Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Latin and Arab dictators

Syrians no longer define themselves by nationality but by religion

The fall of the Arab dictators can be compared with that of Tirano Banderas (tyrant Banderas) in the novel of the same name by Ramón Valle-Inclán. Santos Banderas, tyrant of a fictional Latin American state, is surely the most famous of the Latin dictator breed in literature.

The dictators of the so-called Arab Spring fell from power in various ways. One fled precipitately after 20 days of fighting, another ended up in jail, a third was beaten to death on video, and a fourth faded out after long and arduous negotiations. The fifth is still holding on to power in his palace at the cost of a bloody civil war.

While most Latin American dictators have in fact died in bed, the death of Santos Banderas in the colonial fortress of Santa Fe riddled with bullets bears more resemblance to that of Gaddafi. Valle-Inclán does not address the problem of who will succeed him. What happens on the death of the tyrant? Who runs things after the revolution?

When peaceful demonstrations began in 2011 in Deraa after the murder of a teenager for the "crime"" of anti-regime graffiti, Syrians responded massively to the call of the Arab Spring. Assad could have opted for negotiation and a comfortable exile. But, following the example of his father 30 years earlier, he chose the force of arms. First, by firing shots into crowds; which soon escalated to tanks, helicopters and missiles. He also armed his tribal/Shiite clientele, provoking a general insurrection which, though poorly armed, kept going thanks to numerous and growing desertions of officers and soldiers belonging to the Sunni majority. By the summer of 2011 it was a civil war.

Syria is now a battlefield swarming with volunteers from the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr

Until the fall the course of events resembled that of Libya and Yemen, mutatis mutandis: each country having its own society more or less compact or tribalized. I remember my optimism then that the days of the Syrian regime were numbered. But a Spanish diplomat more familiar with the religious and ethnic grab-bag cemented together 60 years ago by the ideological glue of the Baath party was skeptical. He said that the Alawi ethnic/religious minority, to which the Assad clan belongs, would maintain its cohesion, and enjoy the discreet support of the urban middle class, and of other religious minorities fearful of an Islamist theocracy.

In 2010 I wrote that the pan-Arab nationalism of the Baath, though now become the mere rhetoric of a clan, at least preserved coexistence between Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Kurd and Druse, who have been at each other's throats in Iraq. This peace is now shattered, of course. Both sides receive support from various Muslim states; and the war may spread gradually -- or suddenly, particularly if set off by some detonating event such as a preventive attack on Iran.

Syria is now a battlefield swarming with volunteers from the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, Pasdaran Iranians, members of Hezbollah, Islamist volunteers close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda extremists (convenient for El Assad's propaganda about "terrorist attacks" and a "Zionist-American plot"). As in the ex-Yugoslavia 20 years ago, Syrians no longer define themselves by nationality but by religion. As in Bosnia, the internationalization of the conflict affects the major powers and their protégés. The US versus Russia, Assad's main arms supplier; Saudi Arabia and the Emirates versus Iran. Washington supports the Syrian rebels despite their alliance with Tehran. The impotent EU and the miserable Arab League mumble lamentations about the fate of the civilians under the bloodthirsty Assad.

Just to hold on to power, Assad has set fire to his country, with a toll of 60,000 deaths so far. Unlike the end of Santos Banderas in the novel, the outcome is still unknown. What will it be -- inglorious flight to Russia, a Gaddafi lynching, a handcuffed appearance in the International Criminal Court? The die was cast some time ago, but the number has yet to turn up.

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