The Syrian Time Bomb

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.

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The Colonel and Friends

How do you solve a problem like Qaddafi? Call in some old camping buddies.

View a slide show of Qaddafi and friends here.

Nothing says "loser" like going to a fancy international conference and discovering you can't score a place to sleep. That's what happened to Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi when he tried to pitch his signature mobile headquarters, a Bedouin tent, somewhere in New York for a 2009 U.N. visit. Rejected from Central Park; rejected in Englewood, New Jersey; rejected in Westchester. After Qaddafi ended up a refugee at his own diplomatic mission in Manhattan, one British tabloid concluded his only competition for head-of-state isolation must be Kim Jong-il.

The New York press had a field day with the wandering colonel and his team of butch female bodyguards. But perhaps Qaddafi's entourage had just been spoiled by warmer welcomes elsewhere. When he arrived in Durban, South Africa, for the African Union launch in 2002, Qaddafi was able to erect his tent on the vast estate of one of South Africa's wealthiest sugarcane farmers, his digs coordinated by a South African government minister. "At first he was, I don't want to say weird, but he was talking very loud and not looking me in the eye," the farmer told me over the phone. After the intense first moments were over, though, he found himself impressed. "He said he wants to be the golden leader of Africa. He wants to unite Africa," he said. "I have very pleasant memories of Colonel Qaddafi. I would like to sit with him again around a campfire."

Americans often assume that because we find Qaddafi "eccentric," "bizarre," and "rambling," he must also be unloved everywhere. Never has this assumption operated more than this winter. "We are lucky that Colonel Qaddafi has few if any outside backers, with even the Arab League endorsing intervention," marveled Max Boot in the New York Times. Charles Krauthammer contemptuously concluded that Qaddafi's particularly "unstable and crazy" character merely made him that much more likely to fall in the democracy wave sweeping the Arab world. But Qaddafi isn't just an Arab. He is also an African. And as an African, he is beloved. By way of illustration, allow me to introduce you to Nelson Mandela's grandson, Zondwa Gaddafi Mandela.

As it turns out, Mandela and Qaddafi go way back. Qaddafi supported Mandela's liberation movement in the 1980s, and in the mid-1990s Mandela traveled to Tripoli -- flouting a U.N. travel ban -- to thank him. He even granted Qaddafi the final state visit of his presidency, in which he praised Qaddafi as a "dear brother."

But Qaddafi's connection to the rest of Africa -- the one that inspired thousands of Malians to march on Friday on the French and U.S. embassies, protesting the West's airstrikes -- is mostly a newer creation. Wounded by the way Arab leaders cold-shouldered him as he struggled with sanctions in the 1990s, Qaddafi began turning away from the Middle East and cultivating Africa as soon as he regained footing. In the late 1990s, he started to play African peacemaker, negotiating between warring Uganda and Congo and setting up tête-a-têtes between the Sudanese government and its rebels.

He didn't always get the results he wanted. Indeed, the idea of Qaddafi-as-peacemaker itself was a little outrageous, since Libya had been backing disruptive African coups for years before his change of heart. (See: Charles Taylor in Liberia.) But the gratefulness with which he was received gave Qaddafi an idea. Africa would work better if the continent were not separate, rivalrous nations but rather one giant country, a "United States of Africa," with Qaddafi as its "mayor."

He proposed his idea at the 1999 Organization of African Unity conference held in Surt, his hometown. It was met with ridicule. "In the future we'll form the United States of Pluto, against other planets," sneered a journalist from Swaziland.

But Qaddafi wasn't so easily dissuaded. He just started carrying out his vision without asking permission, like the high school suitor who, after his crush rejects him, simply makes himself the de facto boyfriend by always offering the snazziest ride home. He put up soaring new government towers in the capitals of Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Mali. They pointedly bore his name. Sometimes he blithely funded anti-government rebel groups at the same time.

Inconsistency never bothered Qaddafi. He got his hands into everything. He championed the glitziest style of modernization, plowing $5 billion in investments into telecoms in Niger and Zambia, banks in Chad and Mali, and five-star hotels in Accra and Johannesburg. Simultaneously, he built mosques to promote the spread of piety. And he pampered Africa's traditional tribal leaders, who often felt snubbed in Africa's mad race to embrace the secular West and religious piety alike. He renovated the palace for the boy prince of the oil-rich Ugandan traditional kingdom of Toro, for instance; as thanks, Toro named him its "Defender of the Crown." In 2008, he flew some 200 traditional chiefs up to Tripoli. Dressed in a World's Fair of colorful ethnic costumes, they named Qaddafi Africa's "King of Kings."

Of course, Qaddafi's involvements with Africa have his classic manic edge. In recent years, he has usually been photographed wearing a large black brooch in the shape of Africa pinned to his chest, and visitors to Tripoli describe banners over the streets depicting the colonel over the slogan "Africa is hope," or the colonel "as a savior as sun rays break over his shoulder and a crowd of black men and women reach toward him with outstretched arms."

But the very fact that his engagement with Africa has been a little Messianic -- and pursued with the flamboyance only an oil magnate can muster -- has given it a perverse sort of legitimacy. Many foreign governments approach Africa with aversion, dealing with its governments out of financial temptation or necessity but trying to conceal their involvements at the same time. Qaddafi, on the other hand, openly woos not only elites but ordinary people, his potential subjects. He didn't only funnel money into Mali to help the government. He personally traveled to Timbuktu to lead a packed prayer service on the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Often at such events he tries to stir up pan-African and anti-colonial fervor. "We must fight the hatred of America for Africa," he likes to say.

With the Western focus on the Libyan crisis as part of the "Arab revolutions," many observers have missed how crucial Qaddafi's relationships with Africa have become. After Qaddafi didn't fall right away, as a tyrant without any foundation ought to, reporters noted he seemed to be relying on a stream of "African mercenaries" for his counterattack.

Who were these people? Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times was about the only one who sought out an answer. In Mali's capital of Bamako, he found recruiters rounding up men to fight for Qaddafi. Some were getting money, yet they also swore they would fight for him whether or not they were paid. One, Elhadj Maiga, had printed up his own handmade flyers with a picture of Qaddafi and a line in French urging his fellow Malians to "support the leader of the revolution." Gettleman empathized with Maiga's attitude, noting he prays at a mosque Qaddafi built, watches TV on a Qaddafi-funded network, and comes and goes under Qaddafi's $100 million government tower. "We're all ready to die for him," Maiga told the reporter. "He's done so much for us, after all."

The Arabs he spurned might want Qaddafi out. African leaders, though, have been torn. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa allowed his U.N. representative to support a no-fly zone, but appeared to regret that stance days later, warning the West not to "invade" an African nation. Likewise, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has simultaneously lambasted Qaddafi for his arrogance and the West for its arrogance in attacking him. The African Union, which receives a fat chunk of its dues from Qaddafi, has also dithered, releasing contradictory statements. Some of the most explicit words from prominent Africans have been in Qaddafi's favor. "Some people see the colonel as the devil, but he's not," asserted a spokesman for the Malian government. "He's a great African." The president of Namibia lamented that "some of our brothers and sisters in Libya" -- meaning Qaddafi's supporters -- "are being attacked by non-African sources from overseas."

The absence of clarity from African leaders leaves a void in which grateful Africans like Elhadj Maiga take things into their own hands. Even as the anti-Qaddafi rebels begin to re-advance with the help of the West's airstrikes, African fighters continue to stream into the country to bolster Qaddafi. Their support is bound to make a showdown over Tripoli bloodier than perhaps anyone has anticipated.

At the same time, though, Qaddafi's African ties present an opportunity. Down here in South Africa, there are rumors Zuma is fixing to fly north and initiate a family-intervention-style heart-to-heart with Africa's erstwhile father figure. It's not a bad idea. To head off a bitter and prolonged last stand, African leaders could mount a more serious mission -- perhaps led by Rwanda's Paul Kagame, who has offered some of the continent's strongest criticism of Qaddafi -- to let the colonel know it's time, at last, to fold up his tent.