From today's Telegraph... The eye doctor never saw it coming By Mark Steyn I don't suppose Bashar al-Assad has much in common with Eric Clapton - though, come to think of it, "Layla" is a Lebanese name, and there must be a few of them among the smouldering, raven-tressed, black-eyed Beirut babes so fetchingly demanding their nation's freedom on the covers of this week's Economist, Newsweek, Weekly Standard et al. At any rate, Boy Assad has no desire to find himself wailing, "Layla, you got me on my knees." Nor has he any wish to sing I Shot The Sharif - that would be Khalil Mustafa bin Muhammad Sharif, a prominent Syrian Kurd who got questioned to death in Damascus last year. In any case, the Syrian government's official position remains that, whether or not they shot the Sharif, they did not shoot the Lebanese parliamentary deputy. Nevertheless, young Bashar must be feeling a bit like old Clapper in his now celebrated encounter with the Queen. You're a big-time dictator, everybody knows that. Yet George W Bush seems to have no idea what an A-list mega-legend you are. In fact, Bashar is in a worse fix than Clapper. Imagine if not only the Queen had no idea who Clapton was, but none of the other rock legends in the room did, either - Jimmy Page, Brian May, Jeff Beck. "I thought he was with you." "Nah, never seen 'im before. I thought he was with Brian." That's the way it is with Assad and his fellow Arab League heavies these days. It's one thing for Bush to demand Syria gets out of Lebanon, but what's with Crown Prince Abdullah piling on? Not to mention Jacques Chirac, hitherto every dictator's best friend. Clapton-wise, Boy Assad is Derek and everybody else is trying to avoid being one of the Dominoes. OK, that's enough Domino theory. The point is Assad is suddenly the loneliest guy in the room. He's the eye doctor whose eye no one wants to catch. The only world leader who didn't get the memo was Paul Martin. Who? Well, OK, he's not exactly a world leader, but he is prime minister of Canada, and asked the other day about the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon he replied thus: "It's clear if the Syrians are in Lebanon, it's because peace has to be maintained." I'm sure Assad is grateful for the endorsement. That and a dime'll get you a cup of coffee in Winnipeg. The ophthalmologist never saw it coming. Assad's plan for a phased partial withdrawal over several months would have been hailed as a breakthrough a couple of years back. Now Bush swats it aside as too little, too late. In a poignant conclusion to his interview with Time last week, the neophyte dictator said: "Please send this message: I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to co-operate." You don't have to be an eye doctor to read the writing on the wall. OK, that's enough ophthamology. The headline on Newsweek's cover, alongside the aforementioned Lebanese totty, was "People Power" - a novel concept in the Middle East, but very real. But just as worrying for Assad is a much older tendency in regional politics - the inclination to side with the winners. Right now, for Bush and the Iraqi people and the Lebanese people and Chirac and Blair and the House of Saud and pretty much everyone except the Canadian prime minister, the winning side looks like whichever side Bashar Assad isn't on. That's a tough spiral to climb out of. Two years ago, Colin Powell took Jordan's King Abdullah to one side and told him, modifying a Rumsfeldian paradigm, that America saw him as part of "the new Middle East". The Sauds, Mubarak and Gaddafi are not entirely on board with this "new Middle East" thing, but since January 30 they've been doing their best to pretend they are - and the easiest way to do that is to stick some loser with the label of "old Middle East". Syria's prestige, such as it is, rests on its subordination of Lebanon. Abandoning that on a time frame demanded by Bush and the Beirut babes doesn't exactly communicate strength. The Iranians are still officially Assad's pals, but the word is that even they wouldn't be averse to a palace coup. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman was arguing a couple of weeks back that Syria plays by "Hama rules" - a reference to the town whose inhabitants Pop Assad slaughtered en masse. I think he's wrong. Those days are over. Even if you've got the stomach for it, with 150,000 US troops on your border going the exhibitionist corpse-piling route is a much bigger gamble than it was in the "stability" era. Syria, at the very minimum, is being neutralised and turned in on itself. Regionally speaking, the reasons for toppling Saddam were to (a) end Iraq's ongoing subversion of Jordan; (b) put the squeeze on Syria; (c) show, by the sheer scale of intervention, that the Saudis' non-co-operation on the matter of terrorist funding would no longer be tolerated; and (d) - the big one - initiate democracy in Egypt, to which America gives billions of dollars and which in return gives America Osama sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the man behind the 1993 World Trade Centre attack) and Mohammed Atta (the man in the cockpit on the second attack). To one degree or another, (a), (b), (c) and (d) are all under way. You can scoff at this agenda, but go back just five years, to the death of ol' Pa Assad. "I received word not very long ago of President Assad's death in Syria today," said an emotional Bill Clinton at Minneapolis Airport. "I was very saddened by it, and I want to offer condolences to his son, his family and the people of Syria." I'm sure his family would have been very touched if they hadn't been so busy trying to kill each other. Still, at least Mr Clinton didn't go as far as Mr Chirac, who decided to show up at the funeral to offer his sympathies in person to whichever kinfolk weren't in exile or deceased in unusual accidents. But then French foreign policy has always been admirably straightforward: find the bloodthirstiest nutcake and put him on the payroll. Bill Clinton, in adopting ElysÃ©e standards of sexual morality, also found himself adopting them on questions of broader geopolitical morality. Clapton-wise, he metaphorically got out his sax and played Tears in Heaven. Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, that world is gone.