The Loneliest Terrorist After Bin Ladin: The Syrian People’s Dictator

Last Updated: 3:36 AM, May 10, 2011

Posted: 10:30 PM, May 9, 2011

When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent tanks to crush pro-democracy marchers, he hoped for a quick victory, after which the army would return to its barracks.

Six weeks and hundreds of deaths later, the despot’s calculations clearly haven’t worked out — in fact, he may have scripted himself out Syria‘s future.

The country seems to have returned to its traditional pattern of politics, in which the barracks and the street compete for power while other institutions stand on the sidelines. The Council of Ministers, the parliament, the security services and the so-called “national front” (which supposedly governs Syria under the Ba’ath Party) all look irrelevant.

The Loneliest Terrorist in Syria

Since the 1970s, thanks to a North Korean-style cult of personality, the presidency has been a kind of supranational institution, above anything as vulgar as the competition for power. But now it has lost its mystique: The president is a lonely man who dares not venture beyond his palace in the outskirts of a besieged capital.

Syria’s history since independence in 1947 shows that whenever a ruler calls in the army to crush the street, he ends up the loser. It happened three times in 1949 alone, when the army staged three coups, each time after being ordered to crush the street.

Brig.-Gen. Hosni al-Zaim, arguably the most colorful Syrian dictator, tried to turn himself into a civilian ruler but failed. Adib Shishakli, another brigadier-general, almost succeeded where al-Zaim failed. In 1954, however, he made the classic mistake of ordering the army to crush an uprising by the Druze. It did so — but then toppled Shishakli.

The Syrian ménage a trois of the president, the army and the street never lasts long. Three more coups, in 1963, 1966 and 1970 proved that. Syrians may tolerate a jackboot for years, even decades, but they never grant it legitimacy.

Four outcomes of the current crisis seem possible:

First: The army might push the genie of revolt back into its bottle — but, hoping to keep some power for itself, might not return Assad to the absolute power he’s enjoyed for the last 11 years.

Second: The uprising, which appears to be the most popular revolt in Syria’s 64 years as a nation-state, might succeed. The military, with resources stretched too thin, might throw in the towel in the hope of maintaining some privileges, or at least escaping retribution.

Third: Mid-ranking officers might press the top brass to switch sides. A “joint victory of the army and the nation” would enable the military to ditch Assad without losing face. (The Tunisian and Egyptian armies’ experience might influence the Syrian military in this regard.)

Fourth: The struggle could morph into a civil war.

Then, the army might split along sectarian lines, with dormant secessionist movements returning to undermine national unity. The Alawite sect might try to realize its old dream of carving out a mini-state on the Mediterranean, while ethnic Kurds might try to repeat the experience of their Iraqi brethren, agitating for autonomy in the country’s north.

Right now, more than 40 Syrian towns are under military occupation. In Deraa, the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiyah, Tal al-Sour, Qamishli (a large Kurdish town) and Deir al-Zour, on the edge of the desert, we may be witnessing the prelude to a civil war.

It’s still more of a war against civilians, but the carnage that has shocked Syrians could provoke an armed reaction. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians own guns, especially citizens in the Hauran and Kurdish regions. Assad’s policy could leave them with no other option than to take up arms in self-defense.

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