The Bush administration seems to be drawing the
outlines of a strategy to oust Syria's President Bashar Assad and his ruling
Of course, no one is considering an American-led military invasion à
la Iraq to achieve "regime change" in Damascus. Instead, neoconservative policymakers
and analysts are urging Washington to take advantage of the conclusions of the
soon-to-be-issued United Nations report on the assassination of Lebanese former
prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Some experts expect that UN chief investigator Detlev Mehlis will point at
several top Syrian officials and accuse them of orchestrating the killing that
helped trigger public pressure in Lebanon on Syria to withdraw its troops from
that country. The neocons are proposing that when Mehlis issues his report,
the Bush administration should take the lead in a diplomatic effort aimed at
isolating Assad and forcing him out of power.
Unfortunately, not unlike the grand schemes concocted in Washington to get
rid of Saddam and his Ba'ath colleagues and bring freedom to Mesopotamia, the
American plans to unseat Assad and his Ba'ath cronies and implant a democracy
in the Levant are based mostly on wishful thinking.
It is assumed that the main obstacle to the political and economic renaissance
of Syria, Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East is the lack of a viable process
to conduct open and free elections. According to the neocons' fantasy, if only
the will of the Syrian (or Iraqi, or Egyptian, or Saudi) people could be fully
expressed in voting booths, the sky would prove to be the limit for transforming
Syria (or Iraq, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia) into a center of progress.
If that were the case, one would think that some of the states in the Middle
East and North Africa that were freed from imperialism after 1945, adopted Western-style
constitutions, and held at one time free elections should now be in the process
of applying, like Turkey, for membership in the European Union (EU).
The reason that Iraq, Syria, Egypt, or Algeria have not been able to do the
same as Turkey has nothing to do with their failure to hold free elections.
In fact, when Algeria was about to complete legislative elections in 1992, the
Algerian military, with the support of the French government, moved to cancel
the vote that was expected to bring to power anti-Western Islamic political
Ethnicity and Religion
Indeed, as anyone knowledgeable about the Middle
East will maintain, open and free elections in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Syria
– as opposed to the government-managed voting that takes place from time to
time in those countries – would probably bring to power radical Islamic groups
whose interests and values, such as those regarding the rights of women and
minorities, are antithetical to those of the United States.
The main reason for this is the collapse of the secular Arab nationalist ideology;
now the only legitimate sense of identity from which political leaders and movements
can draw genuine public support evolves around tribalism, ethnicity, and religion.
What has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein demonstrates this
proposition: The authoritarian Ba'ath regime that was in the hands of the minority
Sunnis lacked any sense of political legitimacy but was able to maintain its
power over a mishmash of tribes and ethnic and religious groups only by using
brute military force and by promoting an amorphous ideological mix of fascism,
communism, and Arab and Iraqi nationalism.
But what has replaced Saddam and the Ba'ath is not a new leadership committed
to building the foundation of a viable Iraqi nation-state and securing individual
political and economic rights. Instead, Iraq is now ruled by ethnic and religious
parties and militias, including those representing clerical Shi'ite groups that
would have never been able to win legitimacy in the name of a unified Iraqi
nation-state because such an entity has never really existed. Hence the best
outcome for Iraq is partition or a low-key civil war.
The possible collapse of Assad and his Ba'athists will probably ignite a similar
process of "Iraqization" in Syria. Assad may be less brutal than Saddam, but
he is also a member of a minority Shi'ite sect (the Alawites) that has controlled
the country by force and by trying to keep alive a moribund pan-Arabist ideology.
As in Iraq, the sources of legitimacy for rising political players in Syria
will be religion, that of the dominant Sunni group, and ethnicity, including
that of a small Kurdish minority. Radical Muslim groups, such as the Muslim
Brotherhood, will fill the political vacuum created by the possible collapse
of the Ba'ath and will try to settle old scores with sworn enemies, the Alawites
and the Ba'athists who massacred their members in the past. The bloodbath that
could take place in post-Assad Iraq could also spill over into neighboring Turkey,
Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq, increasing the chances for a regional conflagration.
In that context, expect Iran to back its co-religionists in Iraq, Syria, and
Lebanon against Arab Sunnis who enjoy the support of the Saudis, the Jordanians,
and the Egyptians. At the same time, Turkey and Iran will try to suppress Kurdish
nationalism, and the United States will be drawn into all this mess and forced
to make difficult and costly choices.
It's all very depressing, but it reflects the reality of most of the Arab Middle
East today. The choice that most of those societies face is not between dictatorship
and democracy, but between the status quo and the rise of governments who will
derive their legitimacy from reawakened ethnic and religious identities and
will end up devastating the current nation-state system there.
Not much of a choice. But let's not pretend that the collapse of the Saddams,
Assads, Mubaraks, and Sauds will usher in a new era of enlightened democracy
in the region. Let's recognize that the American-led war in Mesopotamia is probably
the first step in the "Iraqization" of the Middle East, a process that is bound
to harm America's long-term interests.
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