Syria is ruled by a dictator, Bashar al-Assad, the son of the dictator before him, Hafez al-Assad, who was famous for the quality of his secret police. There was a joke about it. There may be more, but this is the only one I've ever heard: The Angel of Death goes to Aleppo in search of Hafez al-Assad, but he's caught by the Syrian secret police. They send him back. When God sees his angel, battered, bloody, and missing some body parts, God cries out, "You didn't tell them who sent you, did you?"
Such methods worked for Hafez. He stayed in power from 1970 to 2000, when he died of natural causes.
Bashar graduated from medical school in Damascus and then studied ophthalmology in London. He has a very beautiful English wife, though, as all articles about her point out, she has Syrian parents and she's a Sunni. All of this implied modernity and Western values. They expected him to be a reformer. I'm not sure who "they" are, but they have a terrible track record. Twelve years later, when Amnesty International wrote a report on Syria, they gave it the title "Torture Archipelago."
In 2011, a group of teenagers were arrested for writing graffiti. Once in custody they were treated in the manner that made the Syrian secret police so famous. The Arab Spring was already in full bloom across the region and the Syrian youths imagined they could demonstrate the way their neighbors had been doing.
Bashar had learned the efficacy of violence at his father's knee. He would have been fairly certain that he could handle any local unrest. It was something his family had been doing for over 40 years.
Ultimately, and inevitably, he responded with violence. Let's not kid ourselves—riot too often in a democracy and they'll call out the troops, and the troops will shoot. But democracies have checks and balances and the safety valve of removing a regime with an election.
Yet dictators in regimes roughly the same age as his own, and equally vicious, had already fallen, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Quadaffi in Libya. Ali Abdullah Saleh had been deposed in Yemen, but he would soon make a backdoor reentry. What had transformed the protests from events that rebels always lost, to movements that pushed the leaders from their pedestals, was support from the West.
Assad had a couple of advantages over his fellow autocrats. He had backing from another great power. During the Cold War, Syria had been a Soviet client, and after the fall of the USSR, it remained close to Russia. As an Alawite, facing a largely Sunni rebellion, he had an ally in the Shiite land of Iran, a country that enjoys sending its forces out into the world to engage in mischief.
Even with all that, if the rebels managed to present themselves as peace-loving centrists, aspiring to a secular democracy, and to paint Assad as the murderous, torturing tyrant that he really is, even though he's well spoken and adorned with an elegant Western wife, the United States might very well launch their missiles, drop their bombs, even send in troops. Assad had fairly sophisticated media advisors, including the PR firm Brown Lloyd James, and Luna Chebel, a former Al Jazeera anchor. Someone understood that one of America's great weaknesses is a Manichean mentality. Things must black and white and short enough for a bumper sticker. Shades of gray are only good for soft-core porn. For women. Not for war. So Assad opened the doors of his prisons and released the extremists, but kept anyone likely to be moderate behind bars, so that the opposition would be filled with the kind of radicals that give Western politicians the creeps.
Obama, who had been elected to find some way to ease America out of both Afghanistan and Iraq, without admitting both wars were failures, didn't want to get into a whole new quagmire. In a memo released by WikiLeaks, Brown Lloyd James wrote to the Syrians: "The Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive. However, the tone of the Administration's statements has grown noticeably harsher in recent weeks and may be nearing a tipping point." It was fairly well known that Syria had chemical weapons and there were rumors of their use. During a press conference, Obama said that would be a "red-line." If it was crossed, he seemed to say, that the United States would act.
Then it happened. There was a gas attack by the government that was too big, and too well documented, to deny. Now the United States had to act. But the waters had been muddied. The supposed good guys had been portrayed as Al Qaeda-linked radicals. So we wouldn't want to topple Assad and have them take over. In Iraq, we'd been careful to pretend that Shock and Awe never hurt innocent civilians. This time it was clear that no missile would only kill the precise people who launched criminal gas attacks. But Obama had spoken.
Modern drama was invented in a brief 50 years, during the Golden Age of Greece. The three giants of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, like their lesser competitors, sometimes wrote themselves into corners. So, with the help of set builders, they also invented the ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, which, since no one can read it, became better known by its Latin name, deus ex machina, a god that was lifted from behind the skênê, then lowered to the stage by a machine. Zeus or Athena, Dionysus or Demeter, would use his or her divine power to simply announce what the characters had to do to make the story come out right.
And here he came a real live deus ex machina, Vladimir Putin, bare chested, carrying an olive branch in his left hand, and leading a bear, which he had personally captured and tamed, with his right hand. Actually the first announcement was made by Sergei Lavrov Russia's foreign minister, fully clothed. Russia would command Assad to give up his chemical weapons, which would protect the Syrian people from additional chemical attacks. It would let Obama off the hook. It would let Russia act like it was, once again, a world power. It was a Win! Win! Win!
We all breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to leave the theater. About 80,000 to 100,000 have died thus far in the Syrian conflict, many of them children. The killings continue. If Assad stays, so do the secret police, arbitrary arrests, and torture. If he falls, what follows? Chaos? A theocracy? Civil war? A peaceful democracy? Is it strictly their own business? Should the UN act? The United States? Just with pressure? Or with force?