Modern Syria has been a champion of the sloganeering “Arabism” at which the Arab League was so adept. This was the Arabism that backed the military dictatorships that bludgeoned unwieldy nations into place and denounced Israel’s failure to resolve the Palestinian issue, even as the Arab League states themselves gave miserable, second-class status to the Palestinian refugees within their borders.
It’s not that the Israeli policies were justified but that the Arab League members were hypocrites.
The Assad regime in Syria has lived by this code of Arab nationalism — or, at least, by the cover that it provided for maintaining power by a corrupt and feeble Baath Party. An air force general named Hafez al-Assad had gained power in a coup in 1970 by brandishing his Arab credentials; they helped shield the fact that he, like many military officers, was from the Alawite minority that was strong in the armed forces and disliked by the Sunni majority.
President Hafez Assad marched his troops into Lebanon in 1976 to defuse the Lebanese civil war, in what was called the “Arab Deterrent Force” and sanctioned by the Arab League. It’s useful, in understanding the minority politics of the region, to remember that the practical effect of this Syrian intervention was to rescue the Maronite Christians, who were fighting the Palestinians and an alliance of Sunni Muslims and Druze.
Once the Syrians arrived in Lebanon, they stayed to feast on its spoils — until they were driven out by popular demand after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, a crime for which the Syrians were initially blamed but that a U.N. investigator now says was the work of Hezbollah. Looking back, you could argue that the “March 14 movement” that expelled the Syrians six years ago was the start of what we now call the Arab Spring.
How ironic that the Syrians, who for decades refused to demarcate their border with Lebanon (arguing that it was really part of “Greater Syria”) are now mining that same border. To quote the un-Arab but still apposite Sir Walter Scott, “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
Bashar al-Assad has never been as adept at operating in the Arab League’s hall of mirrors as was his father. Perhaps he lacks the talent for giving the big, empty speeches that were a specialty of such gatherings. He has also proved to be a man who starts things he can’t finish — reform of the Baath Party, constitutional change — which is a mistake his father never would have committed. Hafez was secretly admired by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and even by the Israelis — because if he made a promise, he kept it.
Bashar has been the opposite. He promised reform to an Arab League mediation committee that was dispatched last month — in what could have been a lifeline for his regime. But despite the pledges (similar to the ones he has been making since February), his troops kept on killing Syrian protesters—showing either that Bashar was lying or that he can’t control the army. Not good for Bashar either way.
Over the weekend, the Arab League suspended the Syrian regime’s membership and called for meetings with the Syrian opposition to plan “a unified view of the coming transition.” True to form, the Syrian president responded by calling for an emergency meeting of the Arab League — and suggested, bizarrely, that the effort was all part of a foreign plot to invade Syria.
It was a classic Arab League move: Hide from your people and blame your troubles on sinister outside forces allied with the West.
But this chapter of Arab history seems mercifully to be passing — with even the Arab League becoming a force that takes action to protect oppressed Arab citizens and restrain autocratic rulers. This is a snapshot of what’s changing in the Middle East, and why it’s worth celebrating.