Libya, Yemen, Syria: The hierarchy of despotism

Neil Macdonald on why Washington is waging war in Libya and turning a blind eye elsewhere in the region.

As we stare at screens lit up by another precision-guided Middle Eastern war — and this has already gone far beyond Washington's "humanitarian no-fly zone" euphemism — take a moment and look to Libya's east.

Yemen's increasingly desperate dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has deployed tanks against his own people. Last Friday, government snipers killed about 50 protesters after midday prayers. The sharpshooters, it was reported, targeted their heads.

On Monday, dozens of senior Yemeni officials resigned over the massacre and one of the country's top generals joined the opposition.

Here in Washington, Saleh's spokesman denounced his own leader to reporters: "Friday broke our hearts; yesterday opened our eyes," said Mohammed al-Basha.

And from the U.S, whose president is making daily speeches about the international community's duty to protect innocent Libyan civilians?

Crickets. Near silence.

Taliban tactics

Yes, President Barack Obama made a vague declaration that Saleh should respect his people's freedoms, and that "those responsible for today's violence must be held accountable," as though Saleh himself might not have authorized it.

An anti-government protester in Yemen shows his bloodied hand after government forces opened fire on a rally in Sanaa on March 18. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

But as Obama's defence secretary, Robert Gates, said during a visit to Moscow: "I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen."

The sticky problem, of course, is that Ali Abdullah Saleh has been most co-operative with the CIA, which flies armed drones over Yemeni airspace aimed at suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

Gates did worry out loud about how the country's current instability might divert attention from efforts to contain and kill al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, or AQAP, as it is known in security circles.

That's a real concern, incidentally. Armed AQAP militants, according to published reports from Yemen, are now enthusiastic members of the uprising, rampaging in some southern cities.

One dispatch described them barging into nightclubs, evicting patrons at gunpoint and closing down the establishments —Taliban tactics.

But Gates expressed no humanitarian imperative for Yemen's civilians.

More crickets

Two thousand kilometres to the northwest, Syria is using bullets, truncheons and tear gas to crush unrest in that country's south.

The regime, which is among the most ruthless in the region, closed the southern city of Deraa, all the better to do what has to be done away from the eyes of prying outsiders.

There is no significant Islamist issue in Syria. The ruling Baathist forces put paid to the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama 29 years ago, slaughtering tens of thousands in a single week.

(Given its predilection for employing bloody force, it is perhaps no surprise that Syria was among the very few Arab countries last week expressing deep reservations about the UN-sponsored intervention in Libya.) 

As far as is known, the people protesting there now are just ordinary Syrians who want their freedom, and so far, the regime has killed at least 10 of them, possibly many more.

Reaction to the Syrian situation from the Arab League, which has been making statements about how deeply concerned it is for the endangered civilians of Libya? Crickets.

Then there is the little matter of Saudi Arabia. A big U.S. ally, it has dispatched 1,000 troops into tiny Bahrain, intent on helping a Sunni neighbor suppress and, in the process, kill Shia protesters, who happen to constitute a majority of the population.

The Shia call that an invasion. The U.S. disagreed with that characterization, but wouldn't elaborate.

The hierarchy of despotism

Looking at all this could lead a reasonable person to conclude that Washington's coalition regards the lives of Libyan civilians as a more precious commodity and more worthy of humanitarian protection than those of Syrians, Bahrainis and Yemenis who hunger for what President Obama is constantly calling their "universal values," etc., etc.

A Yemeni army officer is carried along by jubilant protesters in Sanaa on March 23. Dozens of senior government officials and diplomats, and some army officers, joined the anti-government protest after the violent crackdown. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

In fact, this is reality. America has national interests. That doesn't make the situation any less ugly, but the fact is that most Arabs, hungering to share America's values, are simply on their own.

Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for the Arab TV network Al-Arabiya, has a knack for articulating realpolitik.

He's one of those natty, well-educated Arab men of a certain age who have no illusions whatever about the culture from which they come.

"The Arab world is ruled by autocrats and despots, and there's a distinction," he told me. "Even despots occupy different places in the hierarchy of despotism.

"Let's be blunt about this. There is a difference between waging a genocide against your own people or engaging in the mass killing of your own people, and acts of violence that lead to the deaths of a few people."

Or 50 people? Or even a few hundred people? The line is blurry and how free you are to abuse your citizens clearly depends, at least partly, on how helpful you are to the big dogs (see above reference to Yemen's assistance in America's secret wars, or the fact that Bahrain is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet); or how powerful and well connected you might be.

Syria's regime, which sits atop Melham's hierarchy of despotism, is nonetheless widely admired in the Arab world as both an ancient culture and, historically, the most powerful voice of Arab nationalism.

Melham, who is far less deferential to authority than many Arab journalists, is thrilled with what is happening in the south of Syria: people marching day after day, facing the security forces from what he calls the Republic of Fear.

"What's going on in Syria is long overdue, my friend, and it is a beautiful contagion from the Egyptians and the Tunisians."

But then, in the same breath: "The regime in Syria is going to be just as lethal as the one in Libya." The Arab world's despots, he says, "have no peaceful retirement plans."

There's the equation, about as elegantly put as I have heard anyone put it.


  • In Neil Macdonald's column on Yemen on March 23, 2011, Mohammed Al-Basha was incorrectly identified as Ali Abdullah Salem's "ambassador" when in fact he is the Yemen leader's "spokesman."
    Mar 31, 2011 12:00 AM ET