Austin Bay
Two of the oldest tricks in the Middle Eastern dictator's grab-bag of deceit and thuggery have failed Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

In early June, Assad's regime played the Israel card. Assad's gangsters connived to attack Israel, using a crowd of Palestinian activists instead of a tank army. An unarmed human wave of Arab protestors approached the border wire. Israeli border troops drove them off. It was a made-for-television piece of propaganda intended to inflame nationalist and sectarian passions. The Assad gang then spewed the usual anti-Israeli bile.

When Middle Eastern dictators confront domestic problems, as Assad's regime certainly does, blaming Israel is a classic diversionary gimmick. Alas, Syria's internal dissidents, Assad's real worry, remained defiant.

Last week, Assad's gang launched mob attacks on the American and French embassies in Damascus. Attacking American embassies is another classic diversionary technique. Blaring denunciations of U.S. imperialism, cowboy militarism and other recycled Nazi World War II and communist Cold War propaganda accusations always accompany these embassy assaults. The goal is to incite nationalist hatred for a foreign devil -- an "us against them" ploy. These manufactured passions are supposed to suck the inflammatory oxygen from the legitimate anti-regime grievances stirred by domestic dissidents.

The old diversions aren't working, however -- not in 2011.

That they have failed is indicative of the broad depth of Syria's slow-motion revolt.

Syria's Arab Spring turbulence is following a very different route from that of Tunisia and Egypt. The Syrian security forces, their officer corps stacked with Alawites (Assad's religious group), are tightly controlled by the regime. The Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have broader nationalist origins.

If propaganda diversions and secret police subversion don't undermine a revolt, clubs, rifles and tanks can suppress it. Though bloodletting in the streets doesn't play too well on international television, at the moment Assad is more concerned with his neck than his image.

Since March, Syrian security forces have slain some 1,500 dissidents. The regime kills in drips and drabs, dozens not thousands at a time. This calculated pace is reminiscent of the creeping war of ethnic cleansing waged by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian outlaws in Bosnia in 1991. Milosevic would attack, then stop, and feign negotiation.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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