Paul Greenberg

There are various responses dictators are sure to make as their subjects grow restive and their rule is challenged.

The first is to close the borders. Keep people from fleeing. Under the right circumstances, like ruling an island, it can work. See the way the brothers Castro have held Cubans prisoner for half a century and more now. Though many still manage to get away. Florida didn't acquire its thriving Cuban community by chance but by design, that of the Communist dictatorship 90 miles off its coast.

The Soviets (remember them?) had to erect walls, put up barbed wire, even shoot subjects who tried to flee, but in the end could not hold them, or even hold their own regime together. Such is the power and attraction of freedom. However long a slave empire may last, eventually the thaw will come, and with it a glimpse of liberation. Stalin did prove mortal.

Sure enough, Syria's latest Assad has tried to bottle up his people, too, but they still try to escape. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the fighting in their country, which grows ever fiercer, and are camped out all across the Middle East -- in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. That's right: war-torn Iraq.

Imagine the desperation of people who see Iraq as a haven. One needn't imagine. North Korea's desperate slaves will try to make it out of that labor camp of a country even if they have to cross the Yalu and take sanctuary in ... Communist China. It turns out there are tyrannies and there are tyrannies, and some are so bad that others look good in comparison.

The estimated 400,000 Syrians who've managed to escape their mangled country may be in desperate straits in refugee camps, but at least they're not among the 40,000 or so dead in Syria's ever escalating civil war.

The other response of tyrants at bay is to start a foreign war. What better way to unite a fractured country than by giving it a common enemy? Hitler tried it in 1939, invading Poland with his Soviet partner after Neville Chamberlain and company had run out of lands to appease him with. Then, as if one war weren't enough, the German fuehrer made the fatal error of European despots since Napoleon's time: He invaded Russia, too, and took on not only another tyranny but General Winter.

It was only a matter of time before Bashar al-Assad, running out of options to save his misrule in Syria, would try a foreign war, maybe two. He's been provoking the Turks for some time now. Then, just the other day, he provoked return fire from Israeli tanks in the Golan Heights. What better distraction than a war against the Middle East's odd man out, the only democracy in a wasteland of authoritarian rulers?

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.