When Muammar Qaddafi began to re-conquer Libya it briefly appeared that only the moderate and nominally “pro-American” dictatorships in the Middle East were at risk, but the hard and violent anti-American regimes aren’t yet in the clear. The region-wide revolt is now hitting Syria and will almost certainly grow.
In the southern city of Daraa, along the border with Jordan, regime opponents set fire to the local Baath Party headquarters, a courthouse, and two government-run phone company offices. Police officers fired live rounds into crowds of demonstrators, but Bashar al-Assad also dispatched government officials in the hopes of making some kind of amends.
If Libyans are willing to stand up to the ruthlessness of Qaddafi, and if the West is willing to back them, Syria’s tyrant should be deathly afraid. And here is a country where we don’t need to worry quite so much about what might replace the regime if it falls.
Al-Assad is not an Islamist. He’s not, in the eyes of some, even a Muslim—he’s a secular Alawite whom both Sunnis and Shias have long considered heretical infidels. This hardly makes any difference, however. He has aligned himself with Iran’s Islamic Republic, Hamas, and Hezbollah. He helped insurgents transit into Iraq to kill American soldiers. His replacement could be a bit worse, but not by a lot.
The Israelis worry that if he goes he’ll be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s certainly possible. A little more than 70 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni. Still, it’s hard to imagine a Muslim Brotherhood regime being more hostile to Israel and the West than the Arab Socialist Baath Party.
It’s also hard to imagine that Damascus could so effectively dominate Lebanon and forcibly keep it in the Iran-led resistance bloc after a thorough change at the top. Syria has a great deal of leverage inside its smaller and strategically critical neighbor, but it took decades to build the intricate web of relationships with its willing and unwilling Lebanese proxies. A new Syrian government will have to start over if the entire leadership of the Alawite state is deposed. And in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood gets precious little traction where around 90 percent of the country’s Sunnis back Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, a party with a liberal and capitalist ideology.
I have my doubts that Syria is prepared for democracy at this time, but there is enormous room for improvement. A totalitarian terrorist-sponsoring state is hardly the only illiberal option. Even if, under a worst-case scenario, Damascus under new management continues to support Hamas and Hezbollah, maintains the alliance with Iran’s Islamic Republic, continues oppressing the people of Syria, and keeps “resistance” against Israel the state’s ideological raison d’etre, the situation could not be much worse than it already is. Let us hope, then, that the Syrian people can finally be rid of him.