I was living in Syria the last time that the world was talking about President Bashar al-Assad's imminent demise. With neighboring Iraq's Saddam Hussein (a Ba'ath party leader, like Assad) overthrown, many of my students at the University of Damascus anticipated that soon we could remove the portraits of Assad from our classrooms. For encouraging dissent, I was monitored by the dreaded secret service, the mukhabarat. During my two-year stay in Syria, I was detained at airports and threatened with deportation if I did not stop calling for democracy. I was branded a CIA agent by regime-loyalist students who objected to my patronage of a student debate society in Damascus -- an early attempt to encourage young people to think freely.
I supported the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, but I also learned from the many mistakes that followed. Much like Iraq under Saddam, the ruling Ba'ath party in Syria controls almost every aspect of public life: business, military, media, police, education, and even religious institutions. Regime change in Syria would be bloody and protracted. I still maintain frequent contact with friends in Syria, and visited the country regularly until late 2010. When friends in Washington, DC, such as the normally measured Steven Cook present the U.S. with a false choice of intervening militarily or seeing Assad stay in office longer, as he did in a recent article on this site, I worry.