Assad and Gaddafi: The Not So Odd Couple

Bashar Assad proves himself to be a loyal ally of the Libyan dictator. Whereas the Arab world and most of the international community, but for the likes of Hugo Chavez, mince no words of condemnation to Gaddafi, Assad reserves his criticisms to the West, warning against any outside involvement aimed at stopping the carnage.

Moreover, according to a multiplicity of sources, elements of the Syrian Air force support Gaddafi's ground forces. Interestingly enough, the Syrian regime does not go out of its way to deny these reports. So, what is the game of the young lion (Assad = lion in Arabic) in Damascus?

To start with, the Assad presidents and Gaddafi have been good friends for years, and on more than one occasion, this friendship led to dirty jobs serving mutual interests. The mysterious disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr, the charismatic Lebanese Sh'iite leader in Libya in the late 1970's is just one such case.

While most world attention is focused on Libya and Saudi Arabia, things are also happening in Syria. A few days ago, Karim Arbaji, an opposition blogger, died at the age of 31. It was announced that he died of heart failure, something that could not be verified independently. What is known beyond a doubt is that the funeral in Bab Touma in the Damascus Christian quarter turned into an anti Assad demonstration, attended by the Greek Catholic Patriarch, clearly an unprecedented move by the clergy.

12 human rights groups in Syria, both representing Arabs and Kurds issued a petition against the regime, and inmates in a jail near Damascus rioted and were violently put down. This is all unheard of in the Assad era. Something, the extent of which is not clear, is happening in Syria, and with it a possible explanation to why the regime may be interested in its population being aware of the involvement in Libya.

This is Assad's way of signaling to them that what he helps doing in Libya he definitely can do in Syria itself. Some may call it a friendly warning, and others may recall that after the Hamma massacre of the Syrian Muslim brotherhood in February-March of 1982, agents of the regime inflated the number of casualties, in order to gain the deterrence effect over the population. To be sure, thousands were murdered, but not tens of thousands.

It is clear, that the regime has a vested interest in preventing a Gaddafi collapse, as the potential ramifications on Syria's people are all too obvious. Besides, Assad wants to show that only pro-American regimes are toppled during the current mayhem. Gaddafi, therefore, needs to survive at all costs.

Publicly, the regime maintains the façade of business as usual, and the president declared that the Syrian people enthusiastically supports his anti-American and anti-Israel policy. That may be, but just to be on the safe side, food subsidies were dramatically raised, access to the social networks is blocked and the security forces in Damascus have been reinforced and are mainly composed of members of the Alawi minority.

With all that happening, there is a significant question pertaining to the U.S. policy with regard to Syria. Recently, there was a controversy surrounding the Obama administration's decision to send back the American Ambassador to Damascus. At the time, it was the right thing to do, as the U.S. should exhaust every logical avenue of coming to a dialogue with a regime like Syria's, which can play a meaningful role in Middle Eastern politics. But then, what happens when Assad does not play ball, and his policy is diametrically opposed to that of the administration?

Take, for example, the Syrian-Hezballah alliance in Lebanon, which brought down the pro-American PM Sa'ad Hariri, and now the Assad overt support of Gaddafi. The Libyan issue should be the Rubicon that Bashar Assad is not be allowed to cross. Clearly, the same ambassador that was just sent to Damascus, can be recalled again.

The writing for the Bashar Assad regime may already be on the wall. Today it is Tripoli and Bengazi, soon enough it could be Damascus and Aleppo. If not for other reasons, it is the need for consistency and credibility that requires much more American attention being given to Syria.