Potential Hot Spots: Syria Sings A Different Song

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March 27, 2011: Syria is getting increasingly unstable, and may be the next Arab dictatorship to collapse. The government says there will be a big announcement in the next day or two, that will satisfy the demands of the growing number of Syrians out in the streets protesting. Maybe, maybe not. The half century old Assad family dictatorship is trying to placate the growing rebel movement with promises of reform and the appointment of new senior officials. But over the last two months, despite thousands of arrests, and several hundred deaths, the unrest, and public demonstrations, grow.

Iran is apparently helping out, with security experts who have recent practice in suppressing public demonstrations back in Iran. Syria has been on Iran's payroll since the 1980s, and Iran appears willing to send people, as well as weapons and more money, to keep its ally afloat. To that end, the Shia militia in Lebanon (Hezbollah) that Iran helped create, and still finances, has apparently sent gunmen into Syria, to provide some dependable muscle against anti-Assad crowds. Iran can ill-afford to lose control of Syria, but that is what is happening. The Sunni majority would more likely become a client of Saudi Arabia, who could afford to subsidize the weak Syrian economy. A less corrupt government would also allow the economy to grow more vigorously. Syria would no longer have to support the Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon (and would, most likely, become quite hostile to it) or Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Gaza. Relations with Israel might improve as well.

But for now, there are plenty of problems in Syria. In addition to an angry population, there are also many of the Islamic terrorists that Syria has hosted for decades. Some of these radicals have been attacking their host, and the government has not been able to find and kill them all. Now more Syrians are joining the Islamic radical groups, as these guys are murderous and fearless, just the combination that seems likely to drive the Assad's out of power.

For decades, Syria has been run by the Assad family, and the religious minorities (Shia, Druze and Christian) that comprise only about a quarter of the population. Actually, only about ten percent of the population does well with this arrangement, while the rest suffers economically and politically from decades of bad government and lots of corruption. The government barely has enough loyalists to keep an eye on every part of the country, and not enough to jump on each forbidden demonstration. The government has been promising it would lift the half-century old laws that forbid demonstrations, but has not done so yet.

The only foreign support Syria has, aside from paymaster Iran,  is a motley collection of the world's most oppressive dictators (Chavez of Venezuela, Kim of North Korea, Castro of Cuba).

The Baath party of Syria is basically the same, at least in function, as the former Baath party of Iraq. Nationalist, socialist and a pretty efficient police state, the Syrians are, if anything, more corrupt than their Iraqi cousins were when Saddam was in power.  Technically, the Baath party should be on the hit list of the Iranian clergy. But as a practical matter, the Iranian clerics have been uneasy allies with the Syrian Baath party so they could, together, support terrorist attacks against Israel. This was done out of Lebanon, a country, until recently, occupied by 35,000 Syrian soldiers for nearly thirty years. In addition to protecting Iranian supported Hezbollah terrorist camps, the Syrian soldiers also look after a thriving drug and smuggling business. Running a police state is expensive, and Syria only brings in $4-5 billion a year. The drugs and smuggling bring in another billion or so, plus "gifts" from Iran and, until recently, a billion a year from Saddam Hussein. A lot of Saddam's henchmen showing up in Syria in 2003 probably made private deals with Syrian big shots ahead of time. Many of those Iraqi war criminals are still in Syria, desperately looking for a safer refuge. Prospects for these thugs are not good.

Then there is the problem with the second generation of Assads to run the country. Bashar Assad, an ex-medical student, took over from his father, Haffez, in 2000. His older brother Basil was supposed to be the heir, but Basil died in an auto accident in 1994 and Bashar got pulled of medical school in Britain for a crash course in "how to be a dictator." When Bashar took over at age 34, he initially talked of reform, cleaning up the endemic corruption and goosing the turgid economy. He soon changed his tune as he realized his father had surrounded himself with a bunch of thieves and cutthroats. These guys ran the police state, and expected to be paid. Or else. So Bashar is a dictator who can dictate a lot, but can't touch any of the private empires his father's cronies have set up. It's all about money. To make matters worse, Bashar and his helpers all belong to religious minorities. Bashar himself is an Alawite Moslem, a sect that is considered heretical by more mainstream Sunnis and Shias. Another allied group are Syrian Druze Moslems, also long persecuted for heresy. About ten percent of the Syrian population are Christian, and they have also thrown in with the Assad clan. The other 76 percent of Syrians are Sunnis who are not all that happy about the way 24 percent of the population is living large at their expensive. Sounds like Iraq? It is very similar, except that the Assad's have only invaded one neighbor (Lebanon) in the last thirty years, and that invasion succeeded. The Assads have also been careful to sincerely suck up to America as needed.

Assad's decision to pull Syrian troops out of Lebanon six years ago was popular in Syria, though not with either the extreme Baathists or the Islamic radicals. The decision was also not popular with Syria's many business associates, and Baath Party fans, in Lebanon. These groups wanted the Syrians back, if only for the business opportunities, but that did not happen.

Assad believed that reforms were needed to permit the Baath Party to remain in power, including abandonment of the party's pan-Arab pretensions to focus on Syria's needs, broadening the party's base, and liberalizing economic and social controls. Since the extreme Baathists viewed his withdrawal from Lebanon as a sign of weakness, Assad ended up in a power struggle with the old guard, which it lost.

Syria talks tough, but knows it is weak. Forever surrounded by stronger enemies, Syria can no longer even pretend to be capable of dealing with its military inferiority. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the disappearance of great arms deals from Russia has led to a sharp decline in Syrian military capabilities. No one can pretend that this is not the case anymore. The reality is of this situation is too obvious. For example, so many tanks and warplanes have not moved for years, immobilized by lack of money for spare parts or fuel. This sorry situation brings some Syrians out on the streets, but mostly its people who want more jobs and less secret police. Despite the well-deserved Assad family reputation of mass murder (of political opponents), people still come out and protest. It's different this time, or is it?

 

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