The writer Leon Wieseltier opened his keynote address at the Daniel Pearl Memorial lecture at UCLA last month with a telling joke.
“For 50 years, nothing ever changed in the Middle East,” he said, “until the minute I sat down to write this speech.”
How true. Monarchs and dictators unleashed their forces on protesters and resigned, oil prices rose and fell, wars were fought and lost. Beyond that, very little changed in the Middle East.
The Six-Day War in 1967 was a game changer, reshaping the map of the region, reshuffling alliances, and awakening fundamentalism, terror and militarism.
But no other time period has matched those six days … until the last six weeks.
This week, all eyes were on Libya, as a coalition of the willing, led by the United States and with the approval of the Arab League, created a no-fly zone as a way to contain the Insane Clown Posse that runs that nation.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Syria to protest against their country’s leadership. That’s right — in Syria. Libya may have gotten most of the attention, but, in truth, so much more depends on Syria. The stakes are higher, the potential risks and rewards far greater. In the march of democracy through the Arab world, all roads now lead to Damascus.
Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi is a symbol of petro-brutality. The minute his people turned on him, he discovered the international community only really liked him for his oil. Old friends admitted they had really only flipped through his Little Green Book for the pictures.
Syrian President Bashar Assad represents something more, the kind of Middle Eastern dictator pumped up in stature by his iron grip on his people and his envious real estate — a prime location bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.
So far, Assad has managed to keep the fires of Arab awakening at bay, playing the fears of the nation’s Shiite Alawite minority off those of the Sunni majority, clamping down on nascent protests as they crop up, instituting some last-second reforms, opening and closing the Internet with the touch of a maestro — and using a deadly effective internal police force.
But this week’s protests raise the question of how long the Assad family’s good thing can last.
“Compared to footage of thousands, and sometimes millions, of protesters on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Manama, Sana’a and Tripoli, the numbers in Syria might seem low,” wrote M. Yaser Tabbara a Syrian American civil rights lawyer and activist, on aljazeera.com. “It should be noted, however, that what has taken place in Syria over the past few days is simply unprecedented…. A forty year old red line has been crossed and there is no turning back.”
Who cares? The Iranians care: They stand to lose a client state and, via Assad, access to their Hezbollah proxies in Southern Lebanon. The Shi’ia Iranians don’t want to see the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni group that Assad has clamped down, gain more power.
The Saudis also care. They want to curb Iranian influence, which has only increased in light of the protests in Bahrain. They don’t want Assad or Hezbollah to try to hold on to power by launching the thousands of missiles Hezbollah has stockpiled in southern Lebanon into northern Israel.
And, of course, the Israelis care. A senior Israeli official speaking in Los Angeles last week warned that the “wild card” in the Syrian uprising is the chance that it will prompt Assad, Hezbollah or some Palestinians toward war with Israel. Starting a war, the official said, would not be difficult.
It’s not what the Israelis want — and there are analysts who make the case that Iran has little incentive for it, either. But, even more so, it’s not what the Syrian people seem to want.
The last time I met with “the Syrian people,” it was alongside Jim Prince, the director of The Democracy Council. He has worked hard over the years to support civil society in the Arab world. Several years ago, Prince invited me to lunch with some Syrian dissidents in Century City. (How many years ago? The top secret location was the office of the now defunct Bear Stearns.)
Prince returned this weekend from another trip to Cairo and Jerusalem. He noted that in the rhetoric of the Syrian protesters, Israel isn’t even mentioned.
“It is nonexistent,” Prince said. “It is not registering on anyone’s agenda.”
The Syrian people are educated and fed up with a regime that is more efficient than Mubarak’s Egypt, but just as corrupt. Syrian youth — which make up 50 percent of the country — simply refuse to accept the circumscribed freedoms their parents and grandparents did.
“The administration in Syria blamed everything on Israelis,” Prince said. “But it’s a sophisticated population; they saw through it. They want the Israeli lifestyle, Israeli standard of living. They don’t want to be second class.”
The protests may not turn out millions all at once, as in Egypt, but Syrians will use Facebook and Twitter — when the regime turns the ISPs on — and boycotts, defections and strikes to make their voices heard.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” Prince said, “but the point is the protest is not going away.”
For those of us who see the liberation of the Arab world as inevitable, and hope that it is for the good, too, these are the headiest of times. We thought change would come only when oil prices crashed, or when Islam modernized itself. We knew Israel was not even close to being the cause of the stagnation, cruelty and backwardness that marked most Middle Eastern nations — but we wondered when Arabs themselves would recognize that.
The troubles in Syria are another good indication that they have.
“The angst across all spectrums of society is not about economics,” Prince said. “It’s about corruption, human rights, and access to information.”
I asked Prince if that means it really is about democracy.
“Yes,” he answered, “I would say it is pure democracy. They want more. They know what they’re missing. They know the world has passed them by.”