It’s Friday again, and across the Middle East people are waiting to see if and where the next uprising gathers steam. In retrospect, perhaps this period, starting with Mohamed Boazizi’s self-immolation in a small Tunisian city, will be seen as the season that Arabs poured out of their mosques after Friday prayers to take to the streets and wrest their destiny from their ruling regimes. In the midst of this season of Fridays, we’ll soon have a sense of what’s going to happen in Syria.
Protesters are now out in most of the country’s major cities—from Deraa, where the protests kicked off, to the capital Damascus, as well as Sunni strongholds in Homs and Hama. Perhaps worst of all for the regime is that the Kurds have now entered the fray as well, going to the streets in Qamishli in Idlib. The security services are out in force, but the fact is that the Alawite minority that runs Syria’s repressive state apparatus is simply incapable of policing so large a country, if the more than 75 percent of Syria comprising the Sunnis and Kurds has in fact turned on Assad as it now seems.
The Lebanese have been quiet these last few weeks regarding the bloody protests unfolding next door. There’s no reason to attract the attention of a wounded mastiff like the regime in Damascus. Even so, the Syrians are believed to be responsible for minor acts of discord here—the bombing of a church in Zahle, the kidnapping of seven Estonian tourists from the Bekaa Valley whose freedom, when secured, will no doubt be thanks to the gratuity-induced exertions of the Damascus government, kidnapper-cum-liberator of long standing.
That part of Lebanon’s political spectrum that has been held hostage to the violent whims of Syria is watching with a sense of hopeful expectation that events may eventually usher in a friendly government in Damascus, or at least one less inclined to use Beirut as a laboratory for its sociopathies. And all of the Lebanese, including allies of Syria like Hezbollah, fear that the violence likely to follow a mass uprising will visit this country as well. Other regional actors are watching too, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of whose futures may be shaped by events in Syria.
A rumor circulating in Lebanon’s Shia regions is that the Saudis have reached out to a number of Syrian Sunni sheikhs and told them to keep people off the streets. Even as Syria’s relationship with Iran has set it against Riyadh over a number of issues these last few years—from the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri to Iraq’s 2010 elections—in the end, both are Arab regimes that must stand back-to-back or else risk losing power should the wave of uprisings keep coursing through the region. The Saudis see Syria as a good place to stop the domino effect—by helping the Syrians dig in, the Saudis hope they can save themselves.
Of course it’s not clear that a bunch of Sunni clerics in Syria tarnished by their association with the Assad regime have much influence with the young men who have already taken to the streets against their rulers. Bashar al-Assad certainly didn’t help himself with his performance the other day before the Syrian parliament, a bizarrely self-involved oration suggesting that the regime does not understand that the global media revolution has pushed its regional theater troupe—Bedouins, heroes, revolutionary poetry, etc.—onto the world stage.
In 1982, news of the regime’s massacre at Hama, where Bashar’s uncle Rifaat al-Assad led the forces that killed 20,000 to 40,000 Syrians, took weeks to reach even Beirut. Today, cell phone video feeds posted to YouTube make the regime’s crimes public within minutes, while CNN exposes for all the world to see that the giggling dictator in Damascus is a maniacal adolescent who holds the lives of 21 million Syrians in his nervous fingers.
Many observers argue that the Assad speech was evidence of a difference of opinion in the regime. After one of his chief spokesmen suggested earlier in the week that the government would lift the country’s 48-year-old emergency law, Assad made no mention of the law or of any other reforms. Perhaps he remembered that the emergency law is the regime’s sole source of legitimacy—only the cold war with Israel, and the danger that any criticism may fragment the country and keep it from presenting a unified front to the Zionist enemy, justifies Assad’s repression. Accordingly, Assad blamed the antiregime demonstrations on “conspirators.”
“He’s signaling that he means to crush the demonstrators ruthlessly,” says Lebanese political analyst Elie Fawaz. “If they were just protesters, then he’d have to listen and take their complaints seriously. But if they’re just plotters, then he can deal with them any way he likes.”
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.