Heroes of the Arab spring

A journalist with family in Syria told me there’s a joke going around that country these days.

“Why don’t women in Damascus have to wear a veil?”

“Because there’s no men there.”

In cities and towns throughout Syria, ordinary, unarmed citizens are protesting the decades-long Assad family dictatorship. They are being set upon and slaughtered by the thug puppets of President Bashar Assad.

His troops have captured, tortured, castrated and killed teenage boys as a way to terrorize their parents into submission. These so-called men will do anything — anything — to stay in power, protecting their warped sense of manhood by stealing it from boys.

Meanwhile, in the more mercantile-minded city of Aleppo and the capital Damascus, the men and boys have not taken to the street. For this, Syrians are mocking the manhood of their fellow citizens.

I get the reason for the sting, but I, for one, wouldn’t sit in judgment on anyone in Aleppo or Damascus. Syrian expert Fawaz Gerges said in an interview on National Public Radio that because those cities are critical to the Assad regime, any protest there will be met with overwhelming firepower and cruelty. If I lived there, I also might think twice about sticking my neck out.

In fact, if I lived anywhere in the Arab world over the past year, I’m not sure I’d have had the guts to be one of the ones on the front lines of any of these protests.

As Mubarak fell in Egypt, as Saleh did in Yemen, as Gadhafi appears, as I write, to be finally losing his grip in Libya, these people who have stood up to them have willingly exposed themselves to enormous risks, and all have paid a tremendous price — of their own lives or those of those close to them. The history of the Arab spring is a lesson in sheer human bravery.

And make no mistake: These mostly Muslim resisters haven’t just been fighting for themselves and their own freedom; they have been fighting for us.

Yes, us.

We may not want to admit it, and many of them might recoil in disgust at the thought, but when the history books are written, the Arab spring may be seen as a far more effective force for the spread of democracy and Western values in the Middle East than all the American and European soldiers, monies and neo-cons combined.

Think about it. Our great botched Iraq War, which was sold to deluded people like me as a front line for democracy in the heart of the Middle East, turned out to have the unintended consequence of strengthening one of the least democratic and most threatening states in the region, Iran.

The collapse of Saddam Hussein created a vacuum in Iraq that has been filled not by Israel-loving feminists reading “Common Sense” by the banks of the Tigris, but by the ayatollahs. The democratic domino effect that the neo-cons predicted became what Ehud Barak once described to me as a “Shiite Banana,” arcing across the region.

The occupation of Iraq was a boon to Iran, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said this week, reported in Haaretz. “Iran became more influential than it had ever dreamed.”

The spate of suicide bombings all this week in Iraq, with scores left dead and injured, has American officials wondering aloud whether the country won’t descend into chaos as President Barack Obama delivers on his promise to draw down American troops. If that happens, two things will follow: There will be a deafening global “I told you so” from every vindicated war critic, and Iran, which has spent our Iraq War devising ways to pursue nuclear weapons, will have a whole new country in which to hide them.

Against this utterly depressing, somewhat humiliating and altogether predictable scenario stands one unbowed fighting force: the Arabs. 

If these men, women and children take down Assad in Syria like others have taken down the despots in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and, hopefully, Libya, the Shiite Banana will hit the fan. 

“At stake is not just whether millions of Syrians will finally find freedom and liberty after four decades of dictatorial rule by the Assad family,” the Washington Institute’s Robert Satloff said last June in testimony before Congress. “At stake is the opportunity to strike a painful, perhaps decisive blow to the axis of anti-peace, anti-Western, anti-American regimes that is headquartered in Teheran, runs through Damascus, then on to Beirut and Gaza, and has aspirations to extend its reach to Baghdad, the Gulf and beyond.”

If what Satloff says is true, then we owe a huge debt to the Muslims currently risking their lives fighting for their freedom, whose success could well just stop Tehran in its hegemonic tracks. Keep in mind they are doing this without drones or Kevlar. They are, often literally, taking bullets for us. 

No one can predict how the Arab spring will play out across the region, whether some countries will regress into new forms of despotism, while others become neo-caliphates of the Muslim Brotherhood or, hopefully, continue the struggle for years toward democracy. But there is no denying that the intention compelling these flesh-and-blood people to face down lead and steel is to restore their dignity and their freedom.  

“In the place where there are no men,” Hillel said in the Mishnah, “strive to be a man.”

These Arabs — men, women and children — are showing us what the great rabbi meant.