By Bernard Jenkins
There’s a scene in “Lawrence of Arabia”, where one of his Arab fighters gallops in from Damascus, the ultimate destination of Lawrence’s insurrection. The rider holds up a bunch of grapes he just picked in that ancient city. Lawrence pops a grape into his mouth and spits it right out. The rider laughs: “They are not ripe!!”
Ninety-three years since Lawrence of Arabia’s Arab Revolt, 41 years since über strongman Hafez el-Assad put the iron-fisted chokehold on Syria and 3 months since the Tunisian policewoman knocked over that young man’s fruit stand in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, the grapes of popular wrath in the Middle East and even now in Damascus are just about ripe!
Ever since Freedom’s Caravan began traversing the Middle East in mid-January, President Bashar al-Assad, son and successor to the crafty and hard-hearted Hafez, and his thuggish regime, have been pretending that Syria was invisible, holding their breath and hoping that Freedom’s Caravan would simply pass them by on the way to somewhere else.
However, it is the nature of thugocracies and crypto-fascist dictatorships, that they cannot resist their inner devil-urge to thump, jail, torture and kill any of their citizens who dare to open their mouths and challenge their power.
Thirty years ago Hafez al-Assad destroyed the entire city of Hama in order to snuff out dissent. But that was before Facebook, Twitter and e-mail. He could never get away with that today.
Last week, when democracy demonstrations finally broke out all over Syria, the regime’s gunmen killed 2 protesters in Dara’a (coincidentally the same Syrian city where Lawrence was captured by the Turks and tortured during the days of the Arab Revolt). When 2 dead did not discourage the demonstrators but rallied them, the ruthless al-Assad regime tripled down on that bet and killed 6 more demonstrators two days later.
When that failed to do the trick, Bashar, a somewhat civilized eye doctor in London before he became dictator of Damascus, tried bribery instead of bloodshed. Promising a few extra bucks to government workers and some modest police state "reforms" only gave the impression that the ruthless regime had blinked. To counter any notion they were sissies, the government came out shooting when 50,000 citizens rallied around the country after Friday prayers, killing 34 more peaceful demonstrators and leaving the goonish and tone deaf government in worldwide bad odor and even more wobbly on its pins.
However, the sudden and unexpected emergence of the Damascus dictatorship as ripe fruit ready for picking in this season of democracy, adds some new dimensions and complications to the question: what if...?
Syria has no oil to speak of, but the brutal and wily 40-year-long al-Assad family regime has always had the knack of punching well-above its weight class and causing trouble with a capital T for the Middle East and the West.
It has been the best Arab buddy of the mad Mullahs of Iran since the early days of the Khomeini Revolution. Hafez al-Assad sided with Iran against that other Middle Eastern nutbag Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. In the endless Israeli-Palestinian peace-is-war-war-is-peace process Syria has been the foremost obstructionist and backstage nuisance-maker. "Let's you and him fight!" has been the Syrian government's constant refrain since the Israeli Army ran the Syrians off the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War. One way or another Syria has dominated and dictated to next door neighbor Lebanon forever. And along with Iran, Syria is the enabler and weapons supplier for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
In the Syrian thugocracy/kleptocracy's desperate attempt to hang on to power despite its crumbling legitimacy in the eyes of its own people (and everyone else) and as the bodies of peaceful protesters pile up in the morgues, it would come as no surprise to see the government's dark operators drag all these until now irrelevant or at least silent elements smack into the oncoming path of Freedom's Caravan in an effort to distract and detour, if not destroy the hope and promise the force of freedom is instilling all along its winding, but difficult route across the Middle East.
Some folks on the caravan's path and others standing along the sidelines rubber-necking might actually welcome such obstructions by the Syrians. The status quo is an addictive drug to too many of globalization's criminal enterprises. The change they can believe in is no change!
The muezzin's call to prayer 5 times a day across the Middle East has not changed in 13 centuries. But since January, by Twitter, Facebook, email and face-to-face, the call to protest, participate and demonstrate is sounding loudly and bringing changes.
For decades in the region's police states, thugocracies and repressive fake monarchies, the people have feared their governments. Suddenly, as Freedom's Caravan moves from dune to dune, that is changing. These cruel and criminal governments are beginning to fear their people.
From Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen to Bahrain to Jordan and now to Syria tyrants have been toppled or are trembling uncertainly on their golden toilet seats behind their fortress walls.
At the moment, part of the Caravan seems stuck in the quicksand of Col. Crazy's Libya. To look like they're supporting democratic change, Napoleon Sarkozy, Prime Minister What'sHisName of Britain and our own apostle of the status quo, Barack Obama, have decided to go after the low-hanging fruit that cartoon villain represents. It is still to be determined if their rather muddled military efforts will be anything other than a fruitless "show" of force.
But when, not if, the Damascus domino falls, it will surely provide a powerful incentive to press forward toward the ultimate destination - a new and politically liberated Middle East.
The hope and promise of Freedom's Caravan is that democracy is just over the next dune, not a mirage. And that road to democracy inevitably runs through Damascus. But also just over the next dune lie Iran and Saudi Arabia. This Arab Revolt could get even more seriously serious...