EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the May 23, 2005, issue of National Review.
President Bashar Assad of Syria is discovering that these are difficult times for Arab dictators. Intense American pressure, supported for once by the United Nations and even by Russia and France, has obliged him to pull his troops out of Lebanon. This is a signal defeat for power politics as practiced in the Arab world, and it leaves Bashar in the eye of the rising storm. Somehow he has to find a way of converting evident weakness and surrender into strength, or at least the appearance of it. Otherwise his own downfall comes next.
To make things harder for him, he inherited Syria and all its problems from his father Hafez, an Arab dictator as ruthless as any, in his day a match even for Saddam Hussein. Symmetrically, one of these men invaded Kuwait, the other invaded Lebanon. Both professed the ideology of Baathism, a mishmash of racism and nationalism borrowed from Europe in the age of the dictators, and whose end is the promotion of absolute power by all available means, naturally including crime. Saddam and his fellow Baathists were almost all from the Iraqi Sunni minority determined to maintain supremacy over the Shiite majority; now brought to account for it, they will no longer have absolute power. The Assads are Alawis, a minority of perhaps 15 percent in Syria, and they too have been determined to maintain supremacy over the majority, who in this case are Sunnis. These excluded majorities demand redress for persecution, and the justice that is their due, and of course some among them dream of revenge.
A wiser man than Bashar might have understood the significance of that scene when an unshaven and disordered Saddam was dragged out of his underground hiding place. Baathism was exploded that day, and it was time to escape the falling wreckage of the old absolute order. Instead Bashar gave shelter to Iraqi Baathists, and Iraqi television has been showing interviews with captured terrorists who explain that Syrian officers — whose names they provide — trained and dispatched them to attack Iraq.
The murder in February this year of Rafik Hariri was a conventional, so to speak normal, Baathist act. . .
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