Israel and the Syrian uprising

In an excellent post at Harry’s Place, Israeli writer Hadar Sela explained recently that calls for international intervention in support of Syria’s protesters ignore or downplay some very serious risks for Israel. After all, it can be taken for granted that Assad would try to spin any intervention as a “Zionist aggression” that he would happily answer with attacks on Israel.

A “Letter to a Syrian rebel” from Amotz Asa-El’s “Middle Israel” column in the Jerusalem Post reflects some additional concerns. Asa-El notes that already some 12 years ago – in an article advocating a “Golan-for-peace” deal – he anticipated that Syrians might one day rise up against the brutal rule of the Assads:

Now all have come to share my early faith in your cause. The question therefore is where you will head the morning after you remove your evil leaders. And since as long as you remain underground so do your thoughts, you will have to forgive us for keeping our expectations low. The fact that the people who ruled you for the past several decades never asked your opinion about anything, does not mean that when finally free to talk what you will say will please our ears.

We have been around this neighborhood long enough to assume, until proven otherwise, that you too hate us, certainly if you are Islamist, but also if you are not. And even if you are Druse, or Christian, or a Kurd, and therefore less hostile, or even secretly sympathetic to us, you will have to forgive us for remaining pessimistic; we have had bitter experience meddling in this sorry region’s minority politics, and can therefore be counted on to avoid it this time around.

Moreover, chances are high that your Syria, while undoing the alliance with Iran, will become the proxy Turkey now wants to make of you, and who knows what such a configuration will mean for all of us.

Perhaps there is a hint of what this will mean in a commentary on the Arab uprisings of 2011 written recently by Michael Young, the opinion editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star.

The [Syrian] president did not foresee that the narrative he held up as a basis for why he and the Syrian people were in purported harmony – their common embrace of a narrative of resistance to America and Israel above all – would count for little in the face of demands by Syrians for internal transformation.

That’s the real message from the Arab world this year. Societies may sympathise with foreign policies opposed to the West, the United States and Israel, but they no longer will allow regimes to use foreign antagonisms to validate stifling, sadistic, security-dominated political systems at home. Nor will they tolerate giving foreign matters precedence over their own welfare and that of their children.

If Young is right and this is “the real message from the Arab world this year,” the message is much less hopeful than he seems to suggest: holding on to the default preference for anti-western and anti-Israel policies means that the politics of resentment will continue to hamper rational political analysis and discourse in the Arab world. As I have argued elsewhere, there is unfortunately much reason to be concerned that in some crucial respects, the “new” Middle East will bring changes for the worse: while a secular despot like Assad would cynically view the anti-western “beliefs of the people” as a means to cement his grip on power, the region’s newly empowered Islamist rulers may turn out to be “true believers” in the vile conspiracy theories that have long been popular in the Arab world.

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