Analysis: Syria's Assad seeks Israel diversion

June 8, 2011 - 12:30 PM
Mideast Israel Palestinians Syria

Seen from the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan , armed Syrian police officers stand on a outlook overlooking the Israeli side of the border between Syria and Israel, Tuesday, June 7, 2011. A Syrian government newspaper says marches to the border will continue and warns Israel the day will come when thousands of Syrians will return to their occupied villages. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad, buffeted by an uprising against his regime and growing international isolation, is turning to a reliable distraction: archenemy Israel.

Syria keeps tight control along the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, and yet 23 people died this week when Israeli troops opened fire on protesters trying to rush the border. As anti-government violence heats up at home, the Syrian government says more demonstrations against Israel are likely.

By stirring up trouble, analysts said, Assad aims to show that he stands between order and chaos. They said he also may want to remind the world that for 40 years, only his family's authoritarian regime has held things together on one of the world's most precarious frontiers.

"Assad seems to want to raise the specter of potential instability without actually losing control of the situation," said Elias Muhanna, a political analyst at Harvard University.

Syria has a pivotal role in nearly every thorny Mideast issue. A staunch Iranian ally, Syria backs the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups and has also exerted influence in neighboring Iraq.

For much of the past generation, the border between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights has been one of the quietest in the volatile Middle East, with Damascus and the Jewish state fighting most of their battles in neighboring Lebanon.

But now, for the second time in a month, Syrian authorities have essentially stood by as hundreds of unarmed protesters from Syria, many of them the descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948, surged toward Israeli-held territory and tried to storm through the border.

Syria said 23 protesters were killed Sunday. Five died in a demonstration on May 15.

While Syrian officials say the protests are spontaneous marches planned by young Syrians and Palestinians, those familiar with Syria say there is no way the marches could have happened without authorities' consent or even encouragement.

"The regime is basically saying: Look at all the chaos I can create and if I'm going down I will take everyone with me," said Muhieddine Lathkani, a Syrian opposition figure based in Britain.

Wassim Toutounji, a 36-year-old Syrian dental lab technician who took part in the Golan march on Sunday, exemplified the fervor of those who took part in the anti-Israel protests.

"I felt that there is someone out to destroy my country. Freedom is here, and not in the saboteurs of Jisr al-Shughour," he said in reference to a northern Syrian town where mutinous soldiers allegedly joined anti-Assad demonstrators who rose up against loyalist forces this week.

Timor Goksel, a former U.N. official in Lebanon who is now a professor at the American University of Beirut, said Syrian authorities fully control traffic along the border. He was skeptical that the confrontations with Israeli forces would distract attention from Syria's grave domestic turmoil in the long term.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. believes Assad's government is actively supporting protests near the Israeli border.

"We don't have any hard evidence," Toner said. "But we've seen this kind of behavior before. And certainly it seems in keeping with the Syrian regime's actions that they would try to deflect or distract international attention from what's going on internally in Syria by encouraging these kind of protests."

A Syrian government newspaper, Tishreen, said the Sunday march was only an "introduction" and that more Syrians and Palestinians plan to march to the Israeli border. It said Israel should expect hundreds of thousands of refugees to march "at any time" back to villages and farms from where their families were forcefully uprooted.

The continuing intensity of anti-government protests in Syria suggests the Golan violence has not distracted many Syrians from the uprising within their borders.

"This issue did not resonate with people on the street whose priority is the internal situation," said a longtime Syrian political activist said on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.

"The people are even asking themselves, why are they sending people instead of tanks" to liberate the Golan, he said.

Israel's military said attempts to breach the Golan frontier violate international agreements, and that it will prevent such acts in the future.

"Provocative rioters who breach the Israeli security fence place themselves in danger and must accept the responsibility for their actions," a military statement said.

The uprising against Assad is posing the most serious challenge to his family's long rule. What began as a disparate movement demanding reforms has grown into a resilient uprising seeking Assad's ouster.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israel war. The two archenemies fought another war in 1973 when Syria regained small parts of land that Israel occupied six years earlier. Periodic peace talks between the two countries have failed.

Since the uprising in Syria began in mid-March, activists have criticized the Syrian regime for sending troops backed by tanks into cities, towns and villages instead of heading to the Golan to fight Israel.

On May 15, unrest in the Golan and on the Lebanon-Israel border occurred on the anniversary of Israel's birth in 1948. Israeli forces killed six on the Lebanon border and five in the Golan.

On Sunday, however, Lebanese authorities prevented protesters from reaching the border with Israel, reflecting Syria's decreasing influence in Lebanon. Syria dominated its neighbor for three decades until it was forced to pull out thousands of soldiers in 2005.

Syria withdrew its troops under local and international pressure following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blamed Syria for Hariri's death, a claim that Damascus denies.

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Follow Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue

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