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.

Barack Obama: Partying like it’s 1967

I’ve never seen the movie Dumb and Dumber; I don’t have to.  All I have to do is sit back and watch President Barack Obama and the US State Department stumble around, stomping on the flowers of the Arab Spring, and I’ve pretty well got the storyline.  These guys make the Keystone Kops look like Sherlock Holmes.  Obama’s most recent foray beyond the Beltway, on May 19th, was one of the oddest speeches I’ve ever heard.  Apparently, it was a major policy statement.  Who knew?  From my point of view, Barack Obama’s Middle East policy sounds, looks and acts like a 2011 cut rate rerun of the much despised Bush Doctrine.  To be sure, Obama stuck to his guns and threw in a lot of rhetoric about change, but that was probably just force of habit.  After all, he’s been yipping about change for nearly four years now — without very much of it actually happening.

Anyway, according to Obama, the way America will effect change in the Middle East is by throwing a couple of billion dollars at the Egyptians, starting a civil war in Libya and ignoring Tunisia and Yemen altogether.  Furthermore, if Bashar al-Assad in Syria doesn’t quit shooting people in the streets America is going to get really, really angry.  And, if Ahmadinejad in Iran continues his reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons, Barack will personally denounce him and call on the world to apply more sanctions, more often.  None of this is new or even news.

After that, the speech was padded out with some fancy footwork, dancing around the situation in Bahrain, where, it seems, there are several different ways to ruthlessly suppress political opposition — and America recognizes all of them.  There were some further admonishments of Iran – like Ali Khamenei cares what Obama thinks – and a friendly wave to the women in the crowd.  However, absolutely glaring by its absence from the Obama Doctrine was any mention of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  To be fair, Pakistan is not technically in the Middle East, and perhaps Obama will get around to them later, but Saudi Arabia is smack dab in the middle.  In fact, its importance in the area is what most presidents have called “paramount.”  Talking about the Middle East without talking about Saudi Arabia is like singing the Old Macdonald song without any of the animals: it doesn’t make any sense.  I hate to resort to rhetorical questions but: Is the Kingdom so perfect as to resist the forces of change and self-determination Obama’s talking about?  Or did they just get lost in the desert?   Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind the realpolitik that says leave the Saudis alone; I just distrust the motivation.  After all, those are Saudi troops in Bahrain.

Of course, Obama saved the best for last – Israel — and the guy was on a roll.  He started off by saying “the status quo is unsustainable” then went on to say “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines…”  I’m not even going to grace this with an argument.  Obviously, the people in the State Department have never seen a map of the Middle East.  Israel’s pre-1967 borders were indefensible; that’s why they had a war!  Granted, it only lasted six days, but it was pretty memorable.  Who, in their right mind, would think those same borders could be defended any better in 2011?  Wild guess?  Nobody!

The world has changed since 1967.  For example, back then, Elvis was a newlywed, Che Guevara was still alive and a guy by the name of John McCain had just got himself shot down over North Vietnam and was checking in for an extended stay at the Hanoi Hilton.  We were watching Get Smart, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island on TV and Aretha Franklin was about to record “Respect” – the first time.  Personal computers were unheard of, phones were attached to the wall and most cars got three miles to the gallon.  Hell, we didn’t even have the metric system!  If “the status quo is unsustainable,” how does turning the clock back 44 years help the situation any?

The problem is that it’s not Obama’s fault.  He doesn’t know anything about foreign relations.  Niall Ferguson, a well known British historian, has said — on more than one occasion — that the guy’s clueless.  He’s depending on the State Department to treat him right; this is where you get the dumber part of the equation.  The US State Department has never been the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and recently they’ve been spending most of their time unplugged.  This latest adventure in the world of the unknown is just a continuation of the stumble/fumble in the Middle East that started last December.  For example, now that the Egyptians are going to try Mubarak for murder, do you think Gaddafi’s is going to go quietly?  Sometimes I think Hillary’s recruiting her researchers and diplomats at WalMart.

Luckily, Hezbollah and Hamas are still going way too fast on the Crazy Train to let the Palestinians take advantage of the situation.  Nothing is going to happen
for a while, and by that time maybe the American people will quit relying on Hope and Change and take a look around them.  Me?  I’m going to give up
downloading movies and just watch CNN for laughs.