Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, to be published by Yale University Press later this year. You can read more of Barry Rubin's posts at Rubin Reports.
By Barry Rubin
Nowadays, Western officials and journalists seem to think nowadays that if you are a Middle East dictator and people start demonstrating against you then you are finished. That’s an illusion. The question is really: Who are the people with the guns supporting?
In Egypt and Tunisia, revolutions were easy because the armies supported them. In Algeria, Iran, Jordan, and Syria things are rather different.
And so faced with large demonstrations, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took a traditional approach, which in American cultural terms might be described by a quote from “Dirty Harry”: “Think you’re lucky, punk? Make my day!”
Assad's message ie this: No concessions. American and Zionist agents are attacking me because I’m such a great Arab nationalist and friend of Islam. Rally around me and we’ll repress them no matter how many I have to kill.
I’m not saying I admire this approach but, frankly, it still works, as long as you have a strong base of support and the backing of those with the guns. Assad apparently has both.
To begin with, the Alawite minority community to which he belongs is behind him because it knows that a revolution would mean the end of its wealth, privileges, and even lives. The Christians also back the regime because they fear Islamism. That’s about one-quarter of the population. And the Alawites control the elite armed forces’ units.
Then there are the Sunni Muslims who make up about 60 percent of the population. Some of them are attracted to democratic reform; some to revolutionary Islamism; some to both. Yet many do back the regime because of its record of being so Islamist in its foreign policy: anti-American, anti-Israel, and pro-Iran, Hamas, Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq, and Hizballah.
A lot—but by no means all—of the demonstrations have been in the poor south. The other big bloc of opposition is the Kurdish minority. But they have been cautious since the last time they revolted the Arabs didn’t help them. They don’t want to take a risk. Assad’s hardline is more likely to make them play it safe.
My sympathies are with democratic reformers, but my analysis says that from his own standpoint Assad did the right thing. This is the precise opposite of how Westerners look at the situation. They assume that a hardline policy will make the people angrier and intensify the revolt. In fact, if the regime is serious about repression and has a large base of support, a tough stand it will put down the opposition.
Iran had a revolution in 1978-1979 not because the shah was too tough but because he was too soft—that’s an analysis, not a value judgment. Iraq didn’t have a revolution after the 1991 defeat in Kuwait because Saddam Hussein used his iron fist. In Egypt, the message that the military is for change and the regime is vacillating led to a flood of opposition and the fall of the regime. This is what President Husni Mubarak meant when he said that President Barack Obama didn’t understand Arab culture.
If you show weakness, you’re as good as dead. Needless to say this is a major problem with current U.S. Middle East policy. In the Middle East, nice guys don't just finish last, they don't finish at all.
To complete the picture, Assad appeared relaxed during the speech and laughed at several points. The image he’s building is: I’m not worried at all. If he were to show fear and weakness, his allies would start deserting him and going over to the other side. (That’s sentence also applies to U.S. policy.)
True, he gave some lip service to reforms and fighting corruption. But basically that’s what Assad has been saying for 11 years and he has changed nothing. With the U.S. government labeling him a “reformer” with such a record, there’s no pressure to do anything different. From the standpoint of the Syrian dictatorship—and I don’t say this lightly—it has U.S. support. Even to talk as if Assad might actually reform anything is a joke.
His father killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people in a minor revolt in Hama in 1982. So far in this upsurge he’s only killed 60. And Bashar is trying to be his father. He knows that he has nothing to fear internationally no matter what he does.
Have no illusions: this regime is going to survive by being brutal.
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