Allegations that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons to kill scores of Syrians in a Damascus suburb tell us that the cycle of violence in the Middle East has entered a tragic downward spiral.
It’s hard not to see a connection between the hard-line approach of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the counterrevolution mounted by the military in Egypt. One regime is dominated by Shia Muslims and the other by Sunnis, but that distinction is insignificant next to the common ground on which both regimes find themselves standing. It is the common ground of repression.
Assad learned a lesson from the other regimes experiencing the uprising known as the Arab Spring. He saw the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt lose their nerve and their legitimacy when challenged by huge crowds and the demand for freedom. He saw Muammar Gaddafi thrown from power and killed in Libya. He concluded that if he did not lose his nerve he could answer the uprising with violence. Legitimacy would come at the barrel of a gun.
It is clear the Egyptian military had little patience with the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader, Muhammad Morsi, was the elected president. The economy was deteriorating and, with it, the stability that the military depended on to reap the riches flowing from their privileged place in Egyptian society. The Muslim Brotherhood had alienated large segments of Egyptian society because of its fundamentalist Islamic agenda, and so when the military ousted him, it had significant support, even from liberals opposed to military rule.
Hopes that the military intended swiftly to usher in a new era of constitutional liberal democracy were dashed with the massacre of more than a thousand people on the streets of Cairo. Soon Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, were in jail or in detention or missing. To top it off, an Egyptian court appears ready to release the ousted former president, Hosni Mubarak. The military will not restore him to power, but it appears they are ready to reconstitute his brand of brutal military rule.
In Syria, Assad will have noticed that for all the hand-wringing under way in Washington and other Western capitals, the Egyptians have more or less had a free hand to do as they like. Earlier threats from the Obama administration to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons — those warnings issued by President Obama about the “red line” — had come to nothing following an earlier incident. The conclusion reached by Assad and General el-Sisi in Egypt: It is the day of the dictator in the Middle East.
The people of the region are suffering the tragic consequences of their history. Neither the United States nor any other power could relieve them of the burden of their history. None of these occurrences was inevitable; history does not unfold according to immutable laws, and people are not helpless. But it happens from time to time that the forces within a society are arrayed in such a way that catastrophe seems inevitable. Morsi and the Brotherhood did not have to govern as they did. El-Sisi and his fellow officers did not have to respond with the degree of ruthlessness that they have employed. The past is littered with the shattering experiences of people who pay the price for the mistakes of their intransigent leaders: the secessionists of the American South, the Nazis of Germany, the genocidaires of Rwanda and Serbia.
It is past time for the Obama administration to demur about the demands of the so-called Leahy Law, which requires the United States to withhold aid from countries where a military coup has ousted a democratic regime. Egypt has experienced a military coup. As for Syria, the use of poison gas — if it proves to be true, and there is little reason to believe it is not — puts Assad in the company of figures like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. He is a pariah or ought to be treated as such. What the United States can do in the case of the Syrian civil war is unclear, but Obama was right. A red line has been crossed.
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