There were deadly clashes today in the occupied Golan Heights, when Israeli “border” soldiers fired upon charging pro-Palestinian protesters. The protest marked the 44th anniversary of the 1967 war, in which Israel seized the Syrian territory. There are conflicting reports on the number of casualties, with Syria stating 20 people killed and 300 injured and Israel reporting 12 injured.
As sympathetic as I am to those demanding the return of occupied territory, I am also a little suspicious of the motives of the Syrian regime in allowing the protests to move forward. It has often been a tactic of these regimes to disallow all protests but those targeting Israel. Such a strategy allows the politically repressed citizens to blow off some steam, but not coalesce around anything that might threaten the ruling elite. Just look at how the pro-democracy protesters have been treated in Syria. While hard numbers are difficult to find, some estimate that the Syrian government has killed over 1,000 of its citizens. If only they had used some air power instead of tanks and guns, the international community might give a damn. The Syrian government is killing as many as the Libyan government did, but somehow the international outrage is noticeably subdued.
But I digress. My point, which has been made by others, is that it should be seen as no coincidence that the stifling-Syrian regime is allowing these anti-Israeli protests to take place while they are battling pro-democracy protests in Damascus, Hama, Homs, and other cities throughout the country. In addition to trying to provide a distraction, I think the Syrians are sending a signal to the Israelis–and to their American friends–of what could pass if there were to be a regime change in Damascus. Let’s be clear: Syria and Israel are still in an active state of war. However, I think that the lack of vocal international support for the pro-democracy protesters may lie in a comfort with the predictable Assad regime, and a fear of the unknown.
In a way, I think the Syrians are banking on the fact that their regime is considered a stable evil in a region that is so unstable. Syria is the only country in that corner (between Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt) that is confident in its future existence. Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan all deal with an existential fear that a future map may not contain them (the Palestinians deal with this too, but since the current map doesn’t contain them, they are less neurotic about it). Therefore, while Israel is currently ambivalent about Syria’s unrest (and the regime that is crushing it), Syria may hope that incidents like that in the Golan might persuade Israel that they can’t afford a new Syria. Of course, the opposite is also a possibility, as last month’s protests in the Golan resulted in Israel’s blaming the Syrians for allowing the demonstration.
We may never know the machinations behind these protests. Lord knows that those charging the “border” had sincere demands, and that the Israelis are illegally occupying seized land. But Syria is no democracy, and such protests cannot happen without the blessing of the regime. True, it is clear that the regime is losing its grip on the people, especially when it comes to anti-regime protests. But one should never underestimate the enemy, especially in the Middle East.