The Butcher and the Surgeon

By Micah D. Halpern
Monday, March 12, 2012

They call Bashar al-Assad "son of the butcher," but he is merely a butcher twice removed. 

The original butcher of Syria was Abul Abbas al-Saffah, the last appellation meaning "shedder of blood."  In 750 C.E., al-Saffah marched into Damascus and overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate.  Concerned about a possible Umayyad resurgence, he invited the remaining family members to a conciliatory dinner and clubbed them to death before the first course.

A more recent Syrian butcher was Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, who massacred 20,000 to 30,000 people in Hama on a single evening in 1982, then killed the livestock.  Hafez intended his oldest son, Bassel—as murderous and conspiratorial as his father—as his successor.  But Bassel had a playboy side and died driving a Maserati at 150 miles per hour.  The Syrian leadership blamed the Mossad, and the mantle of successor was laid upon the thin shoulders of Hafez's next-oldest son, Bashar.  When Hafez died in July, 2000, Bashar was in London, enrolled in a post-doctoral program at the Western Eye Hospital.  He was—maybe still is—an ophthalmologist, an eye surgeon.  Ayman Zawaheri, head of al-Qaeda, is a pediatrician.  Adherence to the Hippocratic oath does not prevent one from being a thug.

When Bashar first became Syrian president, he was clearly uncomfortable holding the reins of power.  It was said that he ruled by the grace of his father's military.  In a contest measuring acts of brutality against the citizens of Syria, Bashar would not be in the same league as his father, let along his predecessor al-Saffah: Since the beginning of the uprising against Bashar 11 months ago, he has killed a mere 7,500 people.  But this is not a contest, and Bashar has the future of Syria—indeed, of the region and the Arab world—in his hands.

The 23 million Syrians are 75 percent Sunni.  The controlling minority, including the Assads, is Alawite.  A small number of Sunnis, including Bashar's wife, Asma, share the fruits of power.  In the Syrian uprising, it is virtually impossible to separate the quest for freedom from the settling of tribal and religious scores.  Not surprisingly, the rebellion is unevenly distributed.  Not everyone is on board the "oust Assad" train.

Only three Syrian cities—Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs—have over a million residents.  Aleppo and Damascus saw their first demonstrations only last month.  Aleppo has largely been calm and is thought to side with Assad.  Though Damascus has seen some rioting, it, like Aleppo, has been relatively quiet and seems generally pro-Assad.  Damascus has even seen pro-Assad demonstrations, bolstered by busloads of imported Lebanese.

In contrast, Homs and the smaller city of Hama comprise the uprising's ground zero.  These are the cities that have been targeted by Assad and his army and have borne the brunt of the regime's artillery.  Thus, there are two Syrias.  One is embroiled in struggle and conflict, the other lives life as if nothing has changed.  One is under threat of imminent death while the other lives in relative quiet.   

The fractured nature of the uprising is reflected in the fact that almost no organized leadership or resistance movement, military or non-military, has emerged inside Syria.  The various resistance groups are in conflict; none of them has anything like a political or military following.  Two of the three major groups have agreed not to attack Assad's army or official agencies.  The resistance has no training; and, unlike Libya's 140 tribes, which were well armed, the Syrian rebels have no weapons.  Every few weeks we get a report about a resistance attack, but these are public relations ploys, meant to help recruit members.  The resistance shows no sign of being able to oust Bashar by force, and he has no intention of bowing out voluntarily.

And why should he have any such intention?  Russia is deeply committed to keeping Assad in place.  The Russians have just finished building a Mediterranean naval port in the Syrian city of Tartus, where their only aircraft carrier is positioned.  Russia has just signed a multibillion-dollar deal to sell Syria 36 YAK-130 fighter jets.  In January, a Russian ship carrying 60 tons of weapons bound for Syria was intercepted by the government of Cyprus—a member of the European Union, which has imposed sanctions on Syria.  The ship was allowed to proceed when it changed its official destination to Turkey, but it sailed to Syria.  The Russians will pay no price for violating the sanctions; they will claim the ship was privately owned and had no link to the government.  The embargo is that easy to beat.  Russia will continue to block United Nations action against Assad.

Iran, meanwhile, has a destroyer and a supply ship that have recently passed through the Suez Canal and are now positioned outside Tartus.  The ships provide Assad with radar and satellite communications resources.  They have intimidated the rebels, blocked their transmissions, and prevented their coordination.  

As for those EU sanctions, there have been recent attempts to target them more directly against Syria's rulers; but the brunt is still borne primarily by the wrong constituency.  When the European Union embargoed heating oil, it was the people who went cold.  Assad and his cronies had Iran to keep them warm.

Jordan has started to build refugee camps along its Syrian border, expecting that more people will flee as conditions deteriorate.  Israel is preparing for a different population of Syrian refugees.  If Assad falls, his Alawite and Sunni cronies will run to the only place in which they know they will not be murdered—Israel.

But Assad's fall is not inevitable.  He is walking a tightrope, taking care not to sway the uncommitted to the rebels' side.  That explains why, unlike his father, he has restricted himself to killing mere tens and hundreds, not thousands, at a time.

Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria for 30 years; Bashar has already made it through his first decade.  He is an eye surgeon.  He may be professionally prepared for this delicate, deadly operation.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator and lecturer. He is the author of Thugs and maintains The Micah Report


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