The Magazine

What Hath Ju-Ju Wrought!

From the March 14, 2005 issue: In the Middle East, the democratic genie is out of the bottle.

Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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First and perhaps foremost, Bashar is inept. The cool, calculating rule of his father, Hafez al-Assad, has given way to the blundering of a young leader who has galvanized anti-Syrian sentiment even among traditionally pro-Syrian Lebanese. Say what you will about Iran's ruling clerics--they are a nasty collection of highly ideological power politicians willing to deploy terrorism at home and abroad whenever necessary--they are not fond of expending their own prestige and power on behalf of juveniles, especially when the odds are they would lose. Iran probably wouldn't mind seeing Bashar al-Assad fall from power in a palace coup--not an unlikely possibility if Syria gets forced out of Lebanon. As long as the Alawite clan (a heretical branch of Shiite Islam that has dominated Syria's Baath party) stays in power, the Iranians aren't likely to become too worried.

And the events in Lebanon don't necessarily spell disaster for the Syrians. What Thomas Friedman called the "Hama rules"--the willingness to slaughter regime opponents by the thousands, as Hafez al-Assad did in the town of Hama in 1982--still hold, and the Alawite regime appears cohesive enough to do this without hesitation. The Syrian Sunni desire for revenge against the minority Alawites is easily enough to ensure Alawite solidarity. The Sunnis, who believe they have always had the historic right to rule Syria, would probably not show the same consideration that Iraqi Shia have so far shown their former Baathist tormentors. It is possible that the democratic ethic may be growing among Syria's Sunni Arab population--Syria's awful tyranny, like Baathist Iraq's, can teach well the benefits of restraining state power--but that won't matter much against a savage regime with a ferocious internal security service and elite military units capable of artillery barrages against civilians.

Also, Lebanon has seen some form of democracy. Lebanon has never been fully of the Arab world--it is historically, religiously, culturally, and geographically a special place--and the idea of a democratic Lebanon probably isn't nearly as scary to the Middle East's despots as is the idea of a democratic Iraq or Egypt. (A Palestinian democracy has a bit of the same quality about it--Palestinians have existed in a surreal world for decades, where their triumphs and tragedies don't relate well to the day-to-day lives and local political frustrations of most Arabs.) Iran's clerics, or Syria's Alawites, or the Saudi princes, or the Mubarak family in Egypt don't necessarily view the return of Lebanese democracy as a dagger aimed at them. It is something they could live with--a price worth paying to eliminate from among them a damaging, Paris-Washington-uniting incompetent like Bashar al-Assad.

Unless Iran's clerical regime views the liberation of Lebanon as a lethal defeat for Hezbollah--and the organization's chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has been rhetorically fence-sitting about joining or damning the Christian and Sunni opposition to the Syrians--then the odds are good that the Syrians will withdraw. One can appreciate why the Lebanese youth cannot stop praising "Ju-Ju," an affectionate Arabic take on "George." They are willing to admit easily what comes much harder to many in Congress and in Washington's Democratic think tanks.

Syria--Drive them out of Lebanon but don't spend much time or effort trying to tighten the noose around the Baathist Alawites. The state is not as Orwellian as was Saddam Hussein's, but the ethnic and religious dynamics of its regime will make regime solidarity very difficult to overcome. However, if the Syrian Baathists are aiding the Iraqi Baathists to the extent that the Bush administration alleges--and the allegations appear solid--the United States ought to strike militarily. If American and Iraqi lives are being lost because of Bashar al-Assad's support of Iraqi Baathists in his country, then the Bush administration is being tactically and strategically negligent in not retaliating. This doesn't mean the United States should invade Syria. But Syrian intelligence and military bases--and any locales where Assad is hosting Iraqi insurgents--are legitimate targets for air and special-ops raids. It is possible that such limited military strikes could threaten the stability of the Alawite dictatorship, allowing an opportunity for a Sunni civilian and military opposition to gain ground.