Who to watch in 2014 — #2: Bashar al-Assad. Will he survive? Will Syria?

Bashar al-Assad.

Bashar al-Assad.

(Washington, D.C.) — This is the second in a series of columns on key people in the epicenter we should be keeping an eye on in 2014.

The first leader on my list was Jordan’s King Abdullah II — a fascinating Arab Reformer, the son of a bold Reformer, actively trying to lead his small, resource-poor, but vitally important nation towards progress and freedom, tolerance and modernity in a very tough neighborhood. The King is trying to improve his nation’s economy, is keeping close ties with the Arab world, maintains a close friendship with the U.S., and is maintaining his nation’s courageous peace treaty with Israel. He’s also actively trying to help the Palestinians and Israelis make peace. All the while, he is standing strong against the Radical forces in the region. I’m currently reading his 2011 book, Our Last Best Chance, and studying him carefully to see if he and his monarchy can navigate successfully through the upheavals of the so-called “Arab Spring.” (see my column on the King published on January 10th)

Today I want to focus on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a cruel dictator, the son of a cruel dictator, who is massacring his people as he presides over the implosion of a country engulfed in civil war.

Assad came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. But few leaders in the region are in as much danger as he at the moment.

As readers of this blog — and my novel last year, Damascus Countdown — know, I have a great interest in and concern about the future of Syria.

These are the big questions I’m asking as the year begins:

  1. Will Assad fall from power? (the West seemed poised to bring him down in 2013 after his regime used chemical weapons, but then backed off)
  2. Will he find a way to stop those trying to bring him down?
  3. How many will die in the process?
  4. Will he and his family physically survive? 
  5. If his regime collapse, will Syria be overtaken by Iran and Hezbollah, or by al Qaeda and other Radicals?

At the moment, the jury is still out.

As I noted the other day, the situation inside Assad’s Syria is horrific:

Clearly, a terrible evil has been unleashed. Syria is collapsing. It is hard to imagine putting the country back together any time soon. Indeed, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the geopolitical nation-state we have long known as “Syria.”

The New York Times is reporting today that “Secretary of State John Kerry pledged $380 million in new assistance on Wednesday to help civilians who are suffering because of the civil war in Syria. The pledge came as Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, who is chairman of the donors’ conference here, said that $6.5 billion was needed to provide medical care, food, water and shelter for Syrian refugees and civilians inside the country through 2014. That is the largest appeal for assistance in the history of the United Nations. It comes as the number of Syrian refugees has grown and conditions inside the country have dramatically deteriorated.”

In my 2009 non-fiction book, Inside The Revolution — which now needs updating given the dramatic, tumultuous events of the past several years — I put Assad into a category of Mideast leaders called “Resisters.”

Let me explain, and put this point into you some context:

There are six categories I used in the book to outline the players in the region, who they are, and what they want:

1. The Radicals are extremist Muslims. They want to overthrow every regime from North Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia and replace them with Islamist dictatorships who believe that “Islam is the answer and jihad is the way.” These include groups such as al-Qaeda, Iranian Twelvers, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

2. The Reformers are moderate Muslims. They generally believe that “Islam is the answer, but jihad is not the way; we need more freedom, more openness, more protection of human rights and civil rights, free elections, free markets, and the creation of full-blown Jeffersonian democracies, if at all possible.” Historically, this category would include Kemal Ataturk; Anwar Sadat; Jordanian Kings Hussein and Abdullah II; Moroccan king Mohammed VI; and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

3. The Revivalists are former Muslims who have left Islam and converted to Christianity. They say that “Islam is not the answer, jihad is not the way, Jesus is the way — and the only way for our part of the world to move forward and make real and lasting social, economic and spiritual progress is to skip back in our history before Islam and revive what we once had: first-century, New Testament Christianity.” These tend to be apolitical. They don’t typically focus on political change. They are generally focused on evangelism, discipleship, church planting, pastor training, and spiritual renewal. Their numbers have swelled into the millions since 1979, despite widespread (and recently intensifying) persecution.

These are the revolutionary forces in the region, people and movements who push for dramatic, sweeping change.

But there is another set of important players:

4. The Resisters tend to be secular Arab-nationalist leaders who oppose significant change of almost any kind. They may be Muslims, but they are not jihadists. They don’t want to build an Islamic empire. They want to build their own empires. Once they gain power, they strongly oppose revolutionary movements of all kinds. They simply want to hold onto the power, wealth, and prestige that they currently have, and gain more if they can. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was a classic Resister. So was the late-Libyan leader Moammar Ghadaffi, and the late-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The royal family and senior leaders of Saudi Arabia are classic Resisters. Syrian President Bashar Assad most certainly falls into this camp. He is doing everything he can — including using chemical weapons — to resist change and maintain his own power.

5. The Reticent tend to be weak-willed Arab leaders who seem constantly pulled in opposite directions. They don’t have strong convictions. At times they appear to want peace with Israel or a modicum of political or social reform, but then other forces push back at them and they waffle or change their tune. At the moment, Mahmoud Abbas is the best example of a Reticent leader.

6. Finally, and most importantly, are the Rank-and-File — these are the 1.4 billion or so everyday Muslims citizens. They work hard, play by the rules, and try to find decent jobs so they can feed and educate their families. They long for more freedom and opportunity, but mainly they keep their heads down and try not to be interfered with. They are the audience to which the revolutionaries are playing. They are watching the battle between the Radicals and the Reformers, and they are increasingly curious about the message of the Revivalists. And some of them are making their move and joining one of the revolutionary movements. 

Few Arab leaders create a more vivid contrast that Jordan’s Abdullah and Syria’s Assad. One is a Reformer. The other is a Resister. Let us keep a close eye on them both.

Meanwhile, to my Christian friends around the world, let us remember that the Lord Jesus Christ loves these men. He created them. He cares for them. He has a plan and purpose for each of them. That’s what the Bible teaches. So let us pray faithfully for them, as well as for their families and the nations they lead at this critical time.

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