As the tidal wave that is the Middle East Revolutions swept into Syria last week, many in the West began to ask whether this foretells the end of the Assad dynasty. The present ruler’s father Hafez al Assad took control of Syria in 1969 in a military coup, imposing martial law under an emergency decree that has never been lifted. His son, Bashar, a English trained dentist, has shown little desire to change the repressive tactics of his father and has followed the same anti- Zionist anti Western policies.
And why not? The policies worked. Maintaining an outside enemy who threatened the country with annihilation was the stock in trade of both Assads and has ensured the longevity of their minority Allawite rule.
But the risings in Daara, unthinkable a few months ago, have put the regime on notice. The repressive tactics that resulted in the slaughter of 10,000 Shiites in Hama in 1982 and the fear ofthe the long arm Syrian Secret Service, may no longer be enough to bottle the curdling hatred of the regime. Assad has already been seen making economic and social concessions to the demonstrators in an effort to avoid the fate of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia.
It is probably too little, too late. The momentum of change in the Middle East is running against him and the present occupant of the Syrian presidency may not have the wit nor the cunning his father might have mustered to avert a coming disaster.
Meanwhile the West cannot afford to ignore the unfolding Syrian drama. Consumed with assault on the Ghaddafi regime in Libya, it will lose a vital opportunity if it does not come to the aid of the Syrian opposition. Syria holds the key to much of the instability inthe Middle East. Its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon ( which has reduced that state to practical vassalage); its alliance with Iran which is a constant threat to a nascent Iraqi democratic state and its willingness to house exiled Palestinian leaders, places it front and center in the struggle to defeat terrorists and their state sponsors.
A Syria free of the crushing dictatorship that has rul the past ed it for the past 42 years may not suddenly become a Western ally. But the success of a rebellion against the Assad regime will send a voluble message to other dictatorships that change, supported, if not led by the West, was not just a fluke in Libya and Egypt and may be coming their way.