If the news from Syria isn't about another massacre, it's about preparations for one. Bashar al-Assad's once iron rule of that country is being challenged, and the result is almost daily bloodshed, especially on Fridays, the Muslim sabbath, when the crowds go directly from mosque to demonstrations. Or to the funerals of those slain the day before, which have a way of turning into more protests and attracting more gunfire. The deadly cycle continues, and nobody knows where it will end. Especially the dictator, who grows more than usually desperate and therefore more than usually dangerous. Maybe he'll survive, maybe he won't. The only thing for sure is that a lot of Syrians won't. Not that its ruler cares about their fate, but only about how all the death and destruction might affect his own.
That's the Middle East.
Bashar al-Assad was supposed to be a milder ruler when he succeeded his father, but we all know how that turned out, and tends to turn out in the Middle East. Behind the face of every reformer, the same old power lust lurks, and tends to erupt when power, new or old, is challenged. As it is being challenged in today's Syria as the regime's once imposing structure develops surprising cracks.
Who would have thought all this possible only a year ago? As an old revolutionary named Trotsky once noted, revolution always appears impossible before it becomes inevitable.
Just ask Hosni Mubarak, who was once the most powerful man in populous Egypt, and is now on trial or in the hospital, maybe both. Pharaohs come and go in that ancient land, sometimes suddenly. And the revolutionaries may prove as pitiless as those they overthrow.
Hosni Mubarak seemed invincible before he became indictable. His fate must be constantly on the mind of his Syrian counterpart -- and on the minds of all the remaining strongmen of the Middle East, who aren't as strong as they once were. See what's happening in Bahrain and Yemen and could happen one day even in Saudi Arabia. Uneasy lies the head that wears the keffiyeh-and-agal. Every day brings news of another confrontation in Syria, of demonstrators being shot down or, these days, even shooting back. But the other day it wasn't Syrians who were doing the shooting but Israelis. This time a group of marchers were fired upon as they tried to cross the border into the Jewish state despite signs, barbed wire, tear gas and even warning shots.
Nothing availed. They kept coming, like lemmings bent on their own destruction.
In a culture that has made a fetish of martyrdom, maybe it was to be expected. An earlier suicide march a couple of weeks ago caught the Israelis off-guard. This time they were prepared. And when all else failed to stop this pitiful invasion, they opened fire. What a waste of young lives.
It didn't have to be this way. For decades, the frontier between Syria and Israel has been quiet, but what are another dozen casualties to Syria's dictator? By now his thugs -- excuse me, security forces -- must have killed more than a thousand protesters since the current wave of unrest in the Arab world began, proceeding across Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and now Syria. Sending busloads of pro-Palestinian demonstrators to march into Israeli territory, and become instant candidates for martyrdom, may have struck the powers that nervously be in Damascus as a smart move: The gory scene might deflect popular fury against Bashar al-Assad's regime, and turn the people's rage against the region's traditional scapegoat.
The tactic is so transparent it's not likely to work, but a desperate dictator will take desperate measures. See Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen . . . or any of the now weak strongman all across North Africa and the Middle East in this Arab Spring.
The protests in Syria may already be turning into an armed uprising a la Libya. Radio Damascus is reporting that 120 people have been killed in one restive district. Whether the dead were protesters, troops, police, army deserters, or just innocent bystanders this time isn't clear.
Few things are in Syria.
What's clear is that the regime there is promising retaliation. Are these the first sparks of still another civil war in the Arab world?
Already there are reports of military commanders going over to the other side, clans rising in revolt, and separate but equally well-armed militias fighting each other.
Such is the chaos of revolution; it's the unusual one that actually delivers the freedom it promises and produces stability instead of more chaos. Rare thing, the Spirit of '76. And rarest of all is a revolutionary generation like this country's Founding Fathers, though even that generation had its traitors (Benedict Arnold) and scoundrels (Aaron Burr).
Not for the first time the government that generation founded is debating whether to side with the tyrants or revolutionaries of the world -- or just continue to waver indecisively between them. As in Syria.
Once again American foreign policy needs some serious rethinking, even serious decision-making. And most of all, constancy of purpose. Which has been needed in the State Department ever since there's been a State Department. At its beginning, the great issue dividing Americans was what attitude to take toward the French Revolution. What's now required, as the Arab Spring spreads and the current of events grows turbulent, is a steady hand on the helm and a clear vision of what America should stand for in the world. For the moment there is no sign of either direction or vision, any more than anybody's seen George Washington of late.
This much is clear: Our policymakers, not for the first time, must think and act anew, and yet adhere to old principles. Like freedom. This land of the free and home of the brave needs to make it clear that Bashar al-Assad's cause is not ours. What's an American ambassador still doing in Damascus, lending an aura of respectability to that rotten regime?
Even if the family dynasty, corporation and racket that has long ruled Syria manages to survive this latest uprising, it already has lost what any government must have if it is to endure: a sense of legitimacy.
Bashar al-Assad's time in power may have begun to run out, unlikely as that would have seemed not so long ago. Even if he survives, the aura of unchallengeable power he has so carefully cultivated is shattered. And once that is gone, no tyrant can rest easy.
Whose side are we on? It's time to let the Syrians, and the whole Arab world, know. Only the incorrigibly naive, like whoever's making American policy in the Mideast these dithering days, if anyone is, might mistake the latest Assad for a reformer -- or keep courting him in hopes he'll change his spots. You'd have to be one of the "realists" in the State Department, or maybe a Middle East "expert" on some American campus, to buy that unrealistic line. Or try to sell it to the rest of us.