One characteristic of a deeply complex geopolitical event is the tension between the lessons we choose to learn from past experiences and those we forget, or dismiss. But the role of history looms large, and this is no different with the Arab Spring. Is it like 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern European states began to throw off the yoke of the Soviet Union? Or is it more like 1848, when teetering historic European powers fell one after another in popular uprisings? It turned out that this was far too wide a scope. Each of the world’s endangered autocrats has instead watched how the last domino fell in order to avoid being the next. And no single domino dominates the world’s imagination more than Egypt.
So now that Egypt’s revolution seems to have been hijacked (the word “coup” has been bandied about) by the military and the old guard (though the government may have an Islamist figurehead), what has everyone learned? Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has learned he can retain power by slaughtering his people and not giving in. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has learned if he is to survive he ought to make sure the domino in front of him doesn’t fall first. Assad is that domino, and he also happens to be both an enemy and neighbor of Israel. So in the Washington Post’s long interview with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Syria was unsurprisingly the subject of a good portion of it, and the most interesting exchange:
[WP:] Going back to Syria, do you think the West should arm the opposition?
[Barak:] I think many steps should be taken. Russia has invested a lot of political capital and money in the [Assad] regime. They should have a certain role if we want to succeed. The whole structure of the Syrian state should not be blamed — it is a family and certain individuals [who are responsible]. I believe that if America and Russia talk[ed] together about who can use what leverage, that could be extremely effective. And of course Turkey, the most important neighbor of Syria. What can we do in order to remove this family from power without destroying Syria as a state? Not repeat the mistakes that were made in Iraq, where everything from the Baath Party to the military was dismantled. There’s no need to do that [and increase] the chances that they will end up with a chaotic civil war, where the bad guys will be more prominent. It’s time for the world to dictate to Mr. Assad to move out of power or else. But the “or else” can be convincing only if America and Russia will join hands.
This is something of a counterintuitive assessment, to say the least. First of all, Syria is already involved in a chaotic (and bloody) civil war. Second, the “bad guys” are already prominent in that civil war–the Syrian regime’s military, at the command and control of Assad. And third, there is no indication the Syrian opposition would accept a transition in which only a handful of top officials cede power to the existing establishment. Thus, it would likely not end the civil war.
What’s happening here is the result of the tension between lessons learned and lessons lost. Assad, watching Egypt, is learning he must set the military upon the people if he is to survive, and the military is learning from Egypt it need not respect the wishes of the protesters.
The West is learning two lessons from Egypt: a rushed transition controlled by the military will likely lead to a continued military dictatorship, and the stability of autocratic regimes is a myth. That Barak is still holding on to this myth has much to do with the neighborhood in which Israel resides. The political movements with any coherent sense of mission and stable political networks in the Middle East are Islamist groups, most notably among them the Muslim Brotherhood. It has become the only serious opposition in Egypt, and it surely doesn’t help that Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood.
Barak’s concerns are understandable, but his proposed solution is a lesson lost. It is precisely the “stability” of autocrats like Hosni Mubarak that suffocated any liberal momentum among the populace, depriving it of experience and organization that could compete, perhaps, with that of the Brotherhood. As one of the two men most responsible for the defense and survival of the Jewish state in this environment, Barak is not in an enviable position at this moment. But history doesn’t dole out sympathy, just lessons.