Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based Islamic scholar, recently preached that the "train of the Arab revolution" had arrived in Syria. Syria could well be ripe for upheaval. Like Egypt and Libya, it has been run by a single family, one that lacks the legitimacy of a bona fide monarchy, for 40 years. And like Bahrain, Syria is ruled by a minority: its controlling elite (the Alawi sect of Shi'ite Islam) represents less than 15 percent of the total population of just over 22 million.
On the other hand, Syria under the Assad family remains tightly controlled. There are multiple security organs run by trusted Alawis. There is also a legacy of brutality against internal opponents. In 1982, then President Hafez Assad — the father of the current President, Bashar Assad — ordered the massacre of an estimated 20,000 in the city of Hama after the Muslim Brotherhood seized control there.
I came to know the father two decades ago, when I was the senior Middle East hand on the National Security Council staff. A meeting with Hafez was something of an ordeal; one had to withstand lectures on the Crusades that stretched for hours, without a bathroom break, lest one appear weak. (Like other American diplomats, I quickly learned to avoid drinking the tea.) He was an unsentimental pragmatist. In 1990, after the invasion of Kuwait, he joined the coalition against Saddam Hussein, and a year later, he was the first leader from the region to accept the U.S. invitation to attend the Middle East peace conference in Madrid. He did all this not because he loved either peace or America but to make sure Hussein could not dominate the region and to curry favor with the U.S., which, he calculated, would be highly influential in the aftermath of the Cold War.