June 1, 2011

Why the Syrians are on their own

I was asked why the world is not taking more action in support of the popular uprising and basic human rights being threatened in Syria. By rights, the major powers should have stepped in the way they did in Libya, or at least call on Bashar Assad to step down (or at least revoke his medical license for systematically savaging a poor 13-year-old boy).

Here are a few thoughts:

1. Why now? Just because of what's been going on elsewhere in the region? The Assad family has put down localized uprisings before. Most Syrians may either hate the Assad regime or simply want democracy (or something else), but most people don't seem to be taking to the streets. Syria has been a brutal place for decades.

2. Everyone but the brave protesters seems to prefer Syria as it is. Even though Egypt is strategically vital, its territorial integrity was never up for grabs, while Syria -- a bit like Iraq -- has remained a precarious venture. Syria could disintegrate, in which case the region might plunge into violent anarchy.

3. So many powers are invested in Syria's status quo, moreso perhaps than with Egypt. Russia and France still retain old colonial designs on Lebanon and Syria's national life. The United States, obviously, has interests relating to Lebanon, Israel, and Iran. Though they be allies on generally good terms, Iran might use Assad's downfall to expand its role in shaping Syrian politics even more than in Lebanon, and to further streamline its pipeline of terrorists and weapons into Lebanon. Turkey fancies itself as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and it shares Kurd-a-phobia with Assad. 

4. Israel, of course, has relied upon its contentious yet predictable border, including Lebanon. It already lost one longtime neighbor in Hosni Mubarak, but at least there's a peace treaty locked in with U.S. financial and strategic support. Syria has no emergency brake. And if Israel ever did cut a deal with Syria, it could be a relatively straight -- if painful -- swap of Golan Heights for peace; but not if Iran steps in first.

The Syrian people have long deserved better than Bashar Assad, but they also know their predicament. Their resilience is impressive, and we can hope they succeed and that their rich intellectual and cultural heritage carries them through toward a more democratic future. But the vested interests will be vested, at least for now.

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