The Magazine

Assad State of Affairs

Will Syria’s dictator be the next to fall?

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By LEE SMITH
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Nonetheless, independent Shia activist Lokman Slim says he was relieved to hear Assad use the word “plot.” “Right then I knew he was an idiot,” says Slim. “Our enemy is not intelligent.”

What Slim means is that Assad’s rhetoric is astonishingly out of touch with the political events of the last three months. The talk in the region has not been about Israel and the United States, plots and conspiracies, but rather corruption, discrimination, jobs, economics, food, and hunger. Ideological language is, for the first time in years, taking a backseat to the stuff of real politics.

“It is because there are no real politics here that this region is so heavily politicized,” says Hazem Saghieh, a Beirut-based columnist with Al Hayat. “You go to Europe, the United States, where politics is one subject among 20, 25 different things. Here it’s the main subject, the only subject, because we do not have real politics. We’re politicized.”

“We live below the political level,” says Slim. “It’s like the poverty level. But now we’re seeing how to get there. How we can be serious about state-building, for instance.”

But for many, the immediate concern isn’t state-building—it’s protecting vulnerable minority communities. One can’t rule out the worst for Syria, a civil war that will set its majority Sunni population against the regime and the Alawite community it’s drawn from, as well as against the regime’s Christian supporters. There’s no way to tell who will come out on top​—​whether the Muslim Brotherhood is still powerful enough to topple the regime that waged war against it a generation ago, culminating in the siege and slaughter of Hama in 1982. 

This scenario—a Sunni Islamist-run Syria—has spooked American and Israeli policymakers from trying to tip the balance of power against the devil they know in Damascus. Perhaps the Sunni urban merchant class will wind up in power, or maybe there will be a series of coups and countercoups, as was the case before Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970.

Of course, it’s also possible that it will be quite a while before anyone governs Syria. If so, the chaos that will prevail there cannot help but touch Lebanon, where Hezbollah will also come under fire from the Sunnis. Iran, says Lokman Slim, will have no choice but to fill that vacuum by intervening directly. “They’ve invested in Hezbollah for 30 years,” says Slim, “so they’re going to do anything they can to protect it.”

This is the kind of conflict that could not only shift the balance of power in the region, but redraw borders. “The Arab nationalists always complain that the problem with the region is due to the borders drawn by the European powers,” says Saghieh, the argument being that they imposed contrived divisions on what would otherwise be a harmonious community. “In reality, the problem is that the borders unified us too much. These borders were all useful to the United States and the Soviets during the Cold War, but now it’s something else.” Saghieh thinks the Middle East may see a “second wave” of post-Cold War “dislocation,” the first wave being the breakup of the Soviet empire in the Eastern bloc.

If the Syrian revolution has begun in earnest, the ruling Alawite regime will have to decide whether to stay in Damascus and fight, or make a run for the Syrian port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean, the de facto capital of the Alawites’ escape-hatch rump state. The rest of the region is also in a race: Can it reach the shores of a post-ideological era toward which this wave of Arab uprisings seems to be cresting? Or are the Arabs doomed once again to crash against the sectarian, tribal, and national barriers that have set them against one another for centuries, if not millennia?

Lee Smith is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His book The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Anchor) has just been published in paperback.


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