In the manner of all momentous rebellions, the Syrian upheaval has been rich in iconography and lyrics and political language. A people long repressed have come out to give voice to what has been on their minds for four decades of silence. One placard read, "Like Father, Like Son," to remind themselves, and their ruler, that they have been in the grip of this tyranny for far too long.
But the truth of it is that Bashar al-Assad, though in every way heir to his father's despotism, lacks the guile of the old man. Hafez Assad bent things to his will but had a knack for avoiding terrible storms. He was the quintessential survivor, alternately playing arsonist and fireman for three long decades. He was an Alawite, from a historically persecuted community of peasants, and thus tread carefully, keen on avoiding a sectarian war. Not so with Bashar, the entitled prince, who has now set off what is, for all intents and purposes, a civil war within Syria, and in the process left his regime a pariah among nations.
It was a moment of reckoning for the regime of Bashar Assad when the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, recalled his envoy from Damascus and spoke out against the "killing machine" in Syria and the regime's brazen brutality. A day later, from Cairo, the grand imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, arguably Sunni Islam's most prestigious religious authority, called on the Syrian rulers to desist from facing unarmed protesters with "live bullets and iron and fire." His followers should no longer, he said, remain silent "in the face of a human tragedy that can't be accepted religiously, when we know that the shedding of blood only increases the ferocity of rebellions."
The powers that be in the Arab world had given Bashar time and rope, so strong is the principle within the system of Arab states of staying out of the sovereign workings and doings of other states. The break with Bashar came after nearly five months of hope that the Syrian ruler would step back from the brink. But Bashar shredded the norms of his world. He violated the sanctity of the holy month of Ramadan, challenged the right of his people to Friday prayers. Mosques were shelled, and every day brought news of yet another city under assault.
Within the Syrian rebellion there lies a terrible truth, that schism between a predominantly Sunni society, historically ruled from its principal cities, and an Alawite community that's used the army and the security services to hold on to power. This schism haunted Hafez Assad. Yet now his Bashar is headed straight into the storm, seemingly eager to awaken its furies. His vigilantes, the shabiha, are Alawites, as are the dreaded security forces around him. His regional alliances, too, smack of the same Arab sectarianism. Unlike his father, Bashar has become a satrap of Iran; in Lebanon, a patron and ally of Hezbollah.
"No Iran, no Hezbollah, we want Muslim rulers who fear Allah" is without doubt the most powerful and poignant chant of this rebellion. One and all in the opposition to Bashar's rule are convinced that Hezbollah fighters and cadres of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have made their way to Syria to aid in the grim work of repression. There are even local reports that Iran has offered a large subsidy to bail out Damascus from the economic fallout of the rebellion.
The Alawis, some three million adherents out of a Syrian population of 22 million, are in a horrible predicament. An Alawi intellectual, writing under the pseudonym of Khudr for the website Syria Comment, depicts the Alawi dilemma in stark terms. The Alawis have been forced to become "Basharists," he observes. They have few religious traditions in common. What Alawi solidarity that exists, he says, was forged in the military academies and the intelligence services. It was there, "deep in the sanctum of the security state," that the Alawis formed bonds, not unlike the Sunnis in Iraq before the defeat of Saddam. But win or lose, Iraqi Sunnis belonged to a community that is pre-eminent in "countries stretching from Morocco to Saudi Arabia." The Alawis, he explains, lack that sense of confident primacy. The "Basharist" way is a recipe for permanent vigilance—or ruin.
Legends die hard: Old Man Assad had laid down the principle of Syria's indispensability to the order and the peace of the region. Thus were the Syrians given a green light for the conquest of Lebanon in 1990-91, a reward for assisting the U.S. in the first war with Iraq. The writ of Damascus was better than the alternatives, it was thought. That illusion came to an end a decade later during the second term of George W. Bush, after the Syrians mounted a ceaseless campaign against the American project in Iraq.
Now, the Syrian regime is on the ropes; its brutality evident to the Arabs, and to the Turks who had thought they'd reached a great accommodation with Bashar. In Washington, however, wisdom and diplomatic courage have been slower to come by. The hopes for stability invested in so destabilizing a figure as this Syrian ruler must be reckoned one of the diplomatic riddles of our time. It is said that the Obama administration is now done with Bashar, that a break with him is imminent, that President Obama is set to call on him to step down. But the process has dragged out. "We are building the chorus of international condemnation," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week on CBS News. But there is no "address" for the opposition, she added. "There is no place any of us who wish to assist can go."
Syria is replete with return addresses for a defiant population bent on overthrowing the Assad tyranny—Hama, Homs, Idlib and Deir al-Zor, where it all began five months ago. No one is asking the president to dispatch the Marines to the shores of Latakia. What is needed is faith in freedom's possibilities. After the contempt displayed by the Bashar regime for all norms of conduct, the faith that Syria could give birth to something better than this "killing machine" should be easy to entertain.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and co-chairman of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.