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Bin Ladenism Lives on in Syria

3:22 PM, May 4, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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The regime wanted to control the message. For weeks after the massacre, rumors were coming out of Syria, but no one knew for sure what happened. “In Beirut,” says Friedman, “we were just hearing vague reports. News dribbled out. It was very different from today, none of the international media was there. And of course there was no YouTube, no Twitter, no cell phones. It’s amazing how even in this closed society that Syria still is today, people are getting out their message.”

The problem is that no one seems to be paying attention. “Everyone has different reasons for saying nothing,” says Friedman. “The Russians, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the Israelis, the Saudis. There’s silence all around.” Compared to the White House’s demands that Egypt's Mubarak, a U.S. ally, step down, the American government has also been relatively silent about Assad.

It’s worth noting there was silence surrounding Hama, too, not just the silence that was a consequence of the devastation, but a more general silence, the world’s. Hafez al-Assad was to enjoy for another 18 years his reputation as a statesman, a man who kept his word, said U.S. policymakers from both sides of the aisle. Washington didn’t want to hear about it because it complicated policy on other fronts—there was the matter of taming Saddam in Operation Desert Storm and the Arab-Israeli peace process, in which Damascus has always been believed to be central. The academic community didn’t bother with it because the narrative of Arabs killing Arabs was in conflict with its overarching thesis—that the problem with the Middle East was imperialism, or colonialism, or Zionism. And after all, Hafez al-Assad was ostensibly in the front lines of the Arab effort to liberate Jerusalem.

In a manner of speaking Hama never happened; or, no one took anything else away from the lesson except Hafez’s blunt message—violence is the law of the land. That was bin Laden’s message, too, the political efficacy of the spectacle of mass death—violence on a monumental scale. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon took Hama as their model—the rubble at Manhattan’s ground zero was like that of the mid-sized Syrian city two decades before.

After 9/11, Washington policymakers were determined to stamp out extremism, bin Ladenism, Hama rules, the strong horse method. They articulated their support for Arab and Muslim moderates—even as they allowed extremists to thrive. Under Bush’s tenure, the Damascus regime put Syrian dissidents in prison and killed Lebanese politicians, journalists, and civil society activists. It cooperated with bin Laden’s associates in Iraq, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and helped kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Iraqis, too. And then there are the Palestinians, Lebanese and Israelis killed at the hands of Damascus’s foreign assets, Hezbollah and Hamas. Under Obama’s tenure, Washington has sought comity with these same murderers.

The same people that conceived of Hama and executed tens of thousands 30 years ago never stopped; they just adjusted their methods to fit the changing times, as they are doing even now. And so the afterglow in the wake of bin Laden’s long-sought end will fade fast. Bin Laden is dead; bin Ladenism lives on, embodied now by the rulers in Damascus.

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