread to Syria: if this bastion of tyranny can go down, what hope is there for the rest of them?

And Israel doesn't even know what to hope for. It loathes the Ba'athist regime in Syria and would love to see Hamas and Hezbollah weakened, but it fears that a democratic government in Syria would be an even more implacable enemy of Israel.

The same goes for the United States, so the Syrian protesters are entirely on their own. If the Ba'athists try to solve their problem by massacre, as they have done in the past, nobody will raise a finger to stop them. But the protesters could still win. Massacres don't always have the desired effect.

Gwynne Dyer's latest book is "Climate Wars."


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