As the state dominos continue to fall across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, "who's next?" has become the most fashionable parlor game in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and points East.
Tunisia and Egypt have had their so-far successful uprisings. Pro-democracy demonstrators in Yemen and Bahrain are still trying to tip over their dominos. Libya's domino is, as of five minutes ago, in a horizontal position. Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia appear to be vertical for the moment, with the Saudis offering its people the most aggressive rewards to stay quiet and enjoy the sunshine: cold hard cash.
But what about Syria? We haven't heard much about this bastion of democracy, but that's because the media tends to go where cataclysms have already happened, not those where the explosion is sometime in the future.
How far in the future, lord only knows. But assignment editors might do well to keep a special eye on Syria as possibly the next domino to fall.
Why not? It seems to have all the ingredients!
Syria's 20 million people live under the authoritarian presidential regime of Bashar al-Asad. The president makes key decisions with counsel from a small circle of security advisors, ministers, and senior members of the ruling Ba'ath (Arab Socialist Renaissance) Party. The constitution mandates the primacy of Ba'ath party leaders in state institutions and society. President al-Asad and party leaders, supported by security services, dominate all three branches of government in what is characterized as a republic.
But, regardless of its structure, it is a dictatorship.
According to the U.S. State Department, in 2007 al-Asad was confirmed for another seven-year term in a "yes or no" referendum that local and international human rights advocates considered neither free nor fair.
What's Syria's human rights situation today? Probably as miserable as anywhere in the Middle East. But receiving a lot less attention from the U.S. press. When American journalists write about Syria, it's generally within the context of its proximity to and violent history with neighboring Israel. Or Syria's relationship with Iran, whose shipments of arms for Hezbollah must pass through Syrian territory.
But Syria could become a crashing domino for none of those reasons. It might happen because, in a neighborhood peopled by monster governments, Syria is a monster in its own right.
Just look at 2010 alone. In its annual report on human rights around the world, the State Department tells us that during 2010 "the government and members of the security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses, and the human rights situation worsened."
Here's more from the State Department report:
During 2010, the government systematically repressed citizens' abilities to change their government. In a climate of impunity, there were instances of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life.
Members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees. Security forces arrested and detained individuals--including activists, organizers, and other regime critics -- without due process.
Lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention remained a serious problem. During the year the government sentenced to prison several high-profile members of the human rights and civil society communities.
The government violated citizens' privacy rights and imposed significant restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and travel. An atmosphere of corruption pervaded the government.