If the Syrian people needed illumination about the cruel ways of the world, the United Nations Security Council provided it, when a toothless resolution condemning the violence of their rulers was turned back on October 4. The double veto of Russia and China was no surprise. The two big autocracies are invested in tyranny, their bet is that the Damascus regime will ride out the protests. On the narrowest of grounds, the Russians have the Chechens in mind, China is thinking of Tibet. Tyranny is indivisible, popular sovereignty is a menace to all these two autocracies embody and hold dear. This is not a brilliant moment for liberty, our country, the pre-eminent standard-bearer of political freedom in the order of nations, is in retreat, and a “freedom recession” has given Russia and China greater confidence and sway.
The sordid vote at the Security Council was an indictment of the three “emerging” powers that abstained on so simple a proposition – India, Brazil, and South Africa. If these powers were making a bid for a more prominent role in the world, if their conduct was a bid for a permanent role on the Security Council, their moral abdication was proof that they are not ready to shoulder the burden of maintaining a decent international order. The shame of India, the world’s largest democracy, is all its own. India is forever thinking of Kashmir, the principle of unfettered national sovereignty must be maintained at all cost. There is not much to say about Brazil and South Africa, their exalted view of themselves is preening and illusion. Brazil is said to have bought the Syrian regime’s claim that its survival is a shield for the Christians in that country. South Africa came into this affair with a dishonorable performance in the Libyan saga behind it. The tyranny of Moamar Ghaddafi never troubled Pretoria, the “king of kings of Africa” had squandered plenty of his people’s treasure buying off the consent and approval of so many African states.
It is all but impossible to foretell where Syria’s ordeal ends. On the face of it, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is now bereft of all legitimacy. The assertion of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that it is a “matter of time” before the Syrian regime is pushed into its grave is a reasonable call. A government that relies on blind official terror is one that has lost its right to rule. Syria is not Russia and China, it is not even Iran, its regional ally and protector. Bashar and the ruling cabal around him lack the wealth and the weight needed to sustain a tyranny that runs afoul of the norms of decent conduct. There is no treasure to cushion the dictatorship; oil exports provided the regime with a third of its income, and now these exports are subjected to effective sanctions. Bashar, like his father before him, had secured the support of the business classes and the merchants in Damascus and Aleppo with a political economy of favoritism and bureaucratic preferences – crony capitalism in its purest form. Now the beneficiaries of this regime have begun to worry whether the edifice will stand. There are reports that the monied classes – big Sunni and Christian interests – have begun to hedge their bet and to invest in the rebellion. The confidence of the ruling cabal has cracked. On September 22, a decision was made to suspend imports of goods that have over 5% customs duties – effectively most of the country’s imports that matter. The economy was brought to a standstill, and the business class that had averted its gaze from the repression came out in full against this ban. Twelve days later, the government gave in. Gone was the bravado that the ban on imports would help Syria overcome the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Thus the pressure is on to be done with the rebellion, to subdue the population before the economic collapse sets in. Even the dreaded shabiha, the regime’s vigilantes, who do its killings and barbarisms, have to be paid. Of late, their excesses have mounted as they have been unleashed on ordinary Syrians to extort from them what the regime itself can no longer provide.
A case of “Libya envy” has come to grip Syria’s tormented people. The Libyans conquered their fear, rose in rebellion, and then it was their luck that there was a favorable alignment in the universe. Unexpectedly, the League of Arab States that never stood up to a dictator from its ranks gave a warrant for a Western military mission to protect Libya’s civilian population. Power, and a sense of responsibility, tugged at Britain and France, and a reluctant Obama administration was pulled into Libya by the horror held out for the rebellious city of Benghazi by the deranged strongman. Six months later, the Libyans were to see a new dawn. The Libyans hadn’t stood on ceremony, they took the help and were quite vocal in expressing their gratitude for those who came to their rescue. There were six million of them, in a peripheral country that was not corrupted by its own legends. By contrast, the Syrians have been hampered by their pride, not that NATO forces were on their way to Damascus, awaiting a green light from the Syrian opposition.
The modern political history of Syria is the history of Arab nationalism – its stirring call in the final years of the Ottoman empire, the usages it served as it knit together a nation-state of diverse and often feuding communities, the weapon it was against the French mandatory power in the inter-war years, and the ideology that has both propelled and frustrated Syrian political life since independence. For nearly six decades, the Syrian rulers lived on the legends of Arab nationalism, they suffocated their people as they sold them on the false myth of Syria as the keeper of a pan-Arab flame against the West, and against Israel. Old man Assad had perfected that game: he had an easy choice, he could either be a tyrant from a minority sect, the Alawites, who had risen to power through the gun, or a pan-Arab hero who stayed true to the cause when other Arab powers had given in. There were takers for that myth, and forgive Bashar his illusion that there was a Syrian “exceptionalism” to the spirit of revolt that animated this Arab Spring.
From the vantage point of the regime, Syria is favored with its borders – Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Iraq. This is not Libya facing the Mediterraneans with “benign” Egypt and Tunisia on its eastern and western flanks. In the Syrian case, the immediate neighborhood is a tinderbox, and even a firecracker could spell trouble. But the Syrians have come to a wisdom of their own. The opposition has begun to come together. A national council has been formed, drawing on the tapestry of this checkered country – Kurds, Christians, the Liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood, oppositionists still within Syria, and exiles eager to reclaim their country from its long nightmare. Increasingly, the regime has come to fall back on its final line of defense: the Alawi community from which it hails. Now and then, the oppositionists are given to hopes that the Alawis themselves will break free from the dreaded rulers before it is too late for them and for their sect. But the evidence of that reckoning is, alas, still a matter of wishful thinking.
Instinctively, the Syrians, a population schooled in history’s bottomless lessons and surprises, must have understood the cruel choice that awaited them. It was either the tyranny they knew or the terror that they have been treated to. It is no wonder why they hesitated, no wonder why they waited on Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain and Yemen and Libya before they launched their own rebellion. So they fight alone, and perhaps they knew that all along as well.
(photo credit: Owen and Aki)