What do Middle Eastern despots do when they run out of arguments to justify their rule?
For decades, the answer has been simple: faced with destitution, the despot calls on the West to help him remain in place so that he could stop “Islamists” from coming to power.
Siad Barre milked that cow in Somalia for a decade, after he had switched from the Soviets side to the Americans. In Sudan, Jaafar Nimeiri, who never decided whether he was Socialist or Islamist, made similar claims. For a quarter of a century, Saddam Hussein cast himself in the role of the barrier against an Islamist deluge supposedly coming out of Iran. In Syria, Hafez Al-Assad used similar arguments to secure meetings with American presidents. Assad boasted that the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel was the calmest of the Jewish state’s borders. It was he, Assad, who had saved Syria from falling to Islamism by massacring the people of Hama.
In Tunisia, Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali used the argument for almost a quarter of a century. Hosni Mubarak used it in Egypt for 30 years. Muammar Kaddhafi claimed that, without him, Libya would become Islamist base. In Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh behaves as if he is Washington’s local commander in a war against Al Qaeda.
Last weekend, it was the turn of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad to play the old tune.
In an interview with a London weekly as part of a programme by a British public relations firm, he claimed that he alone prevented the emergence of “another Afghanistan, one hundred Afghanistans”.
The gist of Assad’s ramblings was simple: If he goes, Islamists will come; and once they have come they would train suicide bombers against the West. The West also needs Assad to keep things quiet for Israel just as his father did for decades. It is, therefore, in the West’s best interest to let him remain in power by killing his people.
In effect, Assad has submitted a job application to become another Ali Abdullah Saleh, the West’s champion in the field of battle against “extremist Islam.”
Assad’s ramblings were disappointing, to say the least, on more than one score. He spoke as if he were head of a Mafia-style organization, using threats both veiled and unveiled.
We did not see a leader who understands that his country is in danger and that he should act to save it from a deadly impasse. Some of Assad’s lines sounded as if they were taken out of Godfather II.
Assad seemed unable, or unwilling, even to understand what is happening in Syria. He dismissed the protests as “not worth bothering about”, and wondered whether the protestors were even Syrian.
An eye specialist, Dr. Assad appears to be suffering from political myopia. When the Cedar Revolution was kicking him out of Lebanon, he told his parliament that the Beirut crowds were small groups shown as large ones thanks to TV camera “zooming in and zooming out”.
Assad, who is becoming an embarrassment even to his Iranian patrons, is unable to provide Syria with a minimum of security and freedom without which no society could function.
In fact, the uprising in Syria appears to be more deeply rooted and much wider in demographic scope than the other “Arab Spring” movements.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen the uprisings were essentially limited to two or three cities, often including the capital. The Syria uprising, however, appears to have struck roots in almost every village and town.
With every day that passes, one learns of protests in a new place, including those that even specialists had not heard about. I have been making a list of those places. By last count, Syria had witnessed protest marches in 87 towns and villages, a staggering number.
More importantly, perhaps, the uprising appears to have struck a chord with every segment of society and all the 18 religious and ethnic communities that compose the Syrian mosaic.
Assad makes much of his claim that Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively calm. That claim is manifestly false. Despite the fact that parts of Damascus and its suburbs have been turned into armed camps, the capital has witnessed a string of protest marches. In Aleppo, a student march attracted a large turnout while dozens of factories in the suburbs have been hit by strikes.
In any case, even if Damascus and Aleppo were islands of quietude in a sea of rage, Assad would have little to brag about. Every despot has a penchant for self-deception. Even as his capital is about to fall, he deludes himself by claiming that he is safe in his bunker.
Rather than showing leadership and trying to bring people together, Assad has become a divisive element in Syria’s complex politics. His very presence divides the people into pro and anti-regime camps, a recipe for civil war. Assad is presiding over the splintering of the armed forces with more and more officers and men defecting to an alternative army. Assad’s presence has even divided his own Alawite community.
A clueless Assad seems to hope that the uprising will fade away. However, hope, like Mafia-style threats, is no substitute for policy.
In the first anti-Assad march in Latakkia last March, 200 took part. Assad’s henchmen killed eight of the marchers. The following week, the number had risen to 2000. Assad’s henchmen killed 19. In the third week, the number of marchers had risen to over 20,000.
With local variations, this has happened all over Syria. Assad is in a cloud cuckoo land, a prisoner of illusions as Saddam, Kaddhafi and a range of other Arab despots were until they met their bitter ends.