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Israel’s Not Protecting Assad—Obama Is

3:00 PM, May 13, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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It’s Friday, so Syrians are out in the streets again protesting, as they have been on every Friday now for almost two months, braving the atrocities of a regime that has surrounded several Syrian cities with tanks and allegedly fired on its citizens with artillery.

Obama in Cairo

Obama in Cairo

Though the Obama administration demanded that Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak step down, and then jumped in alongside armed Libyan rebels to take on Muammar Qaddafi, the U.S. won’t even take action at the U.N. Security Council against Bashar al-Assad, a U.S. adversary. Why? Some observers say it is because the administration is worried about all those chemical warheads that might get loose with the fall of Assad. Others say it’s because we don’t know who follows Bashar, or because civil war could break out in Syria. And then there those who say it’s because Israel fears the fall of the Assad regime.

Indeed, the Israel security perspective got some support earlier this week from an unusual place—the inner circle of the Assad family.

“If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” Assad’s cousin, the Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, told the New York Times. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”

It is perhaps an indication of Assad’s desperation when the same regime that fancies itself the capital of Arab resistance, supports Hezbollah and Hamas, and has a defense pact with the Islamic Republic of Iran, sells itself as the guarantor of Israel’s security. If Assad survives the uprising, Makhlouf’s statement may cost the regime dearly. For now, though, it merely feeds the rumor mill.

But the rumor doesn’t stop in Damascus. I’ve been in contact the last several weeks with colleagues from Lebanon who are certain that the Israelis are protecting Assad—by masterminding the Americans to do their bidding. The Lebanese perhaps have some justification fearing this is the case: It is true, after all, that the Israelis have been relatively content with Assad rule over the last forty years. Bashar and his predecessor, his father Hafez, have kept the Golan Heights border quiet since 1973. And to keep that frontier quiet, Damascus has fought Israel on the Lebanese border via its proxy Hezbollah, which makes life hard on that large part of Lebanon that is not with the resistance. For Israel, Syria’s support of Hamas and Hezbollah are more than just a nuisance; yet, it’s easier for Israel to manage terrorist organizations are than a neighboring state determined to make war. (And though it has been relatively calm at the border, no one doubts the Syrians would attack if only they had the capability to overwhelm the Israelis.) From Israel’s perspective, the Syrians are weak and Bashar is far from clever—a bad combination, but better than, for example, a brilliant Egyptian demagogue with an American-trained army on the southern border.

Israel may loom large in the imagination of its neighbors, but it is a small country without much ability to tinker in the internal regime politics of its neighbors. It has little choice but just to deal with the reality that is, and plan accordingly.

The notion that Israel is calling the shots in Washington certainly conforms to the popular Arab conception of the U.S.-Israel alliance. And, of course, the idea isn’t contained in the Arab lands. The magical thinking has taken hold in some policy circles here in Washington, revealing itself as something along the lines of an Israel lobby confidence scam. The violence in Syria is so outrageous, the thinking goes, that there must be some reason why an American president whose core Middle East strategy is Muslim outreach is now sitting by while an Arab regime is slaughtering Muslims. It can’t be Obama; it’s got to be something else—Israel.

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