Why Are We Taking Syria Seriously?

I can say, without much fear of contradiction, that Bashar al-Assad is a punk.  Back in the day, Sinatra could have taken the guy!  Yet, here we are, eighteen months into the Arab Spring, and he’s still kicking around.  Muammar’s gone; Hosni’s on his last legs; and both of those boys ate ruthless for breakfast.  Yet there’s old Bashar, still bashing away at the opposition as if he didn’t have a care in the world.  He looks like Monty Python’s idea of an accountant, for God’s sake!  And he didn’t even seize power like a proper tyrant; he inherited it from his dad!  Just like you and I got the gold watch and the antique power tools.  So why is he getting treated like the bogeyman he never was?

The problem is everybody’s taking Syria seriously.  We’re all acting as if Bashar dines at the Head Table.  He doesn’t!  In any place other than Damascus, the waiters are shouting, “Ba’ath, Party of none.”  (In case you’re keeping score, Assad’s Syrian Ba’ath Party is the last fragment of a crowd of regional secularists, whose only other claim to fame was Saddam Hussein.)  The country might be strategically placed in the Middle East and have a few powerful friends, but that’s about it.  Syria hasn’t been a player on the world stage since right around the time Nero was getting his first violin lesson.  So let’s just put things into perspective, historically speaking, shall we?  This is the decaffeinated version, but it’s close enough for our purposes.

Syria sits on a multitude of ancient civilizations.  Humans have thrived there since before we quit hunting and gathering and started planting cash crops.  The brag is Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.  It’s easy to believe, since Syria sits on the crossroads of the old land routes from Egypt and Africa to Europe and the Far East.  Two millennia ago, it was so important that Rome sent Pompey the Great to conquer it, which he did in the 1st century BCE.  At one time, Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, right behind Alexandria and Rome itself.  In the 3rd century AD, there were two (and perhaps even three) Roman Emperors born in Syria.

However, on the “What have you been doing lately?” front, when the Roman Empire collapsed so did the fortunes of Syria.  Across the next two thousand years, the local environs were a battleground for any itinerant thug with an army.  For one brief, shining moment after the Moslem conquest, Damascus flourished again, but that came to a screaming halt on a sunny day in 1260 when a horde of Mongols showed up and put the boots to the whole area.  (Mongol devastation was so complete that it wasn’t until the early 20th century that Syria regained its pre-Mongol population.)  After another couple of centuries of chaos, the Ottomans came calling, around 1510.  However, by then, the trade route from Europe to the East had shifted to the sea.  Syria became a backwater, where it languished for 400 years.

In the early 20th century, the Ottomans were falling apart at the seams.  To complete the decline and fall, they allied themselves with Germany in World War I.  Syria was once again conquered by a marauding adventurer – this time, Lawrence of Arabia.  After the Ottoman surrender, the entire Middle East was chopped into bite size by British and French colonial bureaucrats, and Syria was given to France.  One World War later, the French went home; Syria was on its own for the first time since 64 BCE.  Not surprisingly, they weren’t very good at governing themselves: for the next twenty-five years, they pretty much played presidential musical chairs.  In 1970, Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s daddy) said, “To hell with this noise!” and took control of the country — permanently.  He died in 2000, and here we are.

History shows us that Syria has always been easy pickings for anybody with a sword and an attitude but the plain truth is that, for the last forty years, it’s been punching way above its weight class.  Syria’s powerful “friends” have been using it as a surrogate; first Nasser and his Pan Egyptian nonsense, then the Soviets and now the Iranians and their minions.  Separated from its benefactors, Syria has neither the economic nor military heft to be anything more than a pain in the ass – even regionally.  I don’t know how we forgot that Bashar and his cohorts are nothing more than street corner gangsters, but we better remember that soon.  The guy’s a punk and he’s capable of anything he can get away with.  That makes him dangerous.

 Last Week’s Puzzle Answers

Here are the answers to last week’s puzzle.  I’ve left a space after the first two in case you want to go back and try your luck again

24 H in a D
24 hours in a day

90 D in a R A
90 degrees in a right angle





Zero A in a F H
Zero atheists in a fox hole
There are 2 S to every A
There are 2 sides to every argument

6 S. on a S S
6 sides on a Stop Sign

3 S and you’re O
3 strikes and you’re out

There are 8 N in an O
There are 8 notes in an octave

8 P in the S.S. plus P
8 planets in the Solar System plus Pluto

1 P is worth 1,000 W
1 picture is worth 1,000 words
7 W of the A W
7 Wonders of the Ancient World

1 W on a U
1 wheel on a unicycle

64 S on a C B
64 squares on a chess board

20,000 L under the S
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

G and the 3 B
Goldilocks and the 3 Bears

1 is the L N
1 is the loneliest number

12 L of H
12 Labours of Hercules

28 D in F except in a L Y
28 days in February except in a Leap Year

Every C has 9 L
Every cat has 9 lives

12 D of C
12 days of Christmas

4 S in a S D of C
4 suit in a standard deck of cards

2 is C; 3 is a C
2 is company; 3 is a crowd

76 T led the B P
76 Trombones led the Big Parade

12 M in a Y
12 months in a year

K 2 B with 1 S
Kill 2 birds with 1 stone

13 in a B D
13 in a Baker’s Dozen

3 B M
3 blind mice

1001 A N
1001 Arabian Nights

4 H of the A
4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse

3 P in a H G
3 periods in a hockey game

40 D of R in the G F
40 days of rain in the Great Flood

4 Q in a D
4 quarters in a dollar

6 P on a S F
6 points on a snow flake

12 S of the Z
12 signs of the Zodiac

S W and the 7 D
Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs

Syria: You Can Pick Your Friends, But …

I think if I were a Syrian, I’d be looking around for some new friends.  This current crowd just isn’t measuring up in the amigo department.  After all, if your BFF is Iran, it doesn’t take a PHD in WTF to figure out you’re in trouble.  Meanwhile, when two superpowers (one past, one future) are playing nice with you and nasty with the UN, I’d be counting the silverware.  No accusations, but the last time the Russians went all warm and fuzzy in the Middle East, Gamal Nasser was building the Aswan dam.  And China’s newfound foreign muscle needs no introduction.  Something’s rotten in Damascus.  I’m not sure what it is, but I’ll bet Syrian pounds to a pile of camel poop it’s not going to go well for the average guy on that Arab street.

Despite what most second tier Western diplomats will tell you, Syria is not on the top of anybody’s talking list right now.  Even the big boys at the Tunis conference over the weekend didn’t have much to say.  Of course, they made all the right noises: condemning the killing, promising aid and other such vagueries, but I imagine the afterhours parties were long on nuclear Iran and short on dead dissidents.  It’s not that Syria isn’t sexy; what’s not to like about democracy going toe to toe with a ruthless dictator?  Besides, it might only be Homs, but even the French have heard of the Alamo.  The problem is deeper than that.

Just a little background.  Less than a year ago, Sarkozy and his buddies couldn’t gas up the F-18s fast enough to go and knock the snot out of Muammar Gaddafi.  They put on a textbook (limited) military campaign that surprised everybody, including me and Muammar.  Now, another flowering of Arab Spring is raising its lovely head north of Damascus, but the day before yesterday, those same eager beavers, forgot where they put the launch keys.  What gives?  I’ll grant you, some of the hurtin’ they put on Gaddafi was payback for being a forty-year-on pain in the ass, but, in general, Western motivations in Libya were honest.  Yeah, yeah, yeah; “Blood for Oil.”  But I’ll let you in on a little secret: that Mad Men slogan is just another clever way to sell bumper stickers.  I’m not naive enough to think Libyan oil wasn’t an issue, but for all those who still believe in Santa Claus and the Great Satan, they both get their oil from Canada and the Saudis.  The difference is Muammar didn’t have any friends left at the end, whereas Basher al-Assad still does — and they’re walking with a swagger these days.

Remember when you where in high school and there was that nasty kid most people avoided?   The one who thought it was funny to hold the washroom door closed or spray Coke™ on the back of your head?  The guy whose face still says, “Oh, yeah!  Him.” in the Yearbook.  Then there were those rowdy kids who had their lockers at the end of the hall, the ones the Glee Club and the cheerleader crowd stayed away from.  They weren’t really hardcore but nobody messed with them ‘cause they had a bad reputation, kinda like Kenickie and Rizzo from Grease.  Well, if the world were just a great big high school (and I’m not saying it isn’t) Syria is that nasty kid.   But instead of being a jerk all by himself, he decided to suck up to the rough bunch down the hall.  He doesn’t really belong to that group, but they don’t mind him hanging around.  In a nutshell, Syria thinks it can get away with all kinds of idiot antics because it has some tough friends.

Unfortunately, Bashar and his crew have forgotten the one essential element of friendship in the world of international relations: what do you bring to the table?  It’s obvious.  They don’t bring a lot.  In the great scheme of things, Syria is pretty much a backwater and has been — ever since the Mongols burned it down in the 13th century.  Its only claim to fame is the mess they’ve made of Lebanon and the always ill-tempered Hezbollah, both of whom are putting some distance between themselves and Damascus.  Right now, China and Russia don’t mind that Syria is a thorn in the foot of the Western world.  It suits them.  However, that’s going to change.  Eventually, Bashar’s going to be more trouble than he’s worth.  When that happens, Syria will have even less to offer a burgeoning Asian Superpower, and I doubt very much that Vladimir Putin ever got any awards for being a nice guy.  Bashar’s cling to power has a limited shelf life.  Regardless of who he thinks his friends are, he’s not going to last anywhere near the Presidential term yesterday’s farce referendum gave him.  When the proverbial ship hits the sand even his best buddy, Ahmadinejad, who has a few problems of his own, is going to make himself scarce.

The problem is, it isn’t Bashar who’s going to pay the price.  (Although a show trail a la Hosni Mubarak would be nice.)  It’ll be the ordinary Syrian, who doesn’t really know who his friends are anymore.

Muammar Gaddafi: Dead and (soon to be) Gone

For the next couple of days, expect the 48-hour news cycle to spin the life and times of Muammar Gaddafi every which way but loose.  Most of them will start off in a Bedouin tent in 1942 and end up somewhere in the desert between ruthless and brutal.  It will be a journalistic tour de force on how many times they can say “evil” without actually saying it or repeating themselves.  However, assuming (for argument’s sake) that there is an afterlife for such people, does Gaddafi get to sit at the head table?  It’s hard to know, but personally I don’t think so.

It’s true, Gaddafi wasn’t the guy you’d ask to pick up your kids after school while you go to the dentist, but in actual fact, as evildoers go, he wasn’t exactly Top of the Pops.  Basically, he was just a pain in the ass.  He spent most of his dictatorship spouting off and doing stupid stuff like funding every European terrorist who showed up with a sob story.  Every once in a while, he’d push the envelope a little too much and stick his nose into the terrorist business for real.  In 1986, he did it once too often and Ronnie Reagan launched his F111s and slapped the snot out of him.  After that he calmed down considerably until Reagan left the White House.  In 1988, he tried it again with the Lockerbie bombing, and when nothing happened, he got his groove back.  Then in 2003, when George W. told the 7th Cavalry to set their GPS for Baghdad, he finally saw the writing on the wall, got out of the nuisance business real fast and became downright cordial.  Just ask Tony Blair.

Of course, I don’t know much about his internal nastiness.  Like most people, I’m taking it on faith that he was indeed brutal and ruthless.  After all, the deserts of Libya are huge, and if somebody’s screaming in the back of beyond, it won’t necessarily get reported in the New York Times.  Besides, when you’re a dictator sitting on an enormous pool of oil, international criticism is usually limited to what kind of funny clothes you wore to the UN Afterparty.  Oil has a way of sliding the moral scale.  I’m sure Gaddafi was a bad man to cross, though.  It’s no coincidence that, in forty years, the opposition to his rule amounted to nobody.  Even Libyan expatriates were scared skinny of the guy, mainly because he tended to shoot at them whenever he got the opportunity.  In 1984, his “revolutionary committees” took a few potshots at local demonstrators in front of the London embassy, and a police constable, Yvonne Fletcher, was killed.  Yet, to be fair, I imagine Caligula killed more people while Agrippina the Younger was heating up the pasta than Gaddafi ever thought of murdering.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to let Gaddafi off the hook.  The fact remains that he was a cruel tyrant who repressed the soul of his people for forty plus years.  His rule resulted in numerous deaths and wanton destruction — both in Libya and around the world.  He ruined the lives of thousands of people without a moment’s regret, and despite the millions paid in compensation with no evidence of remorse.

However, as we figuratively and literally drag him through the gutter, let’s remember he’s just the flavour of the week.  He’s the name we know: the one who’s on the front page.  There have been plenty more where he came from.  Some of us are old enough to remember Ceausescu’s handiwork in Romania or Erich Honecker in the GDR.  Even as we speak, there are rulers in this world who could have taught Gaddafi lessons in Repression.  We may have heard of Kim Jong-il but do we even know the names of the rulers of Myanmar?  Or Turkmenistan?  And then there’s good old what’s-his-name in Damascus who’s been shooting dissidents as if there’s a bounty on them (and I’m not even sure that there isn’t one.)

In the great scheme of things, Muammar Gaddafi was nothing special.  Without oil, he was nothing more than a petty dictator with an odd taste in clothes and a big hat.  Let’s not waste too much time nor too many superlatives on the guy.  I’ll venture to guess that in less than a decade he’ll be swallowed up by the sands of Libya and very few of us will even remember his name.