The Syrian regime never had the ruthless self-confidence of its Iraqi neighbor, though it did bloodily crush a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama about a quarter-century ago. At present, it is in power mainly to be in power and doesn’t pretend to have any much grander aim. Its pan-Arab rhetoric is threadbare, its attitude to Islam necessarily compromised, its armed forces fifth-rate, its treasury a joke, and its occupation of Lebanon a thing of shreds and patches. It has made the huge mistake of promising “reforms” and then failing to produce them: always a sign of a moribund system. It has helped the CIA to identify and track down al-Qaida sympathizers, while continuing to flirt, somewhat unconvincingly, with the military wings of Hezbollah and Hamas. The last thing it needs is a rebellion by people who are sure that they are on the winning side. It can neither extirpate the Kurdish rebels nor satisfy them.
This indecision is partially replicated in Washington, which is in no hurry to alarm its Turkish ally with too much talk of Kurdish self-determination in either Iraq or Syria. But “regime change,” as those of us who favor it have always maintained, is not something that can too easily be manipulated. Colin Powell, who has always detested the policy, may have spent the past few days trying to reassure the Saudis that nothing too revolutionary is intended by American pronouncements about democracy. As usual, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Syria, and tomorrow in Iran, there are forces at work who intend to take these pronouncements with absolute seriousness. It would be nice if American liberals came out more forcefully and demanded that the administration live up to its own rhetoric on the question.