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The War Nerd / April 29, 2011
By Gary Brecher

Something’s been going on in Syria for a while now. I’ve already written about the Deraa protests as an example of the big role guerrilla funerals play in irregular war, but it’s time to look at the more general prospects in Syria.

It’s easy to fit Syria into the notion of a wave of protests spreading out from Cairo after the shock victory the demonstrators there had against Mubarak, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what’s going on.

One of the puzzles is that the trouble started in Deraa, a little farm town in the very southwest corner of Syria. Deraa doesn’t seem to have any reputation as a trouble spot. There’s a big Palestinian camp near the town, but I don’t get the feeling that the Palestinian refugee slums are playing much of a part in the protests. The angriest people seem to be the farmers, and they’re mad about the things that always make small farmers mad: water allocation and property rights.
Bashir Assad, the second-generation tall dude with a mustache who runs Syria, did the natural thing by replacing the Deraa regional governor, Faysal Kalthum, who naturally got the blame and the hate for doing what the regime told him to do. But it wasn’t enough. The trouble’s been spreading out from Deraa, even to Damascus, where people marched last week chanting “Deraa is Syria.”

They didn’t use to feel that way. There used to be a saying in Syria that if you got three people together in Damascus, they’d form a political party, but if you got three people together in Deraa, they’d have a prayer meeting. That was Deraa’s rep: Conservative, Islamic country people.

Then came the water wars with Israel and Jordan. If you’ve ever been in the Imperial Valley, or up to Eastern Washington, you know how crazy irrigation-dependent farmers can get when their water’s cut off. Suddenly their land is worthless desert and their whole life is over. There’s nobody crazier than the farmers of Eastern Washington. I spent a summer there once and thought I was stuck at a summer camp for the Iron Guard. And the basis of their wackiness is knowing that wimpy city folk in Seattle can decide any day to cut off the river allocations that let them grow their crops and feel good about themselves. And God, do they feel good about themselves. Most conceited people I ever met, think you’re worthless if you’re not a big farmer.

The farmers in Deraa have the bad luck to be down where the borders of Israel, Jordan and Syria crunch together. It’d be easy to blame the water war on Israel/Arab tension, and that’s part of it, but water just seems to breed hate even when everybody in the neighborhood is Muslim. One example that’s going to make for interesting times soon is the dams the Turks are building on the headwaters of the big Iraqi rivers. When those flows are in the hands of Turkish bureacrats, the downstream Iraqis are suddenly going to be at the mercy of a tap that can be turned off from Istanbul whenever Baghdad lets the Kurds cause the Turks any trouble. Hijinks will ensue, you can be pretty sure of that.

The other factor that might have made all this trouble start in a sleepy Islamic town like Deraa is religion. Yup, we’re pretty much dealing with the usual suspects here, water and religion. And “religion” in most of the world is pretty much identical with “ethnic group/tribe,” so you’ve got that heating up the pot too. The family that rules Syria, the Assads, are Alawites, a weird sect that as far as I can figure out is about halfway between Shia and Druze. Which means they worship the martyred Ali, they have that same sense of doomed defeatism the Shia all love, but they go even further than the Shia toward flirting with other religions in secret, like the Druze do.

The Alawites lived in northwestern Syria, Latakia and the coast, the other end of the country from Deraa. They were considered trash til the French arrived and made them their favorite lackeys. You get that a lot in colonies: The lowest tribe of all is just bound to be more welcoming of the colonists. Why not? Things can only get better, and they have nothing to lose. So the French trained the Alawites to do admin chores and this tribe of losers who weren’t even considered Muslims learned how to deal with cities and offices. That’s an important military skill. And it paid off: After a coup in 1965 by early Ba’athists, an Alawite officer, Hafez al-Assad, consolidated his own power by about 1970.

Hafez al-Assad: Looked like a banker but was even meaner

That was a big black cloud on the Sunni disposition of the average Syrian Muslim.

The first revolt against the Assads and their Alawite cronies came in Hama, a very conservative Sunni town near Damascus. The Muslim Brotherhood made one of those bad-idea last stands in the place, Fortress Hama, and Assad’s scary brother Rifat just brought in the artillery and troops and leveled the place. That kept other conservative Muslim towns like Deraa quiet for quite a while, but there’s this sense that the son, Bashir, isn’t as scary as his dad and uncle were, and it’s worth the risk of rising again.

Bashir al-Assad: Not as tough as his dad?

That’s the big difference this time: The fear factor, to coin a phrase, isn’t there as much. It shocked every Arab alive to see how easily Mubarak fell, and who could resist rattling the chains a little to see if they’re as weak as Cairo’s turned out to be?

I’m not sure it’ll be as easy in Syria, though. The Egyptian Army broadcast barely-coded notice, early on in the Cairo riots, that it wasn’t going to back Mubarak. That’s why the riots worked. The Syrian Army doesn’t seem as convinced that it can work with these crazy demonstrators, maybe because conservative Islamic farmers are tougher to negotiate with than Cairo-based Microsoft VPs. The Army, in a situation like this, signals its attitude by firing or not firing. And so far, the Syrian Army seems to be voting for the Assads by volley.

Would you like to know more? Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to gary dot brecher at gmail dot com. Read Gary Brecher’s first ever War Nerd column by clicking here.

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Add your own

  • 1. The Dark Avenger  |  April 29th, 2011 at 8:43 am

    This just in from the LA Times:

    “With our souls, with our blood we sacrifice for you, Dara,” protesters called out in the far eastern ethnic Kurdish city of Qamishli, referring to the embattled southern city under seige by the armed forces of ruler Bashar Assad.

    Assad can’t counter the martyr card with bullets, so what’s left?

    There were also continuing reports of dissent within the armed forces. A Dara resident said an entire army unit, either a division or brigade, had broken off and was hiding among the people.

    This could be the beginning of guerrilla warfare against troops that have no idea how to fight back, any thoughts on that one?,0,2903312.story?track=rss

  • 2. Lavrentij "Anarch99" Lemko  |  April 29th, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Syria is a country of a million sects (Alawites, ahl al-haq, Yezidis, Nusayri, etc.). The country is held together by ba’athist Alawites. If the regime, which is the only thing holding the country together, should fall, all hell will break lose, sorta like the former Yugoslavia, but much worse and more sectarian.

  • 3. Michal  |  April 29th, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Thanks for that article. Things make a bit more sense now.

  • 4. Doug  |  April 29th, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Well not saying these are perfects, but as estimates here are is what intrade says:

    Qaddafi’s trading at a 63% chance of leaving, an overthrow in Yemen is an 89% chance, Assad’s only at a 35% chance barely above Bahrain’s 28% chance.

    I think the key difference between Mubarrak and Assad is that Egypt was a US ally and Syria is a US “enemy.” The State Dept loves nothing more than to stab US allies in the back, especially if they perceive said allies to be more aligned with the Pentagon than Foggy Bottom.

    Just look at Chiang Kai-Shek, Batista, Ngo Dinh Diem, Pinochet, Suharto, Ian Smith, even Saddam (who was after all America’s best ally in the Middle East in the 80s). Meanwhile Castro, the Ayatollah, Chavez, Kim Jong Il, Mugabe, Ho Chi Minh, Mao, Cardenas, and Peron all either died in power or probably will.

    State stabbed Mubarrak in the back, just like they do whenever they get the chance with every single right-wing strongman ally the US has. Even though time and time again these are consistently the best allies America has in the third world. Does anyone think the chaos in Libya would be still be going on if Qaddafi kept it as a rogue state?

    Assad’s smart. By keeping staying a terrorist state and keeping the Americans out, he won’t get the rug pulled out from under him in some turf war between State and Defense. He doesn’t have to worry (as much) about squeamish CNN viewers when he shoots a couple of protestors.

    The message is pretty clear for third world leaders around the world: A) Ally with America, and be of such strategic importance that State isn’t going to mess with you (like Turkey), B) Be an anti-American (leftist or anti-colonial) rogue state, or C) Be so isolated from the rest of the world that no one even cares about you (like Bhutan).

    Anyway needless to say this policy is not conducive to the US’s long-term foreign policy interests.

  • 5. Nestor  |  April 29th, 2011 at 10:43 am

    It was a google vp, or whatever he was, not microsoft, if I’m getting your reference right.

    A bit significant in the sense google has been an overt international player (Like in China with the great firewall tug of war) while microsoft has always been more low key, just doin’ business here, no drama

  • 6. Jack Boot  |  April 29th, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Bashir does have that nerdy look about him; and why not? He’s an opthamolgist by trade – he’d rather repair eyes than pluck them out…

    But vicious or not, Dr. Assad’s in a spot of trouble – and not only he. Perhaps dictators are becoming an endangered species. Why?

    The primary objective of any dictatorship is to isolate its subjects: “Am I the only one who hates this regime? How can I find out without stumbling on an informant?”
    Thanks to social media, finding out is no longer a problem…

  • 7. Geoduck  |  April 29th, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Since you mentioned it..
    Talk about tribalism. As a lifelong (western) Washington state resident, another thing that makes the easterners go crazy is that they are ultimately dependent on state revenue extracted from the Seattle-based granola-crunching masses to keep their whole physical infrastructure up and running; they simply don’t have a large enough population to generate the needed taxes.
    We might have all been happier in Washington and Oregon if they had run the state lines north/south along the Cascade mountains, instead of the Columbia River..

  • 8. Michal  |  April 29th, 2011 at 10:50 am

    @ 4. I don’t think state department saying “you guys need to end violence and initiate reforms” changed all that much when it came to Egypt. I don’t think any government on the world has the power to send foreign people into streets to topple their government just by making meek statements about someone’s domestic issues. What would you do in US state department’s place?

  • 9. Retro Man  |  April 29th, 2011 at 11:13 am

    With large anti-regime demonstrations taking place in Homs, Hama, Baniyas, Latakia, Qamishli, and the capital Damascus to protest the military crackdown in Daraa, I’d say things are going out of hand pretty soon in Syria. Seeing Mubarak and the Tunisian Ben Ali’s fate, I’m guessing Bashar al-Assad is going to be more inspired by Bahrain or Libya

  • 10. wengler  |  April 29th, 2011 at 12:00 pm


    You must get your history from a John Birch Society approved pamphlet, because your ‘stab-in-the-back’ State Department theory isn’t supported by any evidence. If only it were true.

    Also it would be better to have a photo on this post of the current protest of Syrians rather than past protests of Lebanese against Syrian occupation.

  • 11. wengler  |  April 29th, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    It would be ironic if Assad used Iraqi refugees as his loyalist soldiers to put down the uprising.

  • 12. allen  |  April 29th, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    I’m reasonably sure with Egypt you see a bit of the ideological hand of the Obama administration working in stealth. The Egyptian army is close to the United Staes, closer than Israel’s will ever be, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Egyptian Army’s leadership got the old “thumbs down” on Mubarak from the pentagon via the whitehouse.

  • 13. Doug  |  April 29th, 2011 at 12:36 pm


    Any revolution is at its core a coordination game.

    For those that rebel when there’s not a large enough contingent of rebels there’s a big negative payoff (prison, torture, death etc.). However if you rebel when there is a large enough mass going into rebellion you’ll win, and reap very large rewards, especially if you entered the rebellion early.

    The logic is simple for any political regime not wishing to be overthrown (whether dictatorship, democractic or anything in between): A) Make the payoff for unsuccessful rebellion very negative (very stiff penalties for treason), B) Prevent coordination by punishing even small attempts to rebel (very low threshold for what constitutes treason), C) Increase the coordination threshold (by deploying your full heavy force to wipe out rebellions early on) and D) Reduce the positive payoff for successful rebellion (by signaling a willingness to burn the whole country to the ground in a protracted civil war, rather than relinquish power).

    Now, we can examine why Mubarrak failed where Assad can succeed. One key difference is that the Egyptian government’s survival for better or worse was inextricably linked to the support of the United States. It receives over $2bn dollar a year in aid. Its military equipment, especially its air force, would fall into disrepair if embargoes by the US. Its next door to a country that could seize Cairo in 6 weeks if it took off the kid gloves like back in ’67 (and unlike Syria its diplomatic ties with the US and Israel has left it bereft of local Arab allies).

    It’s clear that Mubarrak or any establishment Egyptian government would not have lasted a long time if they seriously ran afoul of US government or public opinion. Assad on the other hand has to worry about getting the rogue leader treatment of getting blown up in his bunker, but how serious does anyone rate the threat of the US engaging in a ground war and occupation of yet another hostile Baathist country.

    Early on Hilary Clinton made the announcement urging the Egyptian government to democratically resolve the protests and initiate reforms. Clearly the wrong action to take, it shifts the coordination game massively against you. The right action is at the nicest disappear some dissidents PRC-style and at the meanest unleash some hot lead into crowds, then round up the leaders for public execution. Even if the reforms are necessary or a good idea, first punish everyone involved, then wait a few years so you don’t look like you’re rewarding treason.

    But right there in round one Hilary Clinton tied Mubarak’s hand behind his back. Even if he wanted to run afoul of Praetor Clinton’s Imperial Directive, there’s not a single high-ranking army officer who’s going to listen to that. They all know where the real power lies, are they going to listen to the patron state who’s support is the lifeblood of their government or the 82 year old client dictator? What’s better for their long-term career? On who’s side are they more likely to end up at the ICC?

    Assad’s officers on the other hand know that even if things start going bad, that if Assad wanted to he can fight a long slow, protracted civil war. With plenty of time for court martials before he exits stage right. The international community just isn’t that interested in Syria, like they are Egypt.

    Back to the question, how would I handle it if I ran State Department. First I would announce that Egypt is a sovereign country and not a client state. I would say whatever Mubarak chooses to do with his own citizens and dominion is no concern of ours (including expelling foreign reporters). Second I would announce aid and military support will continue no matter whatever the outcome or how it’s achieved to whoever is the de facto government of Egypt. Third I would announce aid and military assistance will phase out over a 15 year period to turn Egypt into a true sovereign nation, rather than a client state.

    Fourth I would say that the US is no longer going to restrain Israel. Anything Israel wants to do to its neighbors with its awesomely overpowering military is fair game. Considering how strong (comparatively) an ally Mubarak is of Israel, this might make the Muslim Brotherhood a little scared to actually start congregating in the parliament and presidential palace, where they’d make an easy target for a few hundred Delilah Missiles.

  • 14. Shamil Basayev  |  April 29th, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    @13 – Doug, Doug, Doug . . . you naive twit. Go back to sniffing glue and lighting your nose hairs on fire.

    There’s only one thing important in Syria, and that’s al-Assad’s wife. You notice what a prima hammer she is? Start to appreciate good stock like that and all the rest comes E-Z.

    Аллаху Акбар !!!

  • 15. Adam  |  April 29th, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Great points about how water controls drive farmers into a furore. If you think the Turkish dam builds will be interesting, imagine the clusterfuck that will emerge when India dams up those dirty streams that flow into Pakistan. I bet you could see combat use of some certain toys that haven’t seen action in about 65 years…

  • 16. Caio Blinder  |  April 29th, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Shahid Shamil, Asma é apenas uma outra piranha!

  • 17. super390  |  April 29th, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Doug, what did Mubarak ever do for ordinary Americans besides steal $30,000,000,000 of their tax dollars (estimated size of Mubarak family fortune)?

    In fact, what did any right-wing dictator ever do to help Americans who are not of the ownership class? As General Smedley Butler said of his role in occupying and installing right-wing dictators in Latin America, “War is a racket.”

  • 18. Esn  |  April 29th, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Concerning water: Uzbekistan is also getting mighty pissed off about those big dams that Tajikistan is constructing. Not that they can do much, and really it was their own damn fault because if they hadn’t closed off the border long ago in an attempt to bankrupt Tajikistan, the Tajiks wouldn’t have needed to start building those dams (and becoming more self-sufficient) in the first place.

  • 19. Esn  |  April 29th, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    The story I was told while I was in Tajikistan, actually, was that Karimov supported the coup of the current Tajik president in return for a big slice of Tajikistan’s territory – but once Rahmon was in power, he wouldn’t give it to him. And that’s why relations between the two countries are in the gutter now; Uzbekistan closed off the border and tried to starve them, so Tajikistan had to build its own roads, power lines, and electricity dams, all of which used to come from across the border in the Soviet period.

  • 20. Esn  |  April 29th, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    More details come to memory: it wasn’t Rahmon himself who agreed to give the territory, but certain military commanders under him, who later on died off one by one.

  • 21. Abdulaziz bin Olaf Finkelstein  |  April 29th, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    a friend of mine is Syrian, actually a Catholic Armenian (as opposed to an Armenian Armenian) from Aleppo. He tells me he is scared as always when there is trouble the minorities, such as the Armenians, get whacked.
    Knowing that there are dozens of religious groups and sub-groups in Syria, this could end up pretty bad

  • 22. PS  |  April 29th, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    Apparently, the muslim brotherhood has a bigger hand in the syrian opposition movement than it did in the egyptian uprising. However, if the Syrians play their hand badly you could see protests from the wide spectrum of syrian society, not just sunnis.

    One thing to consider is, Israel would prefer to see Assad stay in power. Although both sides have no relations, and lob insults at each other, Syria has not done anything to reclaim the golan heights, nor has it actively funded hamas or terrorism within Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah has warm relations with Syria and would prefer not to have the regime fall into potentially salafi hands.

    Hezbollah, Israel and possibly Iran on the same side versus Saudi Arabia, and the gulf states who want to install a sunni run government in Damascus? It’s a damn good time to be a war nerd

  • 23. Soj  |  April 29th, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    I can’t predict what will happen in Syria but Qaddafi will die an old man in a luxury bed in Tripoli.

  • 24. pimp of the Balkans  |  April 29th, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    I may have lost the plot, but why do the media expect me to be upset over Assad’s crackdown? How’s Assad’s Syria worse for me than one run by the dirtiest wahhabi bastards this side of Dhahran? Or… are the protesters going to usher in a new age of democracy? Haven’t we woken up from those tardbag dreams cca 2004?

  • 25. Jie ke  |  April 29th, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Hehe, Sunni disposition

  • 26. CensusLouie  |  April 29th, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Poor Bashir. When the actor best suited to play you in a movie is Shia LeBouef, your days are numbered.

  • 27. altekeks  |  April 30th, 2011 at 2:00 am

    Brecher, you are saying yourself (!) that this is neither about water nor about religion. This is about weakness in leadership! Level the place and people’ll keep quiet for another generation…

  • 28. joseph  |  April 30th, 2011 at 5:11 am

    Probably the best analysis I’ve read of who the Alawi are and their beliefs:

  • 29. Grün  |  April 30th, 2011 at 8:37 am

    One key difference is that the Egyptian government’s survival for better or worse was inextricably linked to the support of the United States. It receives over $2bn dollar a year in aid.

    Why don’t you look up what % of GDP that is. It’s a very small %.

    Its military equipment, especially its air force, would fall into disrepair if embargoes by the US.

    Maybe I would trust you on this had you not said $2 billion was important in this game.

    Its next door to a country that could seize Cairo in 6 weeks if it took off the kid gloves like back in ’67

    Yeah, in theory. In practice, they’re already facing more than enough risk of being Rhodesia’d-South Africa’d, as it is – or at least, of being forced into a sucky deal. Theoretically I could rob a bank and get rich, or swipe cars.

  • 30. nosuchthingasshould  |  April 30th, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Why does everyone asume that’army declared against mubarak’ early on? they sat on the fence throughout the whole thing, making only sure that everyone is clear on one point: they are the boss. they flew the jets for mubarak over tahrir, but didn’t shoot. they drove the tanks out and stood there, clear for all to see ‘we are the guys with the tanks’ but they didn’t shoot. they allowed mubarrak every attempt at staying in power, including letting in his paid thugs to try and clear the square, and only when it was clear he cannot pull it off by any means that dont implicate them, told him to go. now they are reconsolidating power, including sending in those same thugs to clear the square, this time succesfully because most protesters thought theyve won and went home. theres crackdown on unions and protest, people are dissapearing, but the herd is distracted by the arrest of the boogeyman.
    why did the army sit on the fence? because egypt isnt libia. its economy is made up of many pies and the army has its fingers in all of them. qadaffi doesnt really need most of his population. a civil war for control of his only asset, the oil, makes perfect sense. in egypt, to keep its rackets going, the army needs stable and cooperative labour force.

  • 31. Bester  |  April 30th, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    It’s obvious that USA planned simultaneous color revolutions in the middle east and it’s working.

    But the key element to success is this – do they manage to buy the repressive apparatus, which is the army? IF they do, the army idles and the protesters take over.

    The army couldn’t be bought in Belarus recently, in Libya, now in Syria. Ok, well… They still managed to buy the army in Georgia, placing their puppet Saakashvili there. Also in Kyrgyzstan, in Egypt, in Ukraine, etc…

  • 32. gary  |  April 30th, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    it’s the old dictator story…can the son keep power..most cannot,they just don’t make em like they used to,,,when batista fled cuba he was first given asylum by trujillo who said “you call yourself a dictator? they are goig to have to kill me to takeover this country” they did

  • 33. ovaut  |  May 1st, 2011 at 5:31 am

    Ghonim was a Google VP.

  • 34. Keith  |  May 2nd, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Glad I got around to reading this – my hat tips to you for the best wordplay I’ve read in awhile:

    “That was a big black cloud on the Sunni disposition of the average Syrian Muslim.”

    I read it once, then reread it and laughed my ass off the second time.

  • 35. Carpenter  |  May 13th, 2011 at 9:04 am

    @13: Oh Doug, you’re one of those Republicans who actually believe the crap in National Review and the Weekly Standard. “Fourth I would say that the US is no longer going to restrain Israel. –Who writes these things that you parrot? People like David Frum and Bill Kristol – who happen to be Jewish. OF COURSE they want it to look like Israel is “restrained,” poor little defenseless country. They always want their tribe to look like the defenseless victim.

    But the fact is that the Israeli lobby runs U.S. Middle Eastern policy, thanks to the brethren in the media. So that “awesome military might” you swoon about Israel having, is nothing but guns and tanks and planes paid for by U.S. taxpayers’ daily work.

    Without this welfare, the Parasite State Israel would be nothing. Any Arab country could defeat an Israel left to fend for itself, by its own funding, in a week. Because Israel would be bankrupt and bleeding, and all the big Jews would have run to the U.S. and England and left the little Jews to be mowed down.

  • 36. BioDynamo  |  May 16th, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Ankara. The water gets turned off from Ankara, not Istanbul.

  • 37. moochio  |  June 25th, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    the mainstream media doesn’t report it, but there has just been a 10 million strong pro-assad rally held through out syria.

  • 38. moochio  |  June 25th, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    here’s another video of the pro-assad rally

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