Two nations in the Middle East are spiraling away from the promise of an Arab Spring toward the nightmare of a deep, dark Arab winter.
The military in Egypt has struck back hard against the Muslim Brotherhood, killing more than 50 demonstrators in one incident and then over the weekend gunning down more than 80. Meanwhile, in Syria the government of Bashar al-Assad has apparently firmed up its hold on power while the opposition rebels are splintering among diverse groups, turning their guns on each other, with extreme Islamists becoming dominant.
The radicalization of the Arab Spring does not bode well for the evolution of democracy. In Syria what began as an uprising among moderate Syrians, mainly Sunnis left out by the Alawite (Shiite) regime of Assad, has hardened into a rebellion of extremists, some with al-Qaida connections, drawing jihadist fighters from around the region.
The decision by President Obama to arm the rebels is complicated when the rebels consist of jihadists who hate America. Obama knows that when the United States sent billions of dollars in arms to rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, we were unwittingly arming our future enemies.
Meanwhile, Assad determined early that brute force was the way to survive, and the rebellion in Syria has reached a stalemate. As they promote a negotiated resolution, diplomats have been saying that there can be no military solution to a civil war. Tell that to Assad. There was a military solution to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, though not a good one. There was a military solution to the American Civil War. That is the kind of solution Assad is seeking, and while it will not bring peace and happiness to his country, he may be able to maintain his hold on power, at least for the time being.
That may be the lesson that the military in Egypt has drawn. Much has been made of the fact that the struggles in the Middle East represent a multi-nation battle between Sunni and Shia factions, with Shia powers such as Iran lining up with Assad and Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar lining up with the Syrian rebels. But it appears that the iron fist is effective on both sides, with the Sunni power of the Egyptian military adopting the ruthless methods of the Shia regime in Syria.
The result could be the further radicalization of the opposition in both Egypt and Syria, which could spill over to the entire region. A crackdown by the Egyptian military on the Muslim Brotherhood will create a whole new generation of martyrs and a new underground of revolutionaries. It is a way for the military to keep control of its wealth and prerogatives for now. But it lights a long fuse connected to a huge powder keg.
This deterioration in both Syria and Egypt may give a boost to talks promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinians. It may be helpful for both sides to cement a stable relationship between them before chaos among their neighbors seeps across the border. The Palestinians will not benefit if jihadis in Syria or Egypt turn their attention to the Palestinian cause, and neither will Israelis. If they can work out their differences, Israel and Palestine could become an island of stability and prosperity between their troubled neighbors.
Wishful thinking that Assad would bow out as Mubarak had done appears not to be bearing fruit. Wishful thinking that the recent military coup in Egypt might launch a new era of democracy appears to be giving way to repression more severe than Egyptians have seen in a long time. These events are tragic for Syrians and Egyptians. American commentators have been hoping that the military commanders in Egypt understood that pluralism and democracy were the way to go. But so far that doesn’t seem to be the lesson they have learned from the last few years. The lesson they have learned seems to have been taught to them by Assad.
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