On Dec. 29, I read an article in the New York Times about the isolation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inside his palace and the way he moves from one bedroom to another and how he has his food examined before he eats it for fear it could be poisoned.
He might even be living in more than one place. In short, he lives moments of pure fear. This seems like an incredible story, but it is not new. This is the story of every dictator who insists on fighting till the last moment and until the entire tragedy unfolds. The man is actually left with no more than two governorates. Russians are starting abandon him and Alawites might do that soon.
The word “Islamist”
However, it is no longer about Bashar al-Assad, but rather about Syria and the entire Levant that is about to undergo the most critical geographical transformation since the Sykes-Picot agreement that established a regime which survived for almost 90 years. It is expected that the change in Syria will be similar to that in other Arab Spring countries even though individual differences exist like in the cases of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. However, at the end of the day the word “Islamist” could describe this change and the new emerging systems of governance in those countries.
The Levant is different, though. It is not a coincidence that despite all the drawbacks of Sykes-Picot, it survived for a long time and created a whole set of balances of power in the region. When Nasser in Egypt and the Baath Part in Syria tried to take a different track through the declaration of unity, they failed to sustain this new formula. Syria and Iraq had also tried and failed in implementing a similar plan. The Levant has always been liable to disintegration and had only been kept intact by the iron grip of dictatorial regimes. The condition of the Levant following the First World War was similar to that of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and Yugoslavia, let alone other smaller disintegration like Czechoslovakia. The end will not be necessarily tragic even though this more likely, especially that Arab history is not replete with example of amicable separation.
Bashar's ending like Hitler's
Since the beginning, I had hoped that Arab leaderships would manage the Syrian crisis and its aftermath so that the Syrian opposition would learn from previous Arab Spring experiences. But this was not the case and now it seems impossible to stop the movement of history. It seems like it will be a musical chairs game where we don’t know how many chairs we have and when exactly the music would stop and what the fate of those with no chair to sit on would be.
What is almost certain is that Bashar al-Assad will be part of the ending and will be like Hitler who in his last days turned against the German people and insisted to leave his country totally destroyed. Assad might think of using chemical weapons but this will definitely herald his end. The only choice he has left is to rule over a state of Alawites.
An Arab official told me that Assad is not aware of the real situation outside is palace. Two years ago, Hossam Badrawi, a leading member of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, described to Mubarak what was happening in Egypt and the former president’s reply was, “Is it that bad?” Assad has no one to face him with the truth and even if he does, he will choose not to believe it. He might also waste the last exit offered to be him by Lakhdar Brahimi and which entails his and his supporters’ safe departure and the establishment of a national government that holds elections and drafts a new constitution.
But again it is not about Assad. It is about the Levant, an area whose map has been in constant change and which is expected to undergo a similar one now. Kurds want their state in Iraq and only Turkey is standing in the way; the Shiites of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria are ready to form some kind of unity. A scenario similar to the one that happened in Europe and which led to the emergence of little kingdoms like Holland, Belgium, and Denmark, let alone Luxembourg, Monaco, and Lichtenstein, is likely.
This will be even worse than Sykes-Picot, especially if the conflict develops into one between Sunnis and Shiites. History does not always repeat itself, but thinking of the Catholics and Protestants and the way their conflict shaped the map of Europe makes this scenario not far-fetched. Geography changes, and so does history!
(Abdel Monem Said is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council. This article was first published in Asharq Alawsat on Jan. 2, 2012. Link: http://www.aawsat.com/leader.asp?section=3&issueno=12454&article=711400)