Syria’s same old di­ver­sions not work­ing in 2011

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Two of the old­est tricks in the Mid­dle East­ern dic­ta­tor’s grab-bag of de­ceit and thug­gery have failed Syria’s Bashar al-As­sad. In early June, As­sad’s regime played the Is­rael card. As­sad’s gang­sters con­nived to at­tack Is­rael, us­ing a crowd of Pales­tinian ac­tivists in­stead of a tank army. An un­armed hu­man wave of Arab pro­tes­tors ap­proached the bor­der wire. Is­raeli bor­der troops drove them off. It was a made-for-tele­vi­sion piece of pro­pa­ganda in­tended to in­flame na­tion­al­ist and sec­tar­ian pas­sions. The As­sad gang then spewed the usual anti-Is­raeli bile. When Mid­dle East­ern dic­ta­tors con­front do­mes­tic prob­lems, as As­sad’s regime cer­tainly does, blam­ing Is­rael is a clas­sic diver­sion­ary gim­mick. Alas, Syria’s in­ter­nal dis­si­dents, As­sad’s real worry, re­mained de­fi­ant.

Two weeks ago, As­sad’s gang launched mob at­tacks on the Amer­i­can and French em­bassies in Damascus. At­tack­ing Amer­i­can em­bassies is an­other clas­sic diver­sion­ary tech­nique. Blar­ing de­nun­ci­a­tions of U.S. im­pe­ri­al­ism, cow­boy mil­i­tarism and other re­cy­cled Nazi World War II and com­mu­nist Cold War pro­pa­ganda ac­cu­sa­tions al­ways ac­com­pany these em­bassy as­saults. The goal is to in­cite na­tion­al­ist ha­tred for a for­eign devil, an “us against them” ploy. These man­u­fac­tured pas­sions are sup­posed to suck the in­flam­ma­tory oxy­gen from the le­git­i­mate anti-regime griev­ances stirred by do­mes­tic dis­si­dents.

The old di­ver­sions aren’t work­ing, how­ever, not in 2011.

That they have failed is in­dica­tive of the broad depth of Syria’s slow-mo­tion revolt.

Syria’s Arab Spring tur­bu­lence is fol­low­ing a very dif­fer­ent route from that of Tu­nisia and Egypt. The Syrian se­cu­rity forces, their of­fi­cer corps stacked with Alaw­ites (As­sad’s re­li­gious group), are tightly con­trolled by the regime. The Tu­nisian and Egyp­tian mil­i­taries have broader na­tion­al­ist ori­gins. If pro­pa­ganda diver- sions and se­cret po­lice sub­ver­sion don’t un­der­mine a revolt, clubs, ri­fles and tanks can sup­press it. Though blood­let­ting in the streets doesn’t play too well on in­ter­na­tional tele­vi­sion, at the mo­ment As­sad is more con­cerned with his neck than his im­age.

Since March, Syrian se­cu­rity forces have slain some 1,500 dis­si­dents. The regime kills in drips and drabs, dozens not thou­sands at a time. This cal­cu­lated pace is rem­i­nis­cent of the creep­ing war of eth­nic cleans­ing waged by Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic’s Ser­bian out­laws in Bos­nia in 1991. Milo­se­vic would at­tack, then stop, and feign ne­go­ti­a­tion.

As­sad is at­tempt­ing to play Milo­se­vic’s game and avoid in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ven­tion. Libyan dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi’s harsh and the­atri­cal threats of re­venge against Libyan rebels pro­duced in­ter­na­tional out­rage, which played a ma­jor role in so­lid­i­fy­ing the NATO-led coali­tion now waging war against Gad­hafi’s regime.

Un­like Gad­hafi, As­sad can rely on the sup­port of an ag­gres­sive re­gional power able to sup­ply arms and re­pres­sive ex­per­tise: Iran. Syria is Iran’s most im­por­tant ally. Syria pro­vides a sup­ply base for Hezbol­lah in Lebanon and Ha­mas in Gaza. In re­turn, Iran pro­vides Syria with fi­nan­cial sup­port.

Since the Syrian re­bel­lion be­gan, Iran has sup­plied the As­sad regime with po­lit­i­cal and ma­te­rial aid. Sev­eral me­dia sources as­sert that Ira­nian spe­cial forces ad­vis­ers and in­tel­li­gence agents have de­ployed to Syria to re­in­force As­sad’s se­cu­rity forces.

Iran’s dic­ta­tors un­der­stand that their own peo­ple are watch­ing events in Syria, or if not watch­ing get­ting real-time up­dates via Twit­ter and the In­ter­net. The ay­a­tol­lahs know if their Syrian ally falls, in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion to their own heinous regime will in­crease. Many de­mands voiced by Syrian dis­si­dents echo those of Iran’s Green Move­ment op­po­si­tion, the Green Move­ment de­mands jobs, the end of corruption and crony­ism, and free speech. Iran’s tyrants pre­fer to sup­press these de­mands in Damascus, rather than battle them in Tehran.

De­spite Ira­nian sup­port, in spite of cal­cu­lated re­pres­sion, the anti-As­sad regime demon­stra­tions con­tinue and do­mes­tic re­sis­tance is spread­ing. The rebels won’t quit. Mas­sive re­pres­sion would likely ig­nite a civil war. Demo­cratic re­forms would end the regime and land the As­sad clan in jail or in ex­ile.

What is U.S. pol­icy? Ex­cel­lent ques­tion. Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal and moral sup­port for Syrian dis­si­dents has been un­der­whelm­ing, and ma­te­rial sup­port nonex­is­tent. So far, the tough­est sig­nal the U.S. has sent to the As­sad regime was Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton’s post-em­bassy at­tack dec­la­ra­tion that Bashar al-As­sad was “not in­dis­pens­able.”

The Syrian peo­ple, how­ever, have al­ready told us that.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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