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But Syria's troubles multiplied when Europe, led by France, and then Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt piled on too. It fell to Assad to play out his poor hand. Under its family dynasty, Syria has long relied on delay and deceit in dealing with the West. Washington had complained for months that Damascus was harboring Iraqi Baathists who were suspected of stirring up trouble in Iraq--which Assad always denied. Then 30 former Saddam Hussein henchmen were mysteriously arrested by Iraq. After the group proved to include Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, a half-brother of Saddam's who was once a widely feared internal-security chief, Syria said it knew nothing about their capture. The ploy was supposed to buy some time, appeasing Washington without losing crucial support from hard-liners in his own Baath Party who oppose cooperation with the West. By the time Assad flew to Riyadh on Thursday, he had run out of allies. Backed by Egypt, Crown Prince Abdullah read Assad the riot act, told him to get out of Lebanon and then all but issued a transcript to reporters. "That's kind of unbrotherly talk," quipped a U.S. State Department official.
Even Arab rebuke wasn't enough to force Assad out of Lebanon, which signals to some longtime observers that his grip on power could be in jeopardy. He has not been as gifted as his father in handling hard-liners who oppose compromise with the Lebanese or Israelis, much less the Americans. Asks Dennis Ross, the retired Middle East envoy for the past two Presidents: "Will he use the moment to sweep away the Old Guard and put Syria on a new path? Or will the Old Guard move against him?"
Meanwhile, oligarchies across the region were pondering the uncertainties of their own restive populations. If Lebanon suggested how suddenly unpopular regimes could be swept away, it was a fear already uppermost in many minds. So a number of regimes were taking baby steps toward liberalization, either to consolidate power before real reform or just to buy time.
SAUDI ARABIA Nowhere are the stakes higher and the risk of chaos greater than in the famously closed kingdom that controls a quarter of the world's known oil reserves and was home to 15 of the 19 Islamist hijackers who launched the attacks of 9/11. Since then, the House of Saud has found itself ever more threatened by extremists bent on seizing power. The regime's surprising answer to save itself: the sight last month of Saudi men in white robes and kaffiyehs leaning into cardboard voting booths to cast ballots.