February 1, 2012
The violence grows worse. The Arab League throws up its hands in despair. Madame Clinton may huff and puff at the United Nations. But the Syrian regime and the stalwarts of the old Baath party don’t budge. Only the Arabs are unsurprised. For Syria β the “Um al-Arabia wahida”, the Mother of One Arab People, as the Baathists would have it β is a tough creature, its rulers among the most tenacious in the Middle East, used to the slings and arrows of their friends as well as their enemies. Syria’s “No” to anything but total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace is almost as famous as De Gaulle’s “No” to British entry to the European Union.
True, the Syrian regime has never confronted opposition on such a scale. If the fatalities do not yet come close to the 10 or 20 thousand dead of the 1982 Hama uprising, which old Hafez al-Assad crushed with his customary ruthlessness, the widespread nature of today’s rebellion, the defections from the Syrian army, the loss of all but one Arab ally β little Lebanon, of course β and the slow growth of a civil war make this the most dangerous moment in Syria’s post-independence history. How can Bashar al-Assad hang on?
Well, there’s Russia, of course, and the Putin-Medvedev determination not to be caught out by the West at the United Nations as they were when they failed to oppose the no-fly zones over Libya that led directly to Gaddafi’s collapse. And there’s Iran, for which Syria remains the Arab bridgehead. And Iranian suspicion that Syria is under international attack principally because of this alliance may well be correct. Strike down Baathist Syria and its Alawi-Shia President, and you cut deep into the soul of Iran itself. And there’s Israel, which utters scarcely a word about Syria because it fears that a far more intransigent regime might take its place.