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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hating Israel isn't enough

In yet another Arab country it becomes apparent that hating Israel isn't the only thing that's important. That country is Syria.
According to many observers, Assad was supposed to be immune to this kind of popular movement. His anti-American policies and enmity toward Israel were thought to boost his legitimacy in the eyes of his people. Compared the advanced age of Egypt’s former president, 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, and Tunisia’s ex-president, 74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Assad’s relative youth at 45 was also thought to be an asset. One Syria specialist, Joshua Landis, noted that unlike the aging Mubarak, the young Assad was “popular among young people” who “tend to blame [corruption] on . . . the ‘old guard.’” An unfortunately timed puff piece on Asma al-Assad, the president’s glamorous wife, in the current issue of Vogue, spoke of the “first lady’s central mission . . . to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen [and] encourage them to engage in what she calls ‘active citizenship.’” It gave plausibility to the claim that the Assads are a fresh breeze blowing through a decrepit house.

Ironically, the basis for such arguments was Assad’s own public relations strategy. When Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, he adopted the “old versus new guard” theme to cultivate his image as a reformer and bolster his legitimacy at home and abroad. For a brief period, he allowed dissidents to criticize corruption openly. But this so-called Damascus Spring was a cynical mirage. In the past decade, Syria has not seen a single meaningful act of reform.

The truth is that Assad could not have pursued such reform even if he had wanted to, as this would have meant taking on the corruption of his immediate family. Assad’s cousin, the billionaire Makhlouf, is widely considered to be the second-most powerful man in the country, even though he holds no official title. He is essentially the economic arm of the regime, using his business empire to co-opt the Sunni merchant class. (Makhlouf, Assad, and most of the ruling elite and high-ranking officers are Alawites, a minority sect.) When the people of Deraa set fire to the Syriatel office, they were not targeting the old guard; they were targeting the very heart of the current regime, or, as one Syrian activist in Deraa told Reuters, the very symbols of oppression and corruption.

The idea that Assad’s anti-Western ideology is popular enough to shield him from public discontent comes from him as well: in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in late January, he explained that the Mubarak regime was unpopular due to its alliance with the United States and its peace treaty with Israel. By contrast, he suggested, the Syrian regime was ideologically united with the people. As Assad put it, Syrians “do not go into an uprising,” because “it is not only about [their] needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology.” Assad’s foreign policy and ideology of “resistance” may indeed be popular in Syria. But the protests are driven by concerns over domestic issues. The idea that ideology and foreign policy trump concerns about lack of freedom, economic opportunity, and political participation has proved wrong.
Unfortunately, that does not mean that the Assad regime is likely to fall.
Other commentators who dismissed the likelihood of the Assad regime falling pointed to solidarity among the Alawite elite. Unlike the Egyptian army, which functioned independently of Mubarak and broke with him at a key moment, the Syrian brass, as part of a small religious minority, views its fate and safety as inextricably linked to Assad’s and therefore will not fail to crack down on protests.
I can't see the 'international community' getting involved in Syria the way it has in Libya. First, they can't get involved with every country in the Arab world. And second, Assad is considered more 'one of the club' than Gadhafi (who is widely regarded as a lunatic) and even Ahmadinejad.

Read the whole thing.



At 4:58 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Assad and his wife are highly educated, secular modern Arabs.

That is exactly why the Islamists hate them.

The fact the regime is anti-Israel and anti-Western only adds to the perception that its foreign position is at variance with its policy to repress Islamism at home and maintain the secular character of the country.

Those who want a more Islamic Syria won't forgive Assad because of the radical stance of his foreign policy.


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