He was the Arab world’s most quixotic leader.
During the Reagan era, he was Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States. Later, after his apparent cooperation in dismantling nonconventional weapons, he became an ally to President George W. Bush’s administration in the war on terror.
He called for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation called Isratine. He traveled overseas with a coterie of fetching female bodyguards. He slept in an elaborate tent.
Now that Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi appears to have been cast into the dustbin of history – he disappeared this week as rebels overtook Tripoli – the question in the Arab world is: Who’s next?
All eyes are on President Bashar Assad of Syria.
Last week, President Obama and a host of European leaders called on the Syrian leader to step down. While Assad marshaled tanks and troops and sent them into the streets to face off against anti-government demonstrators, pushing the death toll well into the thousands, the United States and European Union countries clamped down with new sanctions against Damascus. Even the leaders of Turkey, an ally of Syria, have called on Assad to stop the bloodshed.
But if you’re waiting for the regime in Damascus to disappear, don’t hold your breath. Syria is no Libya, and Assad is no Gadhafi.
What’s more, Israel may not even want such an outcome.
To be sure, anyone who said a year ago that three Arab dictators would be toppled by popular uprisings in the space of nine months would have been called a naïf.
But that doesn’t mean the Arab world is about to birth another fallen dictator.
A few elements make Syria’s case different from the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.
For one thing, opposition to Assad has materialized much more slowly, both inside and outside the country. Domestically, anti-government demonstrations have yet to explode into a full-scale armed uprising as they quickly did in Libya and Tunisia. The Assad family long has maintained its iron rule over Syria by stoking the fires of the country’s sectarian divisions, and while Assad might be reviled by some in the country, others—including the Alawite community from which he hails – view him as a patron of sorts.
In Egypt, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime owed at least as much to the military’s decision to side with the people as it did to the protesters themselves. Indeed, for the time being, the uprising there looks more like a military coup than a democratic revolution. In Syria, however, the military remains fiercely loyal to the regime.
Within the Arab world, opposition to Gadhafi’s assault against his own people came almost immediately, with the Arab League’s endorsement of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over the country. But it took the same body until last week to demand that Assad end his bloody crackdown, months after it began. And even then, the Arab League’s statement fell far short of endorsing military operations, as it did in the case of Libya.
Likewise, it took much longer for Western leaders to call for Assad’s ouster. And unlike with Libya, so far these leaders have given no real consideration to backing up their talk with air strikes.
For one thing, it wouldn’t look good for the United States to be involved in four wars in Muslim countries. And unlike with Libya, neither the Syrian opposition nor the Arab League has asked Western powers to intervene.
Perhaps most notably, there is great anxiety in the Middle East and around the world about what a post-Assad Syria might look like.
That’s not to say that either the Americans or Israelis have any affection for Assad, but the instability that doubtless would follow his ouster could prove complicated for a whole host of neighbors.
Israel already is dealing with instability on its borders with Gaza and Egypt, and its frontier with Syria has been at its quietest over the course of nearly four decades – at least, until the protests in Syria began. Change, in Israel’s view, is an unknown and therefore a frightening prospect.
To its west, Syria traditionally has played the role of patron and overlord to Lebanon. Assad’s ouster could strengthen Hezbollah, or even throw Lebanon into complete disarray.
Perhaps most worrisome, a vacuum of power in Syria could be filled by nearby Iran.
For the time being, it seems that so long as the West declines to take up arms, it will be up to the Syrian people to get rid of their leader. Unlike with Egypt, a recipient of U.S. aid and a subject of U.S. influence, Syria long has been a pariah state and has minimal ties with the United States. It cannot be subject to the same kind of moderating pressure that was applied in Egypt.
All this doesn’t mean that Assad will stick around forever. If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected in the Middle East.
But if Assad is to go, it looks like nothing short of a war will convince him.