February 18, 2011

Bahrain - the next domino?

Another American ally is now dealing with a popular uprising. For several days now, thousands of Bahrainis have taken to the streets of Manama, some calling for political reform, others calling for the overthrow of the royal family. Unfortunately, the demonstrations appear to be growing more sectarian in nature.

It is impossible to say how the situation will resolve itself in Bahrain, but there are signs that King Hamad bin 'Isa Al Khalifah and his son Crown Prince Shaykh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifah are willing to make compromises to end the uprising and maintain their hold on power. What happens in Bahrain will have an impact on American foreign policy in the region.

Bahrain is the home of the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, the maritime component of the U.S. Central Command; it is called U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in that context.

A short history of the Fifth Fleet - In 1879, the USS Ticonderoga was the first American warship to sail through the Straits of Hormuz. In 1949, the U.S. Navy established a regular presence in the region, known as the Middle East Force. In 1971, when Bahrain achieved full independence, the U.S. Navy leased part of a former British base and named it Administrative Support Unit, Bahrain. In 1995, the Fifth Fleet and NAVCENT were commissioned to command the ships that rotationally deploy from the United States or other fleets. As Iranian influence rises in the region, the American naval presence in the Gulf remains a key part of our commitment to our Gulf Arab allies.

The king and crown prince appear to have decided to try and reach an accommodation with the people of Bahrain. I think the royal family was surprised at the size of the demonstrations and the tenor of the demands, including calls for the overthrow of the king. After initially sending in military and security forces to quell the demonstrations, the crown prince, wisely in my opinion, decided to remove the soldiers and riot police and allow the people to gather.

There will be changes in Bahrain, to be sure. The question is what kind of changes and how that affects U.S. access to the naval base in Manama. Is the base critical to American maritime operations in the Gulf? Not really. For years, the Navy operated the Middle East Force from a command ship; it can do that again if necessary. Is it preferable to have an on-shore presence? Absolutely, but let's not overemphasize the importance of the facility.

The real danger comes if the ruling family is forced to accept demands that secularize the country. Bahrain is a fairly liberal place, as Arab countries go. There are western style hotels, complete with bars and night clubs. The country is a haven for the socially-repressed Saudis who flock to the tiny kingdom on Wednesdays for the Arab weekend.

Bahrain is one of the four countries in the world where Shi'a Muslims constitute the majority of the population, and one of only two Arab countries (the other is Iraq). Conversely, the royal family and ruling elite of the kingdom are Sunni Muslims. As it has in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran has sought to make a connection to the Shi'a of Bahrain, supporting their efforts to become the dominant force on the island.

Iranian support has not always been limited to political rhetoric. As far back as the late 1990's, there were reports that Iran was providing Hizballah trainers to Bahraini Shi'a groups. It helps to have Arabic-speaking trainers rather than the Farsi-speaking members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Thanks to Wikileaks, we know that King Hamad advised General David Petraeus in 2008 that his government believed that Iran and Syria were facilitating the training of Bahraini Shi'a in Lebanon.

Iran also claims ownership of the island based on Iranian governance in the 17th and 18th Centuries, eventually losing control of the island to the British. They recently reiterated that claim, which is likely to put pressure on the Al Khalifah dynasty and express support for the Shi'a majority.

There is another party with a stake in what happens in Bahrain - Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is Iran's major rival in the Persian Gulf, and sits a mere 20 miles from the island of Bahrain. Having Iranian control over Bahrain, either directly or indirectly via the Shi'a population, would be a problem for both the United States and the Saudis.

The situation in Bahrain is just one of several flash points in the region, some involving American allies. With uprisings in Yemen, Jordan, Libya and Iran following the changes in governments in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain may be the next domino to fall. Which way it falls should be of concern.

February 17, 2011

Iranian warships in the Mediterranean - deal with it

Iranian navy frigate

There is currently a lot of conflicting information in the news media over the possibility that two Iranian warships might transit the Suez Canal en route ports in Syria. Syria and Iran are close allies and are signatories to a mutual defense pact. Cooperation between the two countries includes intelligence sharing, joint training, as well as material support of Hizballah in neighboring Lebanon. It should come as no surprise that Iranian navy ships would conduct visits to Syrian ports.

As soon as word of the planned deployment was made public, senior Israeli military and civilian officials warned that the Iranian move was a provocation, and responed with a thinly-veiled threat that "Israel will know how to deal with it."

Here's some friendly advice to my Israeli friends: Yes, deal with it.

When I say "deal with it," I mean it in the sense that there is nothing you should do about it. As anyone familiar with my writing knows, I am not a supporter of the Iranian regime, in fact, I have been accused of "being obsessed" with Iran. (See an earlier article, Obsessed with Iran? Me?)

Of course, your navy should monitor the ships' movements and conduct reconnaissance of them as they move north along the Israeli coast to one of the three Syrian ports with naval facilities: Baniyas, Tartus or Latakia. Photograph them, intercept their electronic emissions and communications, approach within a safe distance, but that's it. As long as they stay 12 nautical miles off your coast, they have every right to be there.

For years, the U.S. Navy has conducted what are called "freedom of navigation" operations, known in the Navy as "FONOPS." In FONOPS, American warships sail along coastlines of countries that claim more than the internationally recognized limits of territorial waters, in most cases, 12 nautical miles. We also operate military aircraft in what is international airspace but claimed by other nations - I have participated in some of these operations. We use these operations to assert, claim and demonstrate our right to sail in international waters and to fly in international airspace. There have been confrontations during these operations, most notably with the Libyans. When there have been confrontations, it has not gone well for the Libyans.

The U.S. Navy has conducted these operations in the very same waters from which you (Israel) want to restrict movement of these two Iranian warships. Neither we nor you can have it both ways. No one wants hostile foreign warships within sight of their coastal cities, but it is their right to be there.

They also have every right to transit the Suez Canal. According to the treaty that governs passage through the canal, all vessels have the right to use the waterway. The governing treaty is the Constantinople Convention of the Suez Canal (1888), which is still in force. Article One of that treaty states, "The Suez Maritime Canal shall always be free and open, in time of war as in time of peace, to every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag."

On a personal note, in 1992, I was the defense attache at an American embassy in a Gulf nation, and remember the brouhaha that ensued when the Iranians used the Suez Canal to take delivery of a Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarine from the Russians. There was a huge cry of outrage and concern, but under the treaty, they had every right to use the waterway, and did.

The USS Harry Truman in the Suez Canal

The Egyptian Suez Canal Authority has refused passage for safety reasons, and the Egyptian Ministry of Defense reserves the right to refuse passage to vessels flying the flag of a nation at war with Egypt. While this clause was useful during the time that Egypt and Israel technically remained in a state of war until 1978, the U.S. Navy and the Israeli Navy now often send warships through the canal.

Israel has a capable navy, easily the most capable in the eastern Mediterranean. Two Iranian gunboats are not a serious threat to Israel's national security. They will sail up the coast, yes, it will be provocative, and yes, it will be a finger in Israel's eye, but that's the price of living in a world with international laws and norms.

Like I said, deal with it.

February 15, 2011

Egyptian military embracing the Muslim Brotherhood?

Graffiti-covered wall in Cairo - some of the tags:
"Raise your head - you are Egyptian" -- "Tahrir Square - January 25"
"First Egypt - over ...(blocked)" --- "Enough"

The initial decisions of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces upon taking over the Egyptian government included a commitment to make changes to the country's constitution. The council has imposed a 10-day deadline on that process. That is ambitious to say the least, but if it can be done, it is a good thing. The sooner the military relinquishes control of the country to an elected government, the better.

It is important that the new Egyptian government be truly representative of the population and at the same time be protective of minority groups. The constitutional changes must reflect those goals. However, a look at the eight members who the military council has named to the panel that will recommend changes to the constitution is not comforting. The judge heading up the effort, Tariq al-Bishri, is an avowed critic of secular government, favors the introduction of Shari'a-based laws and openly supports the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian law over the past 40 years certainly reflects a basis in Islamic law, but strict Shari'a code has not been fully adopted.

Al-Bishri's appointment was understandably criticized by Coptic Christians who feel they may not have a voice in a future Egyptian government. The Copts make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population and fully supported the uprising, yet as a group they are under-represented as the military transitions the country from the government of Husni Mubarak to one still only in the conceptual stage.

The committee will not rewrite the entire constitution, but focus on six articles, including those that deal with the nomination of presidential candidates, the presidential election process, the election of members of the parliament and how to amend the constitution. That is a good thing. I do not want a panel with an Islamist Shari'a advocate and an avowed member of the Muslim Brotherhood addressing the legal code or individual freedoms.

Yes, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The council named Subhi Salih, a lawyer who is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Coincidentally, the Islamist organization announced it will become a formal political party. In just a few short days, a formerly illegal organization is now a well-organized political party and has a representative on the panel that will rewrite significant portions of the Egyptian constitution. The Brotherhood released a statement calling for "the establishment of a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and justice, with central Islamic values serving all Egyptians regardless of color, creed, political trend or religion."

We shall see. Despite the Brotherhood's protestations to the contrary, they want to eventually establish the Islamic Republic of Egypt. They are committed to the abrogation of the Camp David Accords of 1978 between Egypt and Israel, the agreement that has kept the two countries at peace for over three decades. The Brotherhood's persecution of and outright attacks on the Coptic Christians over the last few years indicates their lack of religious tolerance.

Curiously, many Western analysts have attempted to draw parallels between the military situation in Egypt with that in Turkey. While there may be similarities with Islamist political parties gaining more power in both countries, the situation with the army in Turkey is different. In Tukey, the army is steadfastly secular. I do not assess the Egyptian army as that secular, nor is it diverse. If you look at the composition of the officer corps, there are few Christian officers and none in senior positions, and virtually no Copts serve in the military intelligence service.

It is unknown how many Egyptian military officers are actually covert members of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the organization was technically illegal, it was openly tolerated in civilian society. Conversely, membership was not permitted openly in the military - sort of an Egyptian "don't ask, don't tell" system.

It is surprising and alarming that Field Marshal Tantawi and his generals chose such a controversial group to rewrite portions of the constitution. One cannot help but be concerned about the seeming rapid rise and acceptance of Islamists into the senior levels of the groups that will define the type of country Egypt becomes.

Special thanks to my colleague and friend Jacob Keryakes for his insights on this issue.

February 13, 2011

Egypt - the army and the quest for democracy

The Egyptian armed forces officially took over the government today with a series of announcements that will determine the future of the most populous Arab country. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution, formed a committee to draw up changes to the constitution, and pledged to run the country for up to six month or until elections are held. The announcements were received happily by the crowds of Egyptians whose demonstrations led to the "resignation" of President Husni Mubarak on February 11.

In most parts of the world, especially the Middle East, this would constitute a military coup d'etat. This change in Egypt is being portrayed as the military stepping in at the request of the caretaker government. Make no mistake, there was a military coup in Cairo.

As late as the evening of February 10, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians waited in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the middle of Cairo, and millions around the world waited in front of televisions, radios and computers for the announcement of the expected resignation of the president, Husni Mubarak remained defiant and refused to step down. Mubarak's refusal to give up power set Egypt on a collision course, as I wrote that night.

The protesters were not willing to accept Mubarak's offer of reforms and a promise not to run in September's presidential election, and vowed to continue the uprising until Mubarak stepped down. The protesters were of the belief that even if the Egyptian military was ordered to disperse the crowds, they would not turn on fellow Egyptians. The situation seemed to have reached an impasse.

I believe that on February 11, the day after Mubarak vowed to remain in power, the Egyptian military told the president that for the good of the country, it was time for him to go. What else could have happened? Mubarak suddenly had a change of heart on his own?

According to the Egyptian constitution, the procedure when a president is incapacitated or resigns is spelled out clearly. The speaker of the parliament temporarily assumes the powers of the presidency and must hold elections within 60 days. Note that the succession excludes the vice president, who serves only as an advisor to the president.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces dissolved the parliament, a necessary step since the body was packed with Mubarak loyalists. The only way to usher in the reforms demanded by the demonstrators would be to remove all of the legislators and make the changes to the constitution that would allow for real elections in which a variety of parties could put forth candidates, a change from the restricted elections engineered by Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

Now comes the hard part. The difficulty in removing Mubarak and his cronies from office may pale when compared to the difficulty in creating a true democracy in Egypt. The military, probably the most trusted institution in the country, will have to demonstrate that it is in fact willing to give up power after elections are held, regardless of the outcome. This is problematic, not only for the Egyptian military leadership, but possibly for the United States as well. One only need remember what happened when the United States and Europe pressured the Palestinians to hold elections, and Hamas won.

The big fear, the threat of which Mubarak used constantly to maintain his position, is that the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as the primary component of a new Egyptian government. I doubt this will happen, but no one can be certain. The Egyptian uprising did not have the religious overtones as did the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Most analysts assess the military as secular and opposed to Islamic rule for the country. The problem with a blanket assessment of the Egyptian military is the secretive nature of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Since it is an outlawed organization, it is unknown how many military officers are secretly members of the ikhwan.

There is cause for concern. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has claimed it does not seek power in Egypt, that disclaimer is to be expected. They will attempt to take power at the ballot box, and they may well be successful. They are the most organized of the opposition political entities in the country. They have already demanded a change in U.S. policy towards Egypt.

What must not change is the peace treaty with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has already demanded that whoever comes to power in Egypt abrogate the 1979 Camp David Accords, the treaty by which Egypt became the first and for years the only Arab nation to have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Putting the two countries back on a war footing serves no purpose for either country, the region or the rest of the world. Unfortunately, anti-Israel as well as anti-American rhetoric at times resonates with the population.

The United States, meaning the Obama Administration, needs to be on the right side of history, not just in Egypt but throughout the region as the demand for increased freedom and access to the political process spreads. If you look at the countries currently "friendly" to the United States, they tend to have autocratic governments. It is probably more correct to say that there are governments/regimes that have friendly relations with the United States. Polls consistently show the populations are not in sync with their rulers. I cite Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco and even Kuwait, a country that we liberated from Iraqi occupation in 1991, as examples.

We are fortunate that the U.S. armed forces have an excellent relationship with the Egyptian military. That may be useful in ensuring that as Egypt moves toward the style of democracy that it wants, we are there with the people and not in bed with those that would oppress them yet again.

This can work out for the United States, but it will require finesse and diplomatic skill that we have not seen thus far from this administration. There are talented Arabists and Middle East specialists in both the State and Defense departments. I hope the President and Secretary of State use them. Otherwise, the 3:00am phone call will continue to go unanswered.

February 10, 2011

Egypt on a collision course - some comments

ADDENDUM - On the afternoon of February 11 (Cairo time), Husni Mubarak finally did the right thing and resigned as President of Egypt, turning over the government to the Egyptian military. This is about as good an outcome as could be hoped for

Now the military must set in place the transition to a elective democracy with real elections. Of course, as with elections in Gaza, we might not like the results. At least there will not be more bloodshed in the streets of Cairo.


Protesters in Tahrir Square

Like almost everyone else watching the drama of the Egyptian uprising unfold, I was surprised by Husni Mubarak's attempt to split hairs by maintaining himself as the President but divesting himself of some presidential powers. Mubarak handed some of his authority to newly-appointed Vice President 'Umar Sulayman but remained in office, vowing to stay until the elections scheduled for September. Sulayman acted like he and Mubarak had now sufficiently addressed the demands of the crowds in Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

They failed. The subtleties of the power shift was lost on the crowd. Their basic, non-negotiable demand was that Mubarak step down. The crowds reacted predictably to Mubarak's intransigence, with anger and continued demands that he depart. The most common sign in the square reads "Irhal Mubarak (Leave, Mubarak)."

What happened? CIA Director Leon Panetta, speaking in a Congressional hearing, said that he expected Mubarak to step down as early as this evening. President Obama made a speech in which he praised the young protesters in Egypt for bringing about a transition in the country, obvioulsy expecting Mubarak to resign. Senior Egyptian military and civilian officials confirmed to media outlets that President Mubarak would address the nation and announce his decision to step down.

Vice President Sulayman, who was probably one of only two people who knew what Mubarak was planning, was more coy. He declared that the President would make an announcement that would make the protesters happy.

The protesters are anything but happy. Television coverage of the square reveals an angry crowd being whipped into a fervor alternately by an activist and an imam. It is Friday in Cairo, the Muslim day of worship when the mosques will be full of Egyptians looking for guidance.

Anyone who says they know what is going to happen is speculating. Many Middle East specialists and analysts have taken a wait-and-see attitude because there is no way to accurately predict events in Cairo. There are too many variables and the situation changes by the hour.

That said, a few comments from my perspective.

Day 18 - Friday - may be the decisive moment of the uprising. Mubarak and the protesters are on a collision course. The protesters want the President to step down, and the President has refused, vowing to stay until his term expires. One of them is going to have to give. There does not appear to me to be room for compromise.

In the end, it appears that the Egyptian Army will be the final arbiter of power in the country. If and when the people continue to protest and become violent in their attempt to force Mubarak from power, the Mubarak government will have to make the decision to order the Army to restore order. Then we will know how this will turn out.

Will the Egyptian Army fire on its own people? It is impossible to know for sure, but I believe they will not. If they will not use force against the protesters, will they then turn on the Mubarak government and remove the President?

My personal observation is that Mubarak is in the position to save a lot of Egyptian lives, maybe even his own. If the protesters have the momentum to continue the uprising, and it appears to me that they do, we are moving towards the convergence of two unstoppable forces.

I hope a solution short of bloodshed is out there; short of Mubarak resigning, I do not know what that is. I fear this will not end well. It may change the political landscape in the Middle East for decades to come.

February 4, 2011

A new landscape in the Middle East

Egyptians demanding the removal of Husni Mubarak

It is a troubling time for America's allies and friends in the Middle East. It had an unlikely start in Tunisia, normally not considered a hotbed of instability, with what journalists have titled "the Jasmine Revolution" in which President Zayn al-'Abidayn bin 'Ali was forced from office. Bin 'Ali had served for over 20 years and if not a staunch ally of the United States, certainly was not anti-American.

Relations between Tunisia and the United States were warm. Tunisian officers routinely attended American military training schools, and Tunis is home to the U.S. State Department's Arabic language field school. Many of my fellow military Arabists attended school there. Although there were indications of a growing Islamist movement based on high unemployment among the nation's large youth population, no one expected the intensity of the protests that brought down the bin 'Ali government. When a new president is elected, it is likely that relations with the United States will be correct, but not improved. Like in many instances, the United States is viewed as allowing autocratic rulers to remain in power as long as they resist a move toward radical Islamic governments.

At the same time as Tunisians were taking to the streets, a crisis erupted in another of America's allies in the Middle East, this time in Lebanon. The government of Rifaq al-Hariri was brought down by the resignation of 11 Hizballah and Hizballah-allied cabinet ministers.

On January 24, the alliance that brought down the government of now former Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri nominated Najib Miqati as prime minister. The nomination was confirmed by the Parliament, and Lebanese President Mishal Sulayman had no choice but to ask Hizballah-backed Miqati to form a new government. As that process develops, you can be sure that the Iranian and Syrian influenced government that emerges will have a much different outlook on relations with the United States.

Egypt, of course, with the largest population of the Arab world and arguably its cultural center, is of major concern to the United States for a host of reasons. The 32-year old peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (also known as the Camp David Accords of 1978) has been one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy in the region. The Egyptian government of Husni Mubarak has become a staunch ally of the United States, growing even closer to Washington than the government of Mubarak's assassinated predecessor Anwar al-Sadat.

The relationship between Egypt and the United States is close and complex. The American Embassy in Cairo is one of the largest in the world with well over 1000 employees assigned. The 13-story building is easily seen from almost anywhere in Cairo, including the pyramids on the Giza plateau. It is a symbol of the importance of Egypt to our policy in the region, and to Egypt's importance in the Arab world in general.

Egyptian officers attend numerous military training course in the United States, and American officers routinely attend Egyptian staff colleges. Egypt receives more foreign aid than any other country except Israel, totalling up to $50 billion since 1978. Last year alone Egypt received around $1.3 billion in military aid plus $250 million in civilian assistance. The primary fighter aircraft of the Egyptian air force are 220 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and the primary main battle tank of the Egyptian army is the American-designed M1 Abrams built under license in Egypt. Should there ever be another war inthe Middle East, Egypt may well be the deciding factor. The adage among Middle East specialists has always been, "No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria."

American and Egyptian armed forces have conducted large-scale exercises for decades. These exercises paved the way for Egypt to send a 35,000 man force to fight alongside American troops in the Gulf War in 1990-91, making its contribution the third largest of all countries. Ten Egyptian soldiers died in combat in Kuwait.

The U.S.-Egyptian relationship is critical to our policy in the region. It ranks up there with our relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. A serious disruption in that relationship, for example should an Islamist government emerge in Cairo, would be a serious setback. The peace process as we know it would end. The concern over the relationship is also being felt in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

There have also been demonstrations in Jordan and Yemen, both American allies. The relationship with Jordan is also long and deep, with extensive intelligence and military cooperation. King 'Abdullah appears to still have the support of the population, but there is a desire for more input into the political process, especially among younger Jordanians. The king fired the prime minister and appointed a replacement. The replacement was soundly rejected by many of those demanding change. The king will likely make accommodations, after all, that is how Jordan's ruling family has survived.

Yemen, what I call a "nominal" American ally, faces a bigger challenge. Yemen has a violent history and tradition; guns are often the means of conflict resolution. Yemen's importance has grown in recent years as the southern Arabian peninsula has become a battleground for Islamic fundamentalists, specifically al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih has already committed to not seek re-election in 2013, but this may not be enough for those calling for political reform. Yemen is home to American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi, who is complicit in the Fort Hood shootings, the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner and attempted sabotage of aircraft with bombs secreted in printer cartridges. Removal of a friendly government in Yemen will not bode well for the war on terror.

I will forgo comment on Syria, since there is no way to construe it as either an American ally or even friendly to the United States. Given Syria's track record on handling internal protest and dissent, I am doubtful that there will be meaningful demonstration-driven change in the country.

While change in Syria might actually be a good thing for American foreign policy, the other potential changes are not. Loss of Egypt as an ally could be catastrophic for our efforts in the Middle East. The loss of Tunisia, possibly Algeria, Lebanon (which I believe is already gone), Jordan and Yemen would be of great concern.

It is impossible to predict with any certainly the outcome of the current unrest in the Middle East. Anyone who attempts predictions is merely speculating. That said, the landscape when the dust finally settles will be markedly different than it was just a month ago at the end of 2010. It may not be to our liking, and we shoud be prepared for that eventuality.

February 1, 2011

Syrian President's remarks on Tunisia and Egypt

Syrian protesters outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus.
The sign reads, "Yes to freedom"

As I am often wont to say, you cannot make this stuff up. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, actually said:

"Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence…you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances."

This is not a translation issue, those are his exact words in English. President al-Asad speaks English fluently; he was educated in the United Kingdom and his wife, although of Syrian nationality, was born, raised and educated in London. I suspect much of the conversation in the president's residence is in English rather than Arabic.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that President al-Asad is seeking to decouple Syria from the demonstrations that are taking place across the Arab world. After the fall of the Bin 'Ali government in Tunisia and the impending fall of the Mubarak government in Egypt, along with demonstrations in Yemen and Jordan, it is only natural that yet another Arab dictator girded in the mantle of a republic would seek to distance himself from the unrest spreading across the region.

I lived in Syria for almost three years (my photos); I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. At that time, the president was Bashar's father Hafiz. The al-Asad's have been the ruling family of Syria since 1970; Hafiz was a key player for years before that. The al-Asad's are not part of what sociologists would describe as the "fabric" of Syria. The family is part of a religious minority called the 'Alawis. The 'Alawis are from the Mediterranean coastal area near the northern port city of Latakia (al-Ladhiqiyah), but have been key power brokers in the country for decades.

The 'Alawis have prospered in Syria for several reasons, but all revolve around successful interaction with the other ethnic and religious groups in the country. Many 'Alawis used the military to advance in Syrian society. This was the chosen path for Bashar's father Hafiz al-Asad. Hafiz joined the military and attended pilot training. Later he became the commander of the Syrian Air Force, and then Minister of Defense. It was from this position in 1970 that he took over the country in what he labeled the "Correctionist Movement." He could hardly call it a revolution since his coup was against a member of his own Ba'th Party.

During the late 1980's and until his untimely death in a car accident of his own making in 1994, the heir apparent to the Syrian presidency was Hafiz's eldest son Basil. Basil was being groomed for the post with the requisite military training and public relations campaign that portrayed him as the best Syria had to offer. He seemed capable to me, although I detected some resentment at what many Syrians regarded as the attempted creation of a dynasty. After Basil's death, Hafiz ordered the return of his second son Bashar who was studying opthalmology in London. Bashar was groomed as the new successor to his father.

When Hafiz al-Asad died in 2000, Bashar had not yet attained the minimum presidential age of 40 as mandated by the Syrian constitution. The National Assembly met and changed the constitution within hours to allow anyone 34 years of age to serve as president. Bashar, coincidentally(?) 34 years of age, was elected president with an alleged 97 percent majority of the votes.

Voting in Syria is not like voting in the United States. A Syrian physician friend explained it to me. On election day, he went to work at the hospital and was called to the office of the administrator. In the office were two Ba'th Party "officials," more like thugs, who told him that he was much too busy at the hospital to go to the polls and that they had taken the liberty of completing his ballot for him. They asked if he had a problem with that. He thanked them for their consideration. That's how you garner 97 percent of the vote.

So when I hear President Bashar al-Asad utter with a straight face, "Syria is stable...because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people," I have to shake my head in amazement.

Syria is stable, or about as stable as you can be in this part of the world. The reason it is stable is not because the government is "closely linked to the people." It is stable because the pervasive and overlapping Syrian intelligence and internal security agencies have permeated virtually every sector of society. The country is the poster child for repression and human rights abuses. I cannot think of a government more far removed from "the beliefs of the people."

There were demonstrations in Syria over the last few days. Demonstrations in Syria do not occur without the permission or orchestration of the regime. The recent demonstrations were not aimed at the al-Asad regime, but were carefully contrived and controlled events held outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus. It was to give the impression that Syrians are free to assemble, free to speak.

Past demonstrations are telling. After Basil's death in 1994, people were notified via their labor and trade unions (it is a socialist country) what time they were to gather for "spontaneous outpourings of grief." There have also been orchestrated demonstrations at the American embassy in years past, one turning violent and setting fire to some buildings on embassy grounds.

In one defining event, however, the Syrians learned what their government will tolerate and what it will not. It was in 1982 in the northern city of Hamah, the fourth largest city in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood had decided to defy the Syrian government. President Hafiz al-Asad deployed elements of the Syrian army under the command of his ruthless brother Rifa't. Syrian artillery flattened the center of the city and killed upwards of 25,000 people. The Syrian response has become notorious around the world as "The Hamah Rules.

The Syrians learned the rules. They don't make the rules, and they don't break the rules.

At least not yet.