His new Middle East neighborhood cannot make Syria's dictator Bashar Assad very happy. Turkey is democratic to his north. A million Arabs vote in Israel to the south. Palestinians are near civil war to establish democratic rule their own terrorists more a threat to the newly elected Abu Abbas than are Israeli tanks.
Iraq to the east is settling down under its new autonomy, forging through blood and fire the Arab world's first true democracy. Lebanon is now afire with anti-Syrian sentiment, equating its occupation with the last obstacle to a democratic renaissance.
Beyond Syria's borders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement that he may be forced to act as if he will hold real elections is not welcome to Assad. Nor is the strange behavior of once-kindred Col. Moammar Gadhafi and all his unexpected talk of giving up forbidden weapons and letting Westerners back into Libya.
When Wahhabist Saudi Arabia promises municipal elections, or Afghan women line up at the polls for hours, then the world has been turned upside down. Syria's worst nightmare is not an American invasion, but an Arab League that is dominated by nascent democracies.
Thugocracies and kleptocracies, however, die hard. So will that of Bashar Assad. His henchmen probably blew up former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in fears that the Westernized entrepreneur dreamed of an open Arab Singapore or Monaco on the border. Now they are planning to unleash enough 1970s-style violence to terrify the Lebanese into preferring Syrian order to their own messy freedom. Hand-in-glove with fellow pariah Iran, Syria hopes to keep sending enough cash and expatriates back into Iraq to stop the democracy contagion before it infects any more.
The elder Hafez Assad once wiped the Syrian city of Hama off the map in the manner that Egyptian dictator Gamel Nasser had once gassed the Yemenis and Saddam Hussein had done the same with the Kurds. Now Assad is desperately reshuffling the old "hate the Jews" card, the "hate the Americans" card, the "Iraqi traitors" card, the "Lebanese infidels"' card anything to avoid the simple question of how did this pathetic gangster come to run Syria?
Young Assad knows that he was plopped down on a tiger from which he cannot jump off. Ex-Middle East dictators do not go quietly into the night in southern France. They usually are dragged at high noon through the street by a mob.
The terrorists of the Bekka Valley, the Hezbollah operatives in Damascus, the thousands of the Syrian Gestapo, the ex-Baathists and al-Qaidists who roam freely over the Syria border, all these killers won't take lightly to reform especially the drainage of one of their last lagoons of unfettered terrorism in the Middle East. So things could get far worse before they improve, as the noose tightens around this last, increasingly desperate Assad.
Forces are now in play that cannot be stopped, in part because the United States ceased the old realpolitik of appeasing the violent autocracies of the Middle East. The Taliban are history. So is Saddam. Arafat was ostracized and died in shame. Troops are gone from Saudi Arabia. Palestinians are voting. Oil is sky-high and Arabs are making a killing from their cartels and monopolies.
For Assad, three years of all this and the democratic ferment that has followed are nothing short of a catastrophe. Even the old propaganda about "Zionists," "colonialists," "oil thievery" and "American imperialism" can't quite avert the reckoning on the horizon.
More worrisome to him is the attitude of the American people. They no longer recoil from the staged venom of the Arab Street or the veiled threats of Middle East dictators. American diplomats no longer sit for hours on the tarmac in Damascus to beg an Assad to be nice. Nor after the sacrifice in Iraq, does the warning to turn loose Hezbollah against Americans scare us into easy appeasement. Expect the United States not to rest, but to press Syria further to democratize and rejoin civilization.
It used to be that if Americans were not convinced that they were perfect, then they despaired that they were no good and so pulled out. Not now. We have weathered everything from Michael Moore to Abu Ghraib, and come out on the other end to hear former Arab terrorists and leftwing British and German newspapers now suddenly asking, "Was George Bush Right?"
The wily Europeans tended to ignore or profit from Arab tyranny. But not now. Even they are scrambling to make sure that their vaunted "soft power" is not made irrelevant by this new type of American idealism backed by force.
What is the lesson from all this? Far more enduring than terrorism and death itself is freedom. That is what Bashar Assad fears will do him in.
And he is right. It will.