Syria's Assad running scared

Syria's President is reading the writing on the wall and is hurriedly calling for "political reform" in his country.

Now if we could only keep his hands off Lebanon.

The Wall Street Journal:

In a rare interview, Mr. Assad told The Wall Street Journal that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are ushering in a "new era" in the Middle East, and that Arab rulers would need to do more to accommodate their people's rising political and economic aspirations.

"If you didn't see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it's too late to do any reform," Mr. Assad said in Damascus, as Egyptian protesters swarmed the streets of Cairo pressing for the resignation of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

The Syrian strongman, who succeeded his father, has always kept a tight leash on his country and tolerated little protest. His regime has also maintained a close partnership with Iran and militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

While much of the region's unrest has hit countries that have developed alliances with Washington, his remarks indicate that the ripple effects of the Egyptian unrest will reach out to Middle Eastern leaders who are both friend and foe of the U.S.

The WSJ is being too kind by referring to Damascus as keeping a "tight leash" on his country. In fact, Assad and his father before him initiated brutal slaughter to crackdown on anyone and any group that dared oppose his absolute authority.

But, as the Journal points out, Assad is in a little better shape than the governments of Egypt and Tunisia. First, his brutality has cowed all but the most courageous reformers. Put simply, those who could lead the kind of street demonstrations we've seen in Cairo are either dead or in jail.

Perhaps more importantly, the populace supports his anti-Western, anti-Israeli policies. He has also increased subsidies for basic goods which has earned him points with the poor and unemployed.

But even Assad is shaking in his boots as a result of the current wave of unrest in the Middle East. He may think his token reforms will save him. More likely, it will only whet the appetite of the people for greater freedom.