Over the past few weeks President Bashar Assad, like his father Hafez Assad, has once again shown the world what Syrian brutality is all about. He ordered Syrian troops backed by tanks to the towns of Talkalakh, Daraa, Baniyas and Homs to quell anti-regime protests by killing innocent civilians in the streets.
In February 1982, Hafez Assad acted in a similar manner when he sent the Syrian army into Hama, adopting a scorched-earth policy against the residents of the town in order to quash a revolt by the Sunni Muslim community against his regime. The estimate of the dead reached approximately 40,000 according to the Syrian Human Rights Committee.
Syria has long presented a serious quandary for the Middle East, US foreign policy and for Israel. With its mix of competing religious and ethnic groups, radical ideologies and political repression - it is a 72,000-square-mile time bomb waiting to go off.
This reality has become increasingly self-evident since Bashar Assad took over in 2000. With no real political aspirations, Bashar was not groomed to be the next leader. It was only after the death of his brother, Basil, in a car accident that Bashar was called back to Syria in 1994 from his studies in London, in order to continue the Assad blood line. He was put on the fast track to the Syrian throne while learning the art of dictatorship, which in turn became his playbook for governing.
Syria’s radicalism is unique as it grows out of the regime’s necessity to validate its own existence. It is a minority dictatorship of a small non-Muslim minority that offers neither freedoms nor material benefits. It requires demagoguery, scapegoating of the US and Israel, looting from Lebanon and an Iraq influx - all of which serving to make up the regime’s raison d'être.
Big fan of Islamism
Consequently, Assad is one of the biggest supporters of Islamism in the region despite running a secular Arab regime. As we have witnessed over the past months, he tactfully uses this support of Islamism to mobilize animosity towards the US and Israel, in a bid to divert attention from his internal problems of corruption, failing economy and lack of civil rights.
Israelis have not forgotten the lessons of 1973 and have no intention of repeating the mistakes made 38 years ago when it comes to the Syrian threat to their survival. The Yom Kippur War was Israel’s Pearl Harbor and claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 IDF soldiers. As such, it is a safe bet that Israel of 2011 would take any steps necessary to ensure her qualitative military edge on the northern border as illustrated by her attack on Syria's al-Kibar nuclear facility in 2007.
Moreover, Syria’s ties with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah validate Israel’s ongoing concerns on the northern border. In contrast, Bashar believes that it is his defiance of Washington and disdain for Israel that will strengthen his position at home in conjunction with closer ties with Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda.
Nonetheless, many sitting and former elected officials in Washington such as Nancy Pelosi, Arlen Specter and Jimmy Carter have repeatedly gone to pay homage to Assad, naively believing that their presence will make Assad more open to the West.
In the final analysis, Syria under Bashar Assad represents a greater threat to regional instability than it did under Hafez Assad, specifically because it is so unpredictable. This should indicate to Washington that just saying it’s time for Bashar Assad to step down will hardly be enough.
Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum
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