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.
Last week, 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 diversions 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.