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.
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.
However, there is no evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, despite the fact that Israeli officials understand their negative assessments of Assad may affect the opposition—no Syrian protester wants to be seen as taking the same side as the Zionist entity—the government of Israel has been quite clear in its denunciations of Assad. In April, at the outset of the Syrian uprising, Israeli president Shimon Peres called for democracy in Syria. “I believe that finally a democratic system in Syria is our best bet for the future,” Peres said in Washington.
Defense minister Ehud Barak, who has long been overly optimistic about a peace process with Damascus, was the next to chime in. Haaretz reported that Barak said Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of force against his own people is precipitating his downfall. “I believe Assad is approaching the moment in which he will lose his authority. The growing brutality is pushing him into a corner, the more people are killed, the less chance Assad has to come out of it.”
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said that “the world community must intervene in favor of the people of Syria.”
And most importantly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sky News, earlier this week, said, “The slaughter of citizens” is “morally wrong,” referring to Assad’s actions. “I add my voice and that of every citizens of Israel, that says this slaughter must stop now.”
I asked a veteran strategist why Israeli officials had all turned on Assad. “This idea of the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know is not relevant anymore,” he said. “If Assad survives, I don’t see any legitimacy for him. When he was strong, we thought he might switch camps and be able to do something in the peace process, but that’s over now. He has no more legitimacy after this.”
Assad, says the strategist, is a much easier call than Mubarak. “In Israel there were debates over Egypt, some dilemmas and tensions. On Mubarak’s side you had stability, also he kept the peace with us; and on the other side you had democracy and freedom, also fighting against corruption. With Syria, there are no tensions in the debate. Assad destabilized Iraq and killed your soldiers there; he destabilized Lebanon and killed Hariri; he supplies Hezbollah with weapons his father never dreamed of giving them. And Assad opposes the peace process. So what’s the big deal to keep him going?”
The strategist provides the two arguments typically produced in Assad’s favor.
First argument is that we don’t know who will replace him. Maybe it will be a Sunni Islamist regime. But that makes no sense because the Muslim Brotherhood is weak in Syria. Bashar’s father killed them all. The Syrian Brotherhood is in the diaspora. They’re very good on the web, and in social networks, but they have much less presence in Syria itself. Whoever takes over is not going to be more extreme than Bashar. They might not be pro-U.S. or pro Zionists, but while I’m not promising the next guy will be better than Bashar, the chances are that he will be better than he will be worse.
Second argument is that there will be a civil war in Syria that will make Iraq look like a picnic. The problem with this argument is that unlike Iraq, Syria has no neighbors like Syria and Iran. That’s who kept the war in Iraq hot. But look at who surrounds Syria— Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq. None of Syria’s neighbors have any interest in civil war.
Who knows why Washington policy circles are filled with the filthy rumor that it’s Israel who’s leaning on the administration to go easy on Assad? It seems some people can’t otherwise fathom why the White House refuses to hold Assad personally accountable for a death toll that is approaching 1,000. But this is an administration that was determined to engage the regime at any cost, and send an ambassador back to Damascus on a fool’s errand. Israel’s not protecting Assad; it’s the administration—it’s the president.