Notar: Syria and the Palestine Card

Paul Notar writes a guest column for Informed Comment:

Palestine: Bashar Assad’s Ace in the Hole?

by Paul Notar

There has been much speculation in the media that the Assad regime in Syria will be the next to fall in what has been called the “Arab Spring”. Many analysts conclude that Sunni elements in the country, which make up about 70% of the population, will rally against the ruling Alawis, who have controlled the country for the past 41 years. A transfer of power, it is claimed, will only be expedited by worsening economic conditions for most Syrians, Western sanctions against the country, and a heavy crackdown that is beginning to invigorate the heretofore quiescent Sunni middle classes of Aleppo and Damascus. But Syrian domestic politics (or lack thereof) has always been a function of regional dynamics. The unanswered question is whether Assad’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel will allow him to weather this storm. Until now, the Arab League has not called for Assad to step down.

After the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, western analysts pointed to the similar circumstances that Syria finds itself in: high youth unemployment, pervasive corruption, and a ruling elite that has lost domestic legitimacy. But these analysts, often American- and European-based reporters, neglect some important facts that make Syria a truly unique animal in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Most significantly, Palestine remains a hot-button issue. Assad may have decided that his defensive maneuvers — preventing (or preempting) defections within his Army and preventing momentum from swinging towards the rebels — may be enhanced by actively provoking Israel and constantly raising it as an issue. Defected Syrian soldiers in Turkey have told journalists that they are being ordered by their officers to fire on the protesters (sometimes people from their own villages) to prevent a weakened Syria from falling prey to (as they call them) “the hostile Zionists.”

Despite the quickening pace of developments in Syria, it remains unclear whether the Arab street’s sensitivity to the Palestine issue is actually helping to hold the Syrian regime together, or working to tear it apart. Bashar Assad’s Syria, unlike its other neighbors, consistently refused to sign a treaty with Israel. The regime’s policies reflected, more accurately than any other Arab country, the sentiments of the Arab street toward Israel: resistance, perseverance, and Arab cooperation.

As the last Arab state to afford the Palestinian cause considerable support (if only rhetorical at times), it almost always sided with regional popular opinion in spite of considerable Western pressure to do otherwise. The Palestine issue allowed Assad to maintain his street credibility at little or no cost to his regime. And through his state-sponsored media machine and sophisticated PR moves, Assad publicized his alliance withthe popular leader of Hezbullah in Lebanon, Hassan Nassrallah, a thorn in Israel’s side.

But as more Arab publics are finding their collective political voices and choosing to shrug off western-backed despots, Assad is finding it increasingly difficult to claim the Palestine issue as his own. The Egyptian interim government, under the direction of General Muhamed Tantawi, has opened the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, allowing some freedom of movement for Gazans who had been living in an Israeli-imposed outdoor prison since 2006.

This gesture toward the Palestinian people must not go underestimated: Egypt’s new-found support for the Palestinian cause — initially as a broker in the unity talks between the Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas — will inevitably weaken the Assad narrative that suggests that the leadership of the resistance to Israeli hegemony lies in Damascus. This will in turn reveal (or just reaffirm) to the Arab street Assad’s manipulation of the Palestine issue in order to choke off dissent in his own country. The only Arab support that Assad seems to have now is lukewarm support from Hezbollah, which is anyhow at the financial mercy of the Assads. Rumors that Khaled Meshaal, a leader of Hamas, will leave Damascus at some point for Qatar may be further proof that the resistance is decentralizing while not necessarily weakening.

But the Assads have mastered the use of the Palestine issue to suit their own interests, and it would be irresponsible to count them out now. After the failure of its strategy of appeasement (the regime sought to appease protesters with highly public but largely symbolic gestures such as increases in fuel subsidies and public sector salaries, lifting of the emergency law, etc.), a major component of the regime’s new strategy is to deflect attention away from domestic problems with astute use of the Palestine issue, while at the same time portraying the protests as foreign, tribal, and not emanating from any structural deficiencies.

On Nakba Day (commemorating the1948 defeat and expulsion of the Palestinians), the Syrian government reminded its citizens that they faced greater problems than a lack of transparency and corruption in government. By allowing Palestinian refugees to storm the border fence with Israel at Quneitra, the regime once again put the Palestine issue front and center, using it as a vent for the multitude of anxieties in Syrian civic life. And on Naksa Day, the day that commemorates the beginning of the 1967 war (Naksa is an Arabic word meaning setback), armed men could be seen on the Syrian side of the border, probably trying to draw fire from the Israeli Defense Forces, as more Palestinian refugees stormed the border with Israel. Syrian state TV reported 18 deaths and 227 hurt, probably an exaggeration.

Such astute use of the Palestine issue for domestic political purposes suggests that Assad could endure well longer than most analysts would like to admit. Yet, the Syrian rebel movement(s) may not be far from reaching a critical mass. At one point it seemed that Syria might have its equivalent of Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself ablaze in a last-ditch effort to attract attention to the dire circumstances that many Tunisians find themselves in. The tragic story of Hamza Alkhateeb, a 13 year old Syrian boy who was brutally tortured by the Syrian authorities, prompted a series of violent demonstrations in the southern city of Dera’a. The information section of the Facebook page entitled “We are all Hamza Alkhateeb” notes that “Hamza was one of hundreds of people who were detained, & his tortured body was later returned to his family with his genitals cut & bruises all over his body. We will never be silent. We are all Hamza Alkhateeb.”

Aside from the importance of this story as a rallying cry for Syria’s protesters, the ubiquity of such stories in the regional press will almost certainly grab the attention of the Arab street. The street will not fail to notice that abductions, torture, and indiscriminate firing on civilians are now routine. If the Arab League’s support for NATO airstrikes in Libya demonstrated the importance of Arab public opinion in that conflict, it does not bode well for Assad that his violent suppression of democracy protesters has all of the trappings of the Israeli Defense Forces’ expedients during the first and second intafadas.

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Paul Notar is pursuing graduate studies at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan.

15 Responses

  1. I am not sure the “arab street” i.e. normal people in Syria have not understood many yearshence that the regime would be ready to make pace with Israel if they got back their Golan= Kuneitra Province of syria. Many may have realised also that this is not going to happen soon or ever. Not as long as the US covers Israel in any case.

    By now I believe the Isr. question is secondary to the main mass of the Syrian population, what matters above all is to change the present regime.

    The outcome is unsure because of the power of the Alawi “ruling class” and its military power. But every day the demos go on cuts a little paece away of that power.

    • Would they, though? Would the Assads really want to make peace with Israel?

      As this latest episode demonstrates, they have a strong motive to keep their cold war going, for reasons of domestic politics.

  2. I would like to suggest that the citizens of each country are the ones responsible for the content of their government. And as soon as the majority of Syrian citizens realize they want a freedom impossible to be achieved under the Assad dictatorship, the family will resign and allow a democratic government to take over.

    I further suggest that the Arab Spring arises from Arabs taking action on a new consciousness present in every human since the 1960’s, which tells each person she can be optimal in everything she does. And now that it has been unleashed, it will eventually spread worldwide; including in time reaching the US, Canada and the western European countries. Assad’s time is numbered, and I’ll bet that inwardly he knows it.

    • —I would like to suggest that the citizens of each country are the ones responsible for the content of their government. —

      maybe that’s a little too simple. were the citizens of Poland responsible for the installation of the communist regime that followed the collapse of the Nazi governance? were they responsible for their government after the Nazi invasion?

  3. We already have editorials in NYT and WaPo calling for Obama to declare Assad’s rule illegitimate. Also, we know how escalation works – it starts from “analytical” media campaign, then it intensifies to the calls for the regime change…

    Then ICC and UN get into play, then come sanctions, then bombings, etc.

    • It sounds like you’re making excuses why it’s wrong to denounce dictators.

      The American-assisted fall of their longtime allies in Egypt and Tunisia would seem to throw a kink into your theory that this is all an orchestrated campaign on behalf of American power.

      • [It sounds like you’re making excuses why it’s wrong to denounce dictators.]

        My points have nothing to do with what is right or wrong. I am just trying to explain the facts whatever they are, as if it is some classical drama.

      • Joe, remember that America only came to the “assistance” of Tunis and Egypt when it became clear that the youth movements were gaining the upperhand or actually winning. When I read about the Egyptian military council dragging it’s feet, arresting protesters etc, it’s then that I see the American hand. Egypt has not had regime change yet, only a shake up at the top.

  4. This article strikes me as wishful thinking by those who see the Israel-Palestine issue as central to every Middle East conflict.

    As the doctors like to say when it comes to differential diagnostics, when you hear the sound of hoofs, think horses and not zebras.

    The horses here are pretty visible: only Middle East regimes willing to murder their own citizens with abandon, who are unconstrained by “international” bluster and empty sanctions, have, so far, survived. Exhibit A is Iran. Exhibit B is Syria. Exhibit C is the exception–Bahrain had the Saudi “cavalry” ride to the rescue.

    Of course, Baby Assad didn’t need to watch “Arab Spring” in order to figure out the rules by which some died (those reliant on Western countries for military and economic support) and some lived (those who could care less or had other friends)–Baby learned everything he needed to know from Daddy long before Tahir Square was being toasted in salons across Georgetown.

    Assad recently played his Israel card at the Golan border–and still, the demonstrations in Syria continue.

  5. Describing what the regime has done in allowing Palestinian refugees residing in Syria to storm the border with Israel as further evidence of how Assad has “mastered the use of the Palestinian issue” seems like an exaggeration. If this is indeed a “major component of the regime’s new strategy” to combat the current uprising, then it, as with the lip-service paid to political reforms, has failed to forestall protests. It has been clear that demonstrations have grown stronger in the wake of the tactics used on the anniversaries of the Nakba and the Naksa. I agree that the regime’s support for the Palestinians had traditionally been stronger – although at the same time, as you note, self-serving – than that shown by other Arab regimes, but it has failed to be consequential as a strategy to appease popular demands, and has, if anything, revealed the weakness and desperation that Asad now suffers from at home. The thesis is interesting but I disagree that this is what ultimately sets Syria apart from Tunisia and Egypt, as you claim at the beginning of your remarks.

  6. I don’t think the Palestinian issue has been a motivating factor in any of the Arab uprisings, including Syria. Much has been made in Western media about Syria encouraging Palestinian protesters to surge against the Israeli border with Syria. Yet that has not softened Assad’s internal opposition. Palestine is not a primary issue in the revolts. However, the Arab Spring benefits the Palestinian cause anyway. The ‘interim government’ in Egypt opened its check-point because it is responding to the sentiments of the Egyptian opposition. I think Western analysts were way off. Perhaps the PLA feared losing Egyptian support when its ‘friend’ Mubarak was overthrow. Just the opposite occurred: Egyptian support has increased in significant ways. Mubarak was impotent in pushing a peace settlement through, if he ever really wanted to. The role of the Arab autocrat was to mouth off against Israeli aggression and bought off by funding from the US. Hopefully, those times are past. But it is only the popular will being exercised in more democratic Arab states that will ensure this, not the other way around.

    Assad is finished.

  7. It’s very difficult to know what exactly is going in Syria. The regime lies and its more than clear that the opposition fabricates the scoop and extent of protests.

    I’m leaning towards this being like the 2009 Iran unrest, where western expers failed to make objective analysis since they projected their own desires for the downfall of the regime, in essence ignoring the large anti-change segment of the population.

  8. RE: “…as more Palestinian refugees stormed the border with Israel.” – Notar
    MY COMMENT: I was under the impression it was Syria’s border with the occupied Golan Heights, not with Israel proper.

  9. Assad is the master of nothing and blaming the Jews for all of a country’s many problems is nothing new.

    If the present Syrian regime endures it will be because it was willing and able to kill enough of its own citizens to convince the rest that attempting to throw off their fetters is hopeless.

  10. Why people of less than modest means support conservative orthodoxy is a conundrum that would cross a Rabbi’s eyes. In Spain the poorest of the poor were the most ardent backers of Franco. I’m sure the role of the corporate press and the clergy have a large influence but it remains a mystery.

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