Power tends to corrupt, Lord Acton is credited with saying, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So it’s been for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who was supposed to be a mild-mannered, London-trained ophthalmologist but has proven to be at least as ruthless as his father, Hafez al-Assad.
That’s been particularly apparent during Syria’s civil war, during which al-Assad has presided over the destruction of his country, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and a refugee crisis that has shaken the world. Yet he holds on to power thanks to what an Atlantic writer called “the devil’s endgame.”
And the whole thing started with one scrawled line: “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad.”
The al-Assad government was already wobbly thanks to events around the Arab world and its own issues. But after Naief Abazid and his friends were beaten for their teenage prank, one thing led to another and soon the whole country was in turmoil.
McKinnon tracks the whole thing — not just the graffiti and the civil war, but the history of the country, from its creation by the Sykes-Picot Agreement through the coups, the religious and social divisions and the spread of its refugees. He suspected a breakdown would occur, but like this?
I nonetheless saw the regime as badly atrophying, an edifice that would collapse if given a good shove. As the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to Egypt, I privately predicted to friends that Syria’s government would be the next to fall – and swiftly.
What I miscalculated was how hard Mr. al-Assad and his fellow Alawis – terrified of the fate they expected under Sunni rule – would be willing to fight for what they had. (Many Christians and other minorities, meanwhile, unnerved by the appearance of extremist Sunni groups – most notably the Islamic State – have also backed the Assad regime.)
Critically, Iran and Saudi Arabia – the great Shia and Sunni powers of the Middle East – also saw Syria through sectarian lenses of their own.
Predominantly Shia Iran viewed the Assad regime as critical to its ability to supply Lebanon’s (Shia) Hezbollah militia, and thus keep pressure on its most-hated enemy, Israel.
The Saudi rulers in Riyadh, by contrast, feared the “Shia Crescent” that they saw emerging across what had long been a Sunni-dominated Middle East – a belt stretching from Hezbollah’s heartland in the suburbs of Beirut; through Damascus; to Baghdad, where pro-Iranian forces had emerged dominant following the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Iraq’s Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein. The rise of a Sunni-led government in Syria would empower Saudi Arabia’s friends in Lebanon and Iraq as well.
And here we are.
Naief now lives in Vienna.
“I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing,” he told McKinnon.
But who would?