We do not understand the Arab world. We think we do, we like to think we do, but we don’t.
It’s far more complex and nuanced than we give it credit for, and few parts of it are as multifaceted and layered as Syria. The struggles of the Middle East are seldom about good and bad or black and white. In this case, western arrogance and presumptions of knowledge and moral superiority could lead to strife and violence almost beyond comprehension.
President Bashar al-Assad is a dictator, as was his father. More brutal than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, less sadistic than Saddam Hussein. His father was a man of substance, and while prepared to use horrible force and kill anybody who stood in his way, he was a leader to be reckoned with.
His son was never supposed to inherit power, and did so reluctantly and with none of his father’s capabilities.
The country is a composite of disparate groups: Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druze and various others. The Assads are from the Alawite minority, and are Baathists, meaning they’re secular Arab nationalists rather than Islamic fundamentalists.
And here is the essential problem for the West. While Syria interfered and still interferes in Lebanon, while it has close ties to Iran, and while it supports Hezbollah, it is directly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and its many front groups throughout the region.
Lefties, labour militants and anti-Semites will tell you the whole area is divided over Israel and Palestine. Laughable. It’s divided because the four main local powers — Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia — want to either control their neighbours or, in the case of Israel, neutralize them to guarantee their safety and stability. Frankly, nobody really cares about the Palestinians, unless they can use them to digress from genuine domestic problems.
Syria is caught in the middle of all this. President Assad would probably like to be part of the West’s orbit and did at one point make overtures to Israel and the U.S. via intermediaries. But he now knows that he can’t rely on a naive, weak, and basically pro-Muslim American leader, and that Iran would have him killed if he moved too far.
Shortly before the revolt began, Assad had further liberalized the country’s laws regarding women and minorities, and Christians and non-Sunni Muslims know that if he is removed, they will face persecution and murder — witness Iraq after the fall of Saddam. While some of his opponents are genuinely progressive, the heart of the opposition is the Brotherhood, who swore long ago that they would bring down the Assads and impose Shariah.
Israel and London want Assad gone because they know chaos will ensue, Iran will be weakened, and Hezbollah emasculated. A civil war in Syria will also make Israel safer and strengthen western ally Saudi Arabia. Apart from the horrible cynicism of it all, it’s short-term. Christians, a moderating force, will hemorrhage the country, Egypt will attempt to aid their Brotherhood friends, and ambitious Turkey will rush to fill the aid vacuum.
The devil is never a good friend to have. But the devil you know is usually less monstrous than the one who follows.