Forget Libya. Washington should pay closer attention to the violent protests imperiling the Assad regime in Damascus. If there's one country where unrest could truly set the Middle East alight, it's Syria.
While one war rages in Libya, another rages in Washington as to the necessity of U.S. action there. Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said as much this weekend, noting that Libya was not a "vital national interest." But if Washington is looking for an Arab state in the throes of unrest, one that is key to its regional and national interests, planners might want to pay more attention to Syria, which is currently undergoing upheaval not seen since the early 1980s.
Syria lies at the center of a dense network of Middle East relationships, and the crisis in that country -- which has now resulted in the deaths of well over 100 civilians, and possibly close to double that number -- is likely to have a major impact on the regional structure of power. The need to contain pressure from the United States and Israel, for decades the all-consuming concern of Syria's leadership, has suddenly been displaced by an explosion of popular protest highlighting urgent and long-neglected domestic issues.
If the regime fails to tame this domestic unrest, Syria's external influence will inevitably be enfeebled, with dramatic repercussions across the Middle East. As the crisis deepens, Syria's allies tremble. Meanwhile, its enemies rejoice, as a weakened Syria would remove an obstacle to their ambitions. But nature abhors a vacuum, and what will come will be unpredictable, at best.
The protests started in mid-March in Daraa, in southern Syria, a city that has suffered from drought and neglect by the government in Damascus. The heavy hand of the ruling Baath party was particularly resented. Because it lies on the border with Jordan, and therefore in a security zone, all land sales required the security services' approval, a slow and often costly business. This is one of the particular grievances that have powered the protest movement, though certainly the ripples of the successful Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings played a hand. The government, to put it bluntly, responded poorly. Troops in Daraa fired live rounds against youthful demonstrators and virtually all communications -- Internet and telephone -- were shuttered to prevent the seepage of unrest.
To make matters worse, Damascus blamed Israeli provocateurs, rebel forces, and shady foreign agents for the bloodshed -- anyone but its own forces. Civilian deaths at the hands of security forces there, and more recently in the coastal city of Latakia, have outraged opinion across the country, setting alight long pent-up anger at the denial of basic freedoms, the monopolistic rule of the Baath party, and the abuses of a privileged elite. To these ills should be added severe youth unemployment, devastation of the countryside by a grave shortage of rainfall over the past four years, and the impoverishment of the middle and lower classes by low wages and high inflation.
In response to the public unrest, the regime has released some political prisoners and pledged to end the state of emergency in force since 1963. A government spokeswoman has hinted that coming reforms will include greater freedom for the press and the right to form political parties. President Bashar al-Assad is due to address the country in the next 48 hours. His speech is eagerly awaited, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to defuse the crisis and win time for the regime. If not, demonstrations could gather pace, triggering still more violent repression by the security services -- an escalation with unpredictable consequences.
The protesters have in fact challenged the fundamentals of Syria's security state, a harsh system of controls over every aspect of society, put in place by the late Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, who ruled for 30 years from 1970 to his death in 2000. By all accounts, the debate about how to deal with the growing protests has led to increasingly violent confrontations inside the regime between would-be reformers and hard-liners. The outcome of this internal contest remains uncertain.
What is certain, however, is that what happens in Syria is of great concern to the whole region. Together with its two principal allies, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Lebanese Shiite resistance movement Hezbollah, Syria is viewed with great hostility by Israel and with wary suspicion by the United States. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis -- of which Syria is the linchpin -- has long been seen by many leaders in the region as the lone bulwark against Israeli and American hegemony. With backing from Washington, Israel has sought to smash Hezbollah (notably through its 2006 invasion of Lebanon) and detach Syria from Iran, a country Israel views as its most dangerous regional rival. Neither objective has so far been realized. But now that Syria has been weakened by internal problems, the viability of the entire axis is in danger -- which could encourage dangerous risk-taking behavior by its allies as they seek to counter perceived gains by the United States and Israel.
If the Syrian regime were to be severely weakened by popular dissent, if only for a short while, Iran's influence in Arab affairs would almost certainly be reduced -- in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. In Lebanon, it would appear that Hezbollah has already been thrown on the defensive. Although it remains the most powerful single movement, both politically and on account of its armed militia, its local enemies sense a turning of the tide in their favor. This might explain a violent speech delivered earlier this month by the Sunni Muslim leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri, in which he blatantly played the sectarian card.
Cheered by his jubilant supporters, he charged that Hezbollah's weapons were not so much a threat to Israel as to Lebanon's own freedom, independence, and sovereignty -- at the hand of a foreign power, namely Iran. The Syrian uprisings may have already deepened the sectarian divide in Lebanon, raising once more the specter of civil war and making more difficult the task of forming a new government, a job President Michel Suleiman has entrusted to the Tripoli notable, Najib Mikati. If Syria were overrun with internal strife, Hezbollah would be deprived of a valuable ally -- no doubt to Israel's great satisfaction.
Meanwhile, Turkey is deeply concerned by the Syrian disturbances: Damascus has been the cornerstone of Ankara's ambitious Arab policy. Turkey-Syria relations have flourished in recent years as Turkey-Israel relations have grown cold. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have actively sought to mediate local conflicts and bring much-needed stability to the region by forging close economic links. One of their bold projects is the creation of an economic bloc comprising Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan -- already something of a reality by the removal of visa requirements as well as by an injection of Turkish investment and technological know-how. A power struggle in Syria could set back this project; and regime change in Damascus would likely put a serious dent in further Turkish initiatives.
Turkey's loss, however, may turn out to be Egypt's gain. Freed from the stagnant rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, Cairo is now expected to play a more active role in Arab affairs. Instead of continuing Mubarak's policy, conducted in complicity with Israel, of punishing Gaza and isolating its Hamas government, Egypt is reported to be pushing for a reconciliation of the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. If successful, this could help defuse the current dangerous escalation of violence between Israel on the one side and Hamas and still more extreme Gaza-based Palestinian groups on the other. But Syria's internal troubles might just as easily have a negative effect.
Undoubtedly, the failed peace process has bred extreme frustration among Palestinian militants, some of whom may think that a sharp shock is needed to wrench international attention away from the Arab democratic wave and back to the Palestine problem. They are anxious to alert the United States and Europe to the danger of allowing the peace process to sink into a prolonged coma. Israeli hard-liners, too, may calculate that a short war could serve their purpose: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government may sense weakness and quietly dream of finishing off Hamas once and for all. Syria has been a strong supporter of Hamas and has given a base in Damascus to the head of its political bureau, Khaled Mashal. Turmoil in Damascus could deal Hamas a severe blow.
On all these fronts -- Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel -- Syria is a key player. But its internal problems now threaten to reshuffle the cards, adding to the general sense of insecurity and latent violence in the region. And of all the threats facing the Middle East, perhaps the greatest -- greater even than of another Arab-Israeli clash -- is that of rampant sectarianism, poisoning relationships between and within states, and breeding hate, intolerance, and mistrust.
Several of the modern states of the Middle East -- and Syria is no exception -- were built on a mosaic of ancient religions, sects, and ethnic groups held uneasily and sometimes uncomfortably together by central government. But governments have themselves been far from neutral, favoring one community over another in cynical power plays. Many Sunni Muslims in Syria and throughout the region feel that Assad's Syria has unduly favored the Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam, who constitute some 12 percent of the population but control a vastly greater percentage of the country's wealth. Open conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria would profoundly disturb the whole region, creating a nightmare scenario for Washington and other Western capitals.
Meanwhile, Washington seems at a loss as to how to respond to the growing unrest in Syria. In tempered language, the administration has condemned the use of violence against civilians and encouraged political reform. But the undertones are evident: Stability in Syria may still preferable to yet another experiment in Arab governance. Assad will need to act quickly and decisively -- and one hopes not harshly -- to quell the rising current of dissent. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to offer the regime some modest support this weekend, noting that she believed Bashar to be a "reformer." But reform has never been a primary goal of the Assad clan, which has long favored stability over change.
This edifice may now be crumbling, and the United States would be wise to spend a little less time thinking about Libya and a little more time thinking about a state that truly has implications on U.S. national interests. If things go south in Syria, blood-thirsty sectarian demons risk being unleashed, and the entire region could be consumed in an orgy of violence.