As Europe headed toward the first world war, lining up rival blocs of states and massing armies on borders, the focus of their escalating rivalry was centered in the Balkans. Indeed, after the Great War, the word “balkanization” was coined to indicate a hopelessly divided region seething with sectarian and nationalist tensions, and the “Balkan tinderbox” was a phrase often invoked by historians to describe the précis to the bloody slaughter. The Balkans of today’s world are undoubtedly the Middle East, and specifically the region once known as Greater Syria, which encompasses not only Syria but also Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and parts of Iraq.
Here is the crossroads of the world, where the three great religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism – meet and merge in conterminous contention, elbowing and quarreling with one another in a multi-family feud that – more often than not – ends in bloodshed. For the past 40 years or so, the epicenter of this tinderbox – the Syria of Bashar al Assad – has been quiescent, ruled over by a family dynasty that ruthlessly suppressed all possible rivals and kept the kind of peace only the most fearsome dictatorship can hope to enforce. Now, however, that peace is being threatened, as a tidal wave of populist upsurges – the Arab Awakening – rolls into Syria, bringing with it the hope of liberal democracy – and the prospect of chaos.
You’ll notice a geographical pattern to these uprisings: the first wave hit the periphery of the Arab world: Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya on the North African fringe, and Yemen and Bahrain in the fringe of the Gulf. Now these centrifugal forces are moving rapidly to the center – Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and even penetrating into parts of Saudi Arabia – and that is where the real danger lies.
These uprisings have always brought with them both danger and opportunity, but in the case of Syria the emphasis is on the former. This is due to the fact that the country is not only the crossroads of rival religions, but also the nexus of rising tensions between rival blocs contending for regional hegemony: the Israelis, the Saudis, and the Iranians.
The US has backed all three at various times, starting with the last and ending up in partnership with the first. In directing the CIA to topple Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953, and placing Shah Reza Pahlavi on the throne, President Dwight Eisenhower was betting the Persians would take up where Cyrus the Great left off and take their place as regional hegemon – and US proxy. When that didn’t quite work out, Washington turned to the Saudis, who had signed on earlier as an American protectorate, and, increasingly, to the Israelis, whose domestic clout in the US sped up a process the cold war had already quickened.
With the sudden implosion of the Soviet empire, and the virtual elimination of international communism as a material force in the world, the driving factor behind these successive alliances was inoperative. Almost overnight, at least in historical terms, the basic assumptions governing US foreign policy since the end of World War II were repealed. The rationale for supporting Israel in its war for the occupied territories of Palestine, and opposing the nationalist aspirations of peoples throughout the region, collapsed – and the debris is only just now raining down upon our heads. This is the rain that brought on the “Arab Spring.”
If the ideological framework of US policy in the region began to teeter dangerously around the time the Berlin Wall fell, then the fall of the Kremlin generated a similar tsunami effect in the Middle East. The Soviets had made common cause with the various anti-colonialist uprisings. These revolutions were generally headed up by the more youthful sectors of the officers’ corps, with Egypt’s Nasser as the model, a pattern that occurred in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Syria, where a young Hafez al Assad seized power in the “Corrective Revolution” of 1970.
Assad was trained in the Soviet Union, and returned committed to a pan-Arabic socialism that reflected his Ba’athist party affiliation – and convinced that the recent union between Syria and Egypt – the short-lived United Arab Republic – amounted to Egyptian imperialism. This view got him into trouble, but when the UAR fell apart he rose through the ranks to become chief commander of the air force, and executed a coup, eventually purging his own Ba’athist party of all dissidents and assimilating rival leftist parties, such as the Communist Party, who, along with a few other secular parties, were allowed to function as a token and very closely regulated “democratic bloc.” This was modeled on the East European Soviet satellites, which allowed various “Peasant” and “Democratic” parties to operate in their Potemkin village “People’s Democracies.” Those secular groups unwilling to be assimilated into the Ba’thist Borg were ruthlessly suppressed, along with the religious sectarian opponents of the Ba’athist new order. Assad went after the latter with a special ruthlessness: in 1982, the entire town of Hama was reduced to rubble, and 20,000 of its inhabitants were killed by the Syrian military, because the town was a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood activity.
That operation was carried out by Rifat al Assad, the dictator’s younger brother, who ran the elite security forces at the core of Ba’athist power. In the struggle that ensued after the onset of the elder Assad’s illness, the more hardcore authoritarian element, represented by Rifat, lost out, and the relatively “liberal” faction, which supported Bashar al Assad, weeded out Rifat’s supporters from the Ba’athist party hierarchy, although Rifat was kept on as Vice President until 1998. In 1999, Syrian authorities moved in on his remaining supporters, making mass arrests: the two factions engaging in running battles in the streets of Latakia.
Rifat has maintained all along that, as Vice President – he doesn’t recognize his official expulsion – he is the only “legal” President of Syria, and that Bashar is a usurper. From his base in London’s Mayfair, Rifat presides over a shadowy and ever-shifting network of Syrian exile groups, and enjoys the distinction of having been named by Stratfor as a leading suspect in the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri.
The Rifat factor is one that is not mentioned in the dispatches coming out of that country, nor in news accounts of the many Syrian dissident groups that can credibly claim some credit for the uprising. It is often said that this is a “leaderless” revolution, one that just arose spontaneously, like yeast rising with the temperature, but this is nonsensical: every revolution needs a leadership in order to organize even the simplest action, and the leadership consists of individuals with political histories of varying duration and commitment.
While it is true that an entirely new layer of activists has emerged from the Arab Spring, this fresh crop had its predecessors, of which Rifat is one example, and, at the opposite pole, the old leftists around the Communist Party are another. What has been largely overlooked, I believe, is that both factors are in play, no doubt, in the current street protests. The left is organizing and leading the nonviolent assemblies, which have ended in bloodshed, and the ultra-Ba’athist “right”– including the entirely crazy Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which claims 100,000 members – is probably behind at least some of the incidents Sana, the government news agency, is attributing to “armed gangs.”
The Syrian dictatorship, in form and ideology, follows the “young officers” model of government that held sway in the region in the post-colonial period; and like its brothers-in-spirit in North Africa, it lost the ideological and material basis of its power as the cold war era came to a close. Economically, the national socialist – or social nationalist – regimes exemplified by Egypt’s Nasserists, retarded rather than accelerated modernization, and politically led to near complete stasis and reification. Furthermore, these secular Arab revolutions locked in the borders drawn by the colonial powers, creating centralized “states” which had no historical or economic basis of unity, as in the case of Libya. Bereft of backing from the Soviet Union – and without the bogeyman of “colonialism” to blame for all their problems – these regimes lost legitimacy, and could only continue in power by means of systematic and brutal repression. This is the scenario unfolding in Syria today.
Syria, like Libya, is a make-believe “country,” that is, it is a “nation” created entirely out of whole cloth by the colonial powers, the borders of which correspond to no ethnic, religious, or cultural contiguity. Ethnically, it is a hodgepodge of Arab, Circassian, Assyrian, and Kurds, with various other obscure sub-groupings thrown in the mix: in sectarian terms, think Lebanon – various Muslim sects predominating beneath a thin overlay of Orthodox Christians and Druze. The key intermediary between these often contentious religious rivals has so far been the Alawite sect, a heterodox branch of Islam, the base from which the top leadership of the Ba’athist party derives its power. If and when this mediating role becomes nonfunctional, on account of the overthrow of the Ba’athists, then the future of the country can be seen in the fate of Lebanon – an armed camp perpetually on the brink of open conflict.
Combine this scenario with the danger posed by President Obama’s framing of events in terms of US-Iranian rivalry, and you have what amounts to a dress rehearsal for another world war. “Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies,” the president said – the equivalent of throwing a lit match in the tinderbox of the Middle East.
If Syria becomes a battlefield, the various contenders for regional power will each field their armies and conduct a war-by-proxy, a conflict that will be but a prelude to the main event. The Lebanonization of Syria would be a disaster for the Syrians, and this is why the regime retains such support as it does: however, if they can’t keep order – the basis of their mandate – then they lose what little legitimacy they have left. Bashar realizes this, which is why he’s cracking down. The news that much of the opposition received funding and other forms of support from the US government hasn’t helped, either, and for the moment it looks like the anti-Assad forces are losing steam.
Yet, as we saw in Egypt, these movements have a natural resiliency, and it is far too early to say which way the battle will go. In this instance, too, the role of the United States, as usual, has nothing to do with the real interests of the Syrians, and everything to do with its great power ambitions in the region. Obama looks at Syria, and thinks of Iran: Syrians look at their country, and think of Lebanon.
There are so many Syrian exile groups, some operating within the country, some not, that it would be impossible to cover them all in a single column. If I were taking bets on the one I expect the US is quietly backing, however, I would put my money on Abdul Halim Khaddam, another former top crony of Hafez al Assad, who served as the vice-president after Rifat’s expulsion, and then as “interim president” in the interregnum between the death of the elder Assad and the official inauguration of Bashar. He was personally responsible for the deaths of many dissidents, and yet today he poses as the leader of the “democratic” opposition, with offices in Washington D.C. and major Western capitals, presiding over his “National Salvation Front,” which, perhaps coincidentally, has the same name as the Libyan rebel exile group essentially founded by the CIA.
In any case, the Syrian revolution shows every sign of following the Arab Spring with a long hot summer, one in which the accumulated tensions in the regions could boil over and drag us into yet another war. Now more than ever, it is imperative the US stays out of Syria’s internal affairs – and, naturally, now more than ever one can be absolutely certain that is not the case. The Obama administration has decided to go on the offensive in response to the fall of US-supported despots in North Africa, and policymakers are apparently convinced they can make some pretty tasty lemonade out of the lemon they’ve been handed. The problem is that they’ll let this unstable mixture of sour lemons and sweet rhetoric stand too long and ferment – in which case our policymakers will soon enough be drunk on some pretty heady liquor.
The consequences of US intervention in Syria could drive us to the brink of war – which is no doubt why we haven’t heard (at least in any great decibels) the call to send “aid” and even intervene on behalf of the protesters. However, that is coming, soon enough, and at that point it’s time to pull the emergency switch and set the alarm bells to ringing.