Elie Kedourie, the most far-sighted and informed of commentators, always used to say that Syria held the key to the future of Palestine, Israel, and the wider region. It seems true right now. But how Bashar Assad will take the determining decisions is unclear. He seems to be leaving open all options, hesitating between the alternatives of reform and harsh repression but giving signs that either response remains possible and depends on the strength of the protests. He has the security forces shoot four demonstrators here, two there, six in another place, as it were showing that he could mow down thousands if their disobedience obliges him to do so. Is this a sign of strength? Or on the contrary that he doesn’t really know what to do? Either reading of the situation is valid.
In a dictatorship like his, the change of prime minister and cabinet is an empty token. The promise to rescind the emergency law still leaves him in absolute power, and he is resorting to the traditional fiction that he needs absolute power in order to deal with the “armed gangs” supposedly threatening the country’s “stability.” It would be equally traditional to create some diversion involving Lebanon or Israel.
Presumably there are telephone calls in which the King of Saudi Arabia makes threats of retribution and promises of aid, and then more telephone calls from Tehran in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warns Bashar not to listen to the Saudis, and makes his rival threats and promises.
The voices must be rising along with the stakes. A wrong decision, even a small slip, can lead to sectarian or ethnic massacre on a hideous scale. And it is all in the hands of a one-time ophthalmologist who accidentally became a dictator because his elder brother was killed driving too fast.