August 28, 2011:
Now that Libyan dictator Moamar Kaddafi has lost control of his country, Basher Assad, the second generation Assad running Syria, is paying close attention to what Kaddafi did wrong. The most obvious error was to make too many enemies in countries that you would need in a pinch. In short, if you are a tyrant, be on good terms with tyrant-friendly Russia or China (preferably both.) It was the lack of one of these friends that allowed the UN to pass resolution 1973, calling on any nation to use their air power and warships to help prevent Libya from attacking its citizens. That brought forth nearly 10,000 smart bombs and missile, mainly from European NATO air forces. This intervention proved decisive for the rebels, who were backed by over 80 percent of the population.
Russia and China didn’t vote for 1973, but they abstained, meaning that the resolution got the “unanimous” (no dissent) vote needed to pass in the Security Council. Once it was legal to attack Kaddafi’s forces, the rebels had enough of an edge to win. Without a UN resolution, few nations are willing to intervene in a rebellion. It’s just not politically correct without UN blessing. And that blessing can be stopped if you are on real good terms with Russia or China.
Kaddafi was always undiplomatic, believing that his oil (all of it shipped across the Med to Europe) would keep him safe from foreign intervention, especially if he kept buying expensive (and unneeded) weapons from major nations. Many other dictators believed Kaddafi was being reckless, but Kaddafi appeared to have a well-run police state. This taught dictators another lesson, that no police state is safe from popular uprisings by a nation that is really fed up with years, or decades, of tyrannical rule. Syria will have to prove again, that these pesky rebellions can be put down.
Syria has much less oil, and can’t afford to buy much of anything from anyone. So the Assads have had to be more thoughtful and diplomatic. Assad also noted that Kaddafi talked too much, and believed that openly trying to terrorize and intimidate his rebellious people would work. It didn’t, and the cell phone videos getting out only made the world angrier at “wacky Kaddafi.” Playing the fool may have worked for John Lennon, but it does not work for tyrants clinging to power. Also note that cell phones are dangerous not just because of their ability to make calls outside the country (that can be shut down), but because they can take pictures or videos of government violence against protestors. Those cell phone videos can be smuggled out, and raise the risk of foreign intervention, as well as inspiring the rebels to keep at it.
Assad is being a much more discreet dictator. He does not discuss his plans (except the ones his enemies want to hear) and arrests far more people than he murders. Dead people make martyrs, which inspires the survivors to fight much harder to depose weak dictators. Assad also makes the most of his patron, Iran, which has an excellent array of intelligence, police and terror organizations to keep its own population in check. Iran is a religious dictatorship, and the clerics there have raised a force of Islamic fanatics who will kill not just for the clerical dictatorship, but for God as well. Assad is flying in more and more Iranian specialists, to devise new techniques for quelling the rebellious Syrians.
All the other dictators and autocrats in the Middle East are also trying to pick up something useful out of the wreckage of Kaddafi’s four decades of tyranny. It’s the one thing failures are always good for; lessons about what not to do.