For years the regime in Damascus boasted that Syria was the heart of all that was Arab, the compass and beacon of the Arab world. The arrogance to speak on behalf of the entire Arab world was based on the fact that Syria is the cradle of Arab civilization, and it was where the national Arab movement first took root about a century ago.
This consensus was why U.S. President George H. Bush was adamant in convincing Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, to join the anti-Iraq coalition ahead of the 1991 Gulf War. That is also why Israeli governments over the years have strived to strike peace with Syria. Damascus' stamp of approval, they believed, could legitimize the Israeli-Arab peace process as a whole.
But all that is in the past now. The toxic gas used by the Syrian regime against dissidents and civilians consumed the last remnants of the fear and respect the Arab world once held for Damascus as the epitome of all things Arab.
Today, the Arab world is united against Syria, standing shoulder to shoulder with the West in backing the U.S. in its efforts to topple Assad's regime. This is not about the Arab leaders, who, much like U.S. President Barack Obama, are reluctant to become involved in the Syrian conflict, but about the Arab street. The people swarming Cairo's Tahrir Square, who see the Syrian rebels as their brethren in the struggle for democracy, are unwilling to forgive Assad -- even in the name of the fight against Israel.
If Assad was under the impression that being a part of the axis of evil, alongside Iran and Hezbollah, would assure him the support of his people, then he was sorely mistaken. The Israeli issue no longer takes center stage for young Arabs and they no longer use it to determine the fate of their leaders, for better or worse. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not toppled because of his support of the peace process, and the revolt against Assad erupted despite his anti-Israeli policies.
We must remember that the war in Syria is multifaceted and multidimensional. It is about social standing, ethnicity and religion. It has several tiers: The bottom tier is, naturally, the purely Syrian one, where the conflict between the Syrian regime and the people tired of it is taking place. The top tier is the international one, where the U.S. and Russia are embroiled in a cold war, mostly over the fact that without Moscow's assistance Assad would not have been able to survive until now.
But the middle tier -- the Arab tier -- is just as important. Syria has become the battleground for a regional conflict between the Arab nations, with Turkey and Iran weighing in as well. This is a battle between Arabs and Iranians, moderates and radicals, and Sunnis and Shiites. The Syrian regime is a radical regime, controlled by the Alawite sect, whose roots are in Shia Islam. The rebels, however, are for the most part Sunni, and they have the support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Assad is a relic of an era that has ended. He represents a declining worldview and is peddling goods that are no longer in demand. The Arab world has realized that and has denounced him. This week, Obama has finally come to that conclusion as well.