This is the question now asked in teahouses all over the Middle East. As men puff at their hookahs and play backgammon they speculate about the next regime likely to be targeted by the United States and its allies once the Iraqi business is wrapped up.
There are two answers to the question.
The first is: no one.
The second is: everyone.
Let us begin with the first answer.
There will be no new target because Iraq was a unique case.
Although most regional regimes have varying records of brutality, Saddam Hussein’s regime stood in a category all its own. It was the only regime that tried to wipe a member state of the United Nations off the map. It was also the only regime since the First World War to use chemical weapons not only against adversaries in a war but also against its own people.
This was so despicable a tyranny that even the most rabid anti-Americans, who opposed the war for liberation of Iraq, dared not have a good word about Saddam Hussein, at least in public.
The key reason why Saddam’s regime was unique, however, lies elsewhere.
His was a regime that could not develop any mechanism for change. He could play in only two registers: absolute defiance or full capitulation.
We first saw Saddam play the two registers inside the Baath party. Between 1967 and 1970 he played full capitulation. After that he played absolute defiance to the point of murdering virtually the whole of the party’s top leadership at the time.
Immediately afterwards he provoked a border war with Iran, playing in his absolute defiance register. When he was thoroughly defeated he began playing full capitulation and, in 1975, signed a treaty that gave the Shah of Iran far more than he had dreamed of.
His absolute defiance led him into an invasion of Iran in 1980. His full capitulation saw him beg for ceasefire in 1988.
In 1990 he annexed Kuwait, an act of absolute defiance. He was offered generous bribes, including big chunks of Kuwaiti territory, to withdraw. He didn’t. He was in absolute defiance mode. Six weeks later he was fleeing from Kuwait in a full capitulation mood, ready to sign an act of unconditional surrender.
The strategy had worked for three decades.
This time it didn’t work because Saddam had wrongly calculated that his French and Russian friends at the Security Council would either prevent war or, if war broke out, would somehow end it with a ceasefire that would prevent his regime from being toppled.
One could think of a dozen ways in which Saddam could have prevented this war and saved his regime for at least a few more years. (Thank God he didn’t do so.) But the system he had created lacked the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances. There was no way to change his regime’s leadership and its policies. It either had to stand as it was or collapse completely.
Now, look at other regimes in the regime. All have some mechanism for change and have shown flexibility whenever their survival has been at stake.
For the past six decades eleven Arab countries have used military coups d’etat as a mechanism for change.
In four others, all monarchies, replacing one ruler with another, achieved a similar result.
In some cases, such as Egypt under Anwar Sadat, the new ruler would purge the regime of some elements and lead the country in a new direction.
Even a hermetic regime such as the Baath’s in Syria was able to develop an internal mechanism for change, known as ” the corrective movement” (harakat al-tashihiyah).
In some cases the murder of the chief provided the mechanism for change.
Saddam’s regime was the only one in which there was no possibility of replacing the leader or even murdering him. The regime had to stand as a whole or fall as a whole. It could not survive by sacrificing part of itself, including its leader, if need be.
Now consider the candidates for the position of “the next one.”
They all know how far they can go without risking their existence.
Let us begin with Syria, now singled out by part of the U.S. media as ” the next one.”
Throughout the Cold War Syria maintained close ties with the Soviet Union but refused to sign a military pact with it or grant it bases.
President Hafez al-Assad also made sure that he met all the American presidents, from Nixon to Clinton. Although Syria’s Golan has been under Israeli occupation, not a shot was ever fired against the Jewish state from Syrian territory.
Syria organized its occupation of Lebanon as if it were doing a favor to the Lebanese. Unlike Saddam Hussein who just moved into Kuwait, Hafez al-Assad made sure that his troops entered Lebanon as ” saviors” with the support of the Arab League, the United Nations and the European powers.
Syria has also shown a remarkable tactical good sense in knowing how and when to unleash the Lebanese armed groups it has organized with the help of Iran, against Israel.
The Syrian leaders have often gone to the edge, but never beyond it as Saddam Hussein did.
Today, there is absolutely no possibility that Syria will allow itself to be pushed into a corner in which the survival of its regime will be at stake. Syria knows how to not to believe its own incendiary slogans, and how to compromise when it has to.
Iran is also referred to as a possible “next.”
But Iran, too, has a mechanism for change. The regime can get rid of a few angry mullahs, replacing them with smiling ones, if and when necessary.
Whenever its survival has been seriously threatened, the Khomeinist regime has always backed down.
The Khomeinists captured the American hostages but made sure that none of them was harmed. They organized the murder of over 300 Americans, including 241 Marines, in Lebanon but made sure that no Iranian was directly involved. In 1984 when the U.S. Navy sunk half of Iran’s navy, the mullahs kept the whole thing quiet and opened secret channels to both Washington and Israel to ease pressure on themselves.
The Khomeinists have also cooperated with Washington in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and remained scrupulously neutral in both wars that pitted the U.S. and its allies against Iraq.
Another possible “next” is Libya. But even Colonel Muammar Khadafi, who cultivates his image as a romantic not interested in political power, has never made the foolish mistakes that Saddam Hussein repeatedly made.
After the Americans bombed Tripoli in 1986, Khadafi got the message and quickly severed relations with a variety of groups that Washington regarded as terrorist. The colonel later went further by handing over two of his senior intelligence officers to be tried as terrorists in the Lockerbie case. All along the Libyan regime has been wise enough not to believe its own propaganda and thus not to get involved in a struggle in which it has no chance of surviving let alone winning.
Now to the second answer: Anyone and everyone could be the next target.
The last Gulf War was aimed at restoring a status quo that had been upset by the Iraqi invasion.
The current war is to change the status quo. Thus all the regimes in the region would have to change themselves, some more than the others to take into account the realities of a new status quo that will take shape once a new Iraqi regime is established. Those intelligent enough to make change their friend will have a part in shaping the new status quo. Those who regard change as an enemy will be in for rude shocks.
— Amir Taheri, the Iranian author and journalist, is based in Europe. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.