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    http://weeklystandard.com/Content/Protected/Articles/000/000/006/160dhqvn.asp Damascus THURSDAY AFTERNOON is the start of the weekend here, but the Christian
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 2005

      THURSDAY AFTERNOON is the start of the weekend here,
      but the Christian Quarter of the Old City, home to
      most of Damascus's liveliest bars, restaurants, and
      cafés, seems strangely subdued.

      "People are scared and angry," says D, a 22-year-old
      student and journalist from Syrian television with
      whom I'm spending the day, walking around and speaking
      with ordinary Syrians whose most palpable fear right
      now is of what they believe is an imminent U.S.

      "We'll fight the Americans," says T, a 25-year-old
      businessman whose presence in this trendy café
      suggests that he probably will not fight but may have
      enough money to finance some fighting. "I'm a
      Christian," he says, "but it doesn't
      matter--Christian, Muslim--we're all Syrians, and
      we'll fight as Syrians."

      During my last trip to Damascus, in the winter, I was
      surprised to find Syrians who believed that they might
      be better off if the Assad regime fell. I am less
      surprised now to see how that enthusiasm has been
      tempered. It's not that President Bashar al-Assad has
      finally won the hearts and minds of his people;
      rather, many Syrians see the sectarian violence in
      Iraq, and they are fearful the same might happen here.

      T may say he's ready for the Americans, but I wonder
      if he isn't more concerned about having to fight other
      Syrians, especially the country's overwhelmingly Sunni
      Arab majority. There's a reason the ruling Alawites
      have cloaked themselves in Arab nationalism--it
      disguises the fact that a minority sect some Sunnis
      consider heretical is running the country. But D, like
      virtually all Syrians, is very sensitive about
      anything touching on the country's confessional
      issues, so she won't let me ask T, and we move along.

      D is an Alawite whose father used to hold a high
      diplomatic post under Hafez al-Assad. By all accounts,
      Bashar's father did a much better job of spreading not
      only the regime's wealth and power among other sects,
      especially the Sunnis, but also its culpability. Right
      now Syria's ruling class--Bashar, his brother Maher,
      and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat--can fit on the head
      of a pin. And with the U.N. report on the murder of
      former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri due to
      be released October 25, it's hard to see how the
      family can entirely escape a day of reckoning.

      How is Syria coping with the pressure? The way it
      always has, with violence. Last week, a popular
      Lebanese television journalist was maimed and nearly
      killed in a car bombing, the latest in a string of
      assassinations and explosions for which the Syrians
      and their Lebanese cut-outs are commonly thought
      responsible. Since Hariri's death, all of the violence
      has been directed against Christian individuals or
      Christian areas in a transparent attempt to provoke
      sectarian fighting. It is worthwhile to note that a
      state fearful of sectarian conflict runs a regional
      policy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel that aims to
      provoke elsewhere its own worst nightmares at home.

      Still, many Arab officials and Western analysts
      continue to believe that Washington should find some
      way to engage Assad. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, for
      instance, may truly fear the fallout of a collapse in
      Damascus, but what's even more terrifying to him and
      other Arab leaders is that if Bashar falls, the Bush
      administration might think it's on a hot streak. Who
      knows where the finger will point next? As for the
      Western analysts who want Bush to warm up to Syria,
      some are legitimately concerned about the possible
      fate of Syrian minorities, while others counsel
      engagement merely out of habit.

      "The regime was already given lots of warning and
      advice," says Farid al-Khazen, a first-term deputy in
      the Lebanese parliament and a professor of political
      science at the American University of Beirut. "But it
      has zero margin for flexibility or adaptation. Even
      Saddam had a larger base of support than the Syrian

      One major difference between the former Iraqi regime
      and Bashar's is that the latter has very little
      sectarian depth in the region. While Iraq's
      once-ruling Sunni minority made up maybe 20 to 25
      percent of the country, across the entire Middle East,
      Sunnis constitute perhaps 70 percent of the
      population. When Western journalists and academics
      argue that Sunnis cannot possibly win their insurgency
      in Iraq because they are a minority, or scoff when
      Iraqi Sunnis claim that they are actually a majority,
      it is we who are not recognizing the regional reality.
      The Sunnis of Iraq may not win back power through
      their insurgency, but the Sunnis in the region are not
      going to let their Iraqi coreligionists be decimated
      in a civil war, either. The problem for Syria's
      Alawites is that, except for what currently seems like
      a pretty tenuous alliance with Shiite Iran, they have
      nowhere to turn for help.

      This real fear of being surrounded and vulnerable not
      only drives the regime's authoritarian apparatus, it
      is also the source of Syrian identity. "Because no one
      is allowed to touch on sectarian issues," says Andrew
      Tabler, an American researcher who lives in Damascus,
      "the Syrians have forged a more or less viable Syrian
      identity." There's another factor as well. "The regime
      has been in a state of war with Israel for so long,"
      says Tabler, "that modern Syrian identity is carved
      out of the struggle against Israel."

      Thus Syria--a state that derives its sense of
      well-being from repression, fear, and hatred--is
      hardly ready for a peaceful democratic transition.
      "There is nothing left of civil society," says Khazen.
      "The Syrian political landscape is a desert. There is
      no institution that can help the country make a

      Washington may hope there is some plausible
      alternative to the Assads, but none is in
      evidence--not a secular, democratic opposition, not a
      reform movement in exile, not moderate Islamists. (Not
      even Islamist extremists, whose organizational
      capacity the regime has invariably exaggerated for its
      own purposes.) Thus, the regime has effectively
      booby-trapped Syria, and if it falls it is quite
      likely Syrians will shed each other's blood.

      Would a Syria in free fall cause trouble in the region
      and for the United States? Well, it's unclear whether
      a failed state exports more violence than one already
      determined to export violence, especially if it is
      going to take that failed state a long time to exhaust
      its own sectarian furies. Moreover, the fact is that
      Syria's intercommunal violence has already spilled
      over into Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, and the West
      Bank. Eventually, Syrians will have to learn how to
      construct a positive national identity out of a
      multisectarian, multiethnic society without
      dispatching their demons abroad or sweeping them under
      an Arab nationalist rug.

      Lee Smith is writing a book on Arab culture.
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