When, in March 2008, the Libyan leader, Muammar Qadhafi warned the Arab leaders that their “turn was coming”, they laughed. It was one of many habitual outbursts of an eccentric, uninhibited Arab head of state, many at the time believed.
The occasion was an Arab summit hosted by Syria, with President Bashar Assad presiding. At some point while delivering his statement, Qadhafi turned to Iraq, reprimanding the assembled Arab heads of state for acquiescing to the US-led invasion of Iraq.
“A foreign power occupies an Arab country and hangs its leader while we all stand watching and laughing,” Qadhafi roared.
“Your turn is coming soon”, he warned.
Every one present, including the Syrian chairman, broke into laughter at the supposedly outlandish quip. And there was more laughter when clearly undeterred Qadhafi went on to say: “Even you, the friends of America. No, I will say we — we, the friends of America. America might approve of our hanging one day.”
That might have sounded somewhat insane at the time, but not really anymore. In the course of the year-old Arab Spring, the prophecy turned credible. Qadhafi’s Libya was bombed by almost the same powers that had earlier invaded and occupied Iraq, and Libya’s leader was brutally killed, certainly with the anticipated American approval. In the course of the same year, three other Arab leaders have surrendered to the overwhelming power of their people, agreeing to step down and thus sparing themselves the inevitable fate of Saddam and Qadhafi. That also happened with the “American approval” that Qadhafi had cautioned his fellow leaders against three years earlier.
This minor episode is not meant to deny the reality of Qadhafi’s weird behaviour or to suggest that the revolution currently sweeping across the Arab world is a fulfilment of a Qadhafi prophecy. Probably it could help reflect the depth of political stagnation and detachment in which the Arab leaders have for long been sinking.
Struck right in their faces with the harsh reality of their publics determined to end tyranny and subjugation, some of the remaining leaders are trying to adapt. Others continue to sink in thoughtless denial and utter blindness.
It is on the basis of such logic that one would ask if it would be fair to assume that Assad’s “turn is coming soon”, as he is the one who continues to deny the reality and defy the raging dynamics of change.
Apparently Assad and the narrow circle of cronies at home, in addition, of course, to significant regional allies, still believe, totally mindless of the price, that the uprising can be crushed and calm can be restored. They seem to have fallen victim to their own propaganda that it all is a foreign conspiracy and that those who challenged the Assad regime are alien armed groups serving hostile elements.
This persistent official narrative is not showing any sign of wear and tear. This is the utter folly and the precise recipe for precipitating all the alarming consequences the apologists of the regime are desperately trying to avoid.
There is no question that Assad’s Syria has enemies, that many outer powers and factions were waiting for the opportunity of Assad’s quandary and therefore jumped on the prospect, and that there are many tarnished opportunists who slipped under the loose mantle of a jumbled opposition, and yet all that together is far from convincing that the retaining of an open-ended, ruthless and corrupt family dictatorship is the only solution.
Equally questionable are some of the circulating arguments in support of Assad’s regime continuity. One is the importance of Syrian stability for the stability of the larger region and the immediate Syrian neighbours in particular, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Another is the uncertainty of what may follow a disorderly collapse of the Damascus political setup: civil war, chaos, mutilation of the country, humanitarian disasters, with possible consequences of wider trouble and even wars.
A third argument is the fear of replacing a bad dictatorship with what could turn out to be worse. Yet none of the aforementioned arguments constitutes adequate defence for a regime that has lost legitimacy, if it was legitimate to start with. The Baath rule in Syria has always been wrong and disconnected.
Syria is indeed an important part of the region, vital to regional stability, and its great people could contribute immensely to the welfare and well-being of the Arab world and its wider surroundings. And Syria should not be reduced to Assad. The country is one thing and the current ruling dictatorship is another.
Syria is permanent, while an illegitimate passing regime is another thing.
It is time that we all realise that Syria, the eminent Arab state, and the great Syrian people should not only be seen from the very narrow angle of the Assad family. The regime could collapse while Syria would stay stronger and healthier. Otherwise should we believe that the only alternative for keeping the region together is by preserving Assad rule forever?
And if after four full decades of one-party and one-clan rule that has left the resourceful country and its people backward, impoverished and deeply demoralised, Syria remains so vital to regional peace and stability, would it really be hard to imagine how much more significant the role this country could be if it were a developed, functioning democracy, with compact political and social institutions, with proper governance and with the potential of the dynamic Syrian people freed from suppression and tyranny?
The time-consuming Arab League plan for resolving the Syrian regime crisis had finally been signed, but after allowing Damascus to empty the initiative, already outdated, of any meaningful content. It may, however, prolong the agony and cost more blood. It is very unlikely that it will end the crisis and save the regime.