People around the Arab Middle East have expressed great support for the demise of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, but that’s not likely to make much difference in the countries still gripped by their own uprisings: Syria and Yemen.
The regimes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh have already made clear their choice of how to respond to their people’s complaints and calls for their ouster – with an iron fist – and even U.S. President Barack Obama cannot just wish it were otherwise.
“Across the Arab world, citizens have stood up to claim their rights. Youth are delivering a powerful rebuke to dictatorship. And those leaders who try to deny their dignity will not succeed,” Mr. Obama said Thursday in commenting on the fall of Col. Gadhafi.
“For the region,” the U.S. President said “[Thursday’s] events prove once more that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end.”
That may be, but not without a lot of help. The only popular Arab uprisings to have succeeded in overthrowing their autocratic rulers (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) are those that had the support of the country’s military or Western intervention. Syria and Yemen have neither.
“The people of both Syria and Yemen know this, and the news from Libya will do little to embolden them,” said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel.
And not even the sight of what happened to Col. Gadhafi is likely to change the approach the beleaguered leaders of those countries have chosen.
“People in the West seem to think that social peace can only come from moderation and compromise,” he said. “In Middle East politics, the opposite is usually true. It is force and intimidation that keep the peace.”
In the Presidential Palace in Damascus, as Mr. al-Assad watches images of Col. Gadhafi’s body being manhandled in the streets of Sirte, the Syrian ruler will undoubtedly wonder: “Could that be me?”
But Mr. al-Assad’s response will not likely be to try to make nice with Syria’s protesters. “It will be the opposite,” said a Western diplomat with considerable experience in the region. “The images will stiffen his spine.”
“The Assad regime has placed its bet and is going to play out its hand,” the diplomat said. “It will fight to the end.”
If the scenes from Libya have any effect, he said, “it will show up first in the people on the fringes of the regime. They may decide it’s time to cut and run.”
“But that’s a highly risky proposition itself,” he added.