Sleepless in Tehran?

March 24th, 2011
Published in Family Security Matters March 24, 2011

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may now better understand the caveat “be careful what you wish for.”

When protests occurred in Egypt to force President Hosni Mubarak to resign in February, Ahmadinejad supported the protestors. He heralded the “wave of rage” in the region as the dawn of a new era–one of diminishing US ties in the Middle East nurturing a fertile soil by which the Islamic revolution could continue to expand beyond Iran’s borders.

Ahmadinejad undoubtedly was encouraged too as the wave impacted other countries where US ties are strong–Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Even as it continued on to Libya, a country without such ties, he was still encouraged–for Tripoli had proven a weak sister by voluntarily abandoning its nuclear weapons program in the face of US pressure.

An evolving characteristic of the wave of rage is no one knows where next it will strike.  For Ahmadinejad, last week it struck much closer to home–and in a country some experts believed immune to its impact due to the leadership’s tight and brutal control.

Despite centuries of animosity between Sunnis and Shiites, Sunni-majority Syria and Shiite-majority Iran have enjoyed close ties under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad–a country he has ruled since “inheriting” it from his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

But on March 18, the wave of rage hit Syria. Security forces killed four protestors and wounded hundreds more in an effort to put demonstrations down. To understand why the wave’s impact is so significant there, one must understand why it was believed to be immune.

In 1970, following a number of de-stabilizing coups in Syria, Assad the father came to power via his own coup. Hafez’s emergence as leader and his subsequent 30 year rule was surprising as he came from a group representing the country’s largest religious minority–the Alawis. Although Alawis represent a branch of Islam, other Muslims no longer view them as such as Alawis embarked upon a path distinctly different from theirs. As such, Alawis historically worked as indentured servants and tenant farmers, subjected to repression and exploitation by their Sunni “masters.” But Assad the father’s rise brought with it a better life for the minority group.

Many Alawis joined the military, quickly rising to positions of authority.  Hafez recognized bringing such long-abused members of his own religious minority into positions within the security and military services would work to his advantage in maintaining power. Consequently, the Alawi leadership in these two services recognized their survival turned on ensuring Assad the father’s survival.

When Hafez’s control was challenged, his Alawi-led military acted aggressively to crush resistance. Syrians still remember the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood resistance movement leading to the massacre of tens of thousands of their countrymen in a single weekend when Hafez bombed the town of Hama.

Upon Hafez’s death, Assad the son was appointed leader of the country’s only political party, running unopposed for president. Mideast totalitarian regimes often like to cloak themselves with democratic underpinnings. It was no different when Assad the son claimed 97.2% of the vote. In Mubarak’s 1999 re-election campaign, while he was not so greedy–crediting himself with 93.8% of the vote–Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was, often claiming wins bordering on 99%. The hypocrisy of such percentages becomes all too apparent at the speed by which waves of rage sweep across such countries.

As president, Bashar opted not to change his father’s successful formula for controlling the Syrian people. Thus, the situation today there is similar to Iran where Ahmadinejad brought the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leadership into positions of power in the government and business sector, tying their survival to his. Thus, also as in Iran, Bashar maintains power by keeping all opposition in line with an iron fist held over them by his security and military forces.

For Mubarak, the timing of the wave of rage was unfortunate. While Egyptian military leaders had crept into similar power positions in business and government during his rule–linking their survival to his–it was the recent efforts by Mubarak’s heir apparent–his son Gamal–to dislodge them from this hold that led the army to stand aside as Mubarak was toppled. As Egyptian military leaders no longer linked their survival to Mubarak’s due to Gamal’s emerging influence, supporting Mubarak had become a liability.

What gives the uprising by the Syrian people such significance is their collective knowledge the Alawi-led military will defend Bashar to the end. Obviously, they understand that does not bode well for the success of their movement. But it does reflect their great courage and determination to end 41 years of brutal father/son rule in Syria.

If the Syrian opposition proves successful, Ahmadinejad not only loses a key regional ally but could also see Iran’s opposition motivated to undertake such an initiative (again) as well.

We can only hope such fears keep Ahmadinejad sleepless in Tehran!

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