The Bush revolution has only just begun

The Bush revolution has only just begun

By Con Coughlin
(Filed: 06/03/2005)

All through the White House last week they talked of little else. Everywhere Bush Administration officials looked they could see the first spring-like buds of freedom starting to appear amid the barren political landscape of the Middle East.

In Beirut crowds of flag-waving demonstrators clamoured for their "cedar revolution", eventually forcing the Syrian-backed government of Omar Qarami to resign. In Cairo the Pharaonic Hosni Mubarak, who has held undisputed power for 25 years, announced that when Egyptians vote in a referendum later this year other candidates will be allowed to challenge his president-for-life status.

These, along with developments such as the recent municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, were just the latest manifestations of a dramatic climate change in the politics of the region. Some of the more enthusiastic pro-democracy supporters are talking of a Prague-like spring sweeping through the tired autocracies of the Arab world.

The Bush Administration has not been slow to identify the roots of this tentative flowering of democracy among the long-oppressed peoples of the Middle East. The purple dye-marked fingers of the Iraqis who voted in January's historic election are seen as having planted the seeds of a revolution that could yet fundamentally alter the region's outlook.

"You should never underestimate the potency of freedom," a senior White House official told me. "Once you have let the genie out of the bottle it is hard to put it back. People look at what happened in Iraq and say, `Hey, we can do that here too.' " Nor has the fact been lost on Washington that about the only Arab country that has so far shown a marked reluctance to let democracy take root is Syria. The only interest the ruling Ba'ath regime of President Bashar al-Assad showed in freedom last week was in denying it to Sabawi al-Tikriti, Saddam's half brother, and 29 other Iraqi officials who were handed over to coalition forces in Iraq.

The blatant cynicism of this gesture was not lost on American officials who only the previous day were adding Syrian involvement in last week's Tel Aviv suicide bomb attack to the mounting charge sheet being compiled against Assad's regime – including last month's assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese opposition leader. For while America's pro-democracy camp may draw quiet satisfaction from the early intimations of political reorientation taking place elsewhere in the region, the more hard-nosed realists in the White House – and that includes President Bush – remain firmly focused on their main objective, which is the prosecution of the war on terror against any group or country that is a deemed to pose a threat to the security of the US.

Certainly when it comes to challenging regimes such as Assad's, it is unlikely that crowds of well-meaning flag-wavers are going to have much impact on Syria's ruling Ba'athist elite. If anything, the Syrian Ba'ath regards itself as the true standard bearer of pan-Arab nationalism. Bashar's father Hafez, after all, seized power in 1971 when Saddam was still relatively unknown even among the ranks of his own Ba'athists. At one point in the 1970s Syria and Iraq even came close to forming a single Ba'athist superstate under Hafez's control, a proposition that fell apart when Saddam overthrew the Iraqi president. The decades-long emnity that subsequently persisted between Assad senior and Saddam basically came down to a playground dispute over who had the better claim to be the Ba'athist figurehead.

With Saddam gone, the current Assad regime retains pretensions to be a rallying point for Arab nationalism as well as irredentist ambitions to recreate Greater Syria, an area that would encompass most of modern Lebanon, Jordan and even Israel. It is to this end that Assad still tolerates the presence of a rainbow coalition of terror groups, from Turkish separatists to Iranian-backed Islamic militants, as well as a panoply of Palestinian terror groups.

The Syrians, despite their generosity in handing over Sabawi and his gang, are deeply involved in supporting and financing Iraqi insurgents in their bloody campaign against coalition forces, a fact that, as one White House adviser confided to me, "makes President Bush feel real mad".

It is no coincidence, then, that the Bush Administration's response to the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Beirut should be to demand Syria's immediate withdrawal from a country it has occupied for 15 years. Nor is this an idle demand. As Mr Bush remarked at the end of last week, "There are no half-measures involved. We mean complete withdrawal."

With Iraq making the slow and painful transition from tyranny to democracy, Washington is now actively engaged in a campaign to bring about the same political transformation in Damascus. For the moment, Washington is content to intensify the diplomatic pressure on Damascus in the hope that the minority Allawite sect that runs the country will be ousted by the Sunni Muslim majority. One senior Pentagon official closely involved in Iraq's political transformation remarked: "If we turn the screw tight enough the Assad regime will crack."

Worthy though this policy may appear, I doubt that it will make much impact on the Ba'athist diehards in Damascus. The last time an opposition group of any standing confronted the Assad dynasty was in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood staged a protest at the Syrian city of Hama. Assad responded by surrounding the city with tanks and pummelling it into submission. There has been no organised opposition to the Assad regime since.

Nor should Washington get too carried away with the prospects of a functioning Western-style democracy taking root in liberated Lebanon. There is no question that the Lebanese have a visceral contempt for their Syrian occupiers – the Francophone Lebanese dismiss the Syrians as "Arab peasants". But the deep-seated constitutional antagonisms of the Christians, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims have never been satisfactorily addressed nor resolved. Who can forget the last time that the Lebanese had the opportunity to run their own affairs and the country collapsed into anarchy and a murderous civil war?

Con Coughlin's Saddam: The Secret Life has just been published in a new edition by Macmillan

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