Daniel Levy writes:
To most observers witnessing events in Syria, the goal is clear-cut: end the killing, support democracy, and change the Assad regime — hoping it will be removed or reformed to an unrecognizable degree. State actors looking at the same reality will often bring a different set of considerations into play, especially if they happen to be neighboring Syria. Israel has had a complicated relationship with the popular upheaval in its northern neighbor — and, indeed, with the Baathist Damascus regime in general over the years.
As of Sunday, that complexity entered a new dimension. Of course the popular uprising in Syria is not about Israel, nor will it be particularly determined by Israel’s response. Nevertheless, Israel’s leaders, like those elsewhere in the region, will have to position themselves in relation to this changing environment, and this will, in part, impact Syria’s options.
On Sunday, June 5, marking Naksa Day (the Arab “setback” in the 1967 war), protesters — mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendents — marched to the Israel/Syria disengagement line representing the border between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. According to reports up to 22 unarmed Syrian-Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli forces apparently resorted to live fire (Israeli laid mines may also have been detonated and may have caused causalities, the exact unraveling of events remains sketchy). In most respects, this Sunday’s events were a repeat performance of the outcome of May 15’s Nakba Day commemorations (which Palestinians mark as the anniversary of their catastrophe in 1948).
Israel’s initial response to the wave of regional anti-regime protests reaching Syria was, according to reliable reports, to privately root for the “devil we know” approach — encouraging allies, including the U.S., to go easy on the Assad regime. That may sound counterintuitive — Israel is not at peace with Syria, the Assad regime is close to Iran, hosts the Hamas leadership, and is considered to actively assist in the arming of Hezbollah. Yet an explanation for this Israeli disposition is also not too hard to fathom.
The Israel-Syria border has been quiet since the 1973 war. While a member of the “resistance axis,” Syria under Assad has not itself challenged Israel in any military way. It is also a regime with very few soft-power assets with which to challenge Israel in the regional or international diplomatic arena. Syria under the Assads engaged in frequent peace-partner flirtations with Israel and could be considered the most domesticated of the members of that resistance alliance.
At least until Sunday’s events, Israel’s position on revolution in Syria hued closely to the status-quo conservatism that has so characterized the shared Israeli-Saudi response to the Arab Spring. Both Israel and Saudi had been critical of the “premature” abandonment of the Mubarak regime, especially by the U.S. Unlike Mubarak, of course, Assad is not an ally (for either the Israelis or the Saudis), but he is part of an ancien régime for which Israel had effective management strategies in place.