Sunday, May 15, 2011

Syria Tries To Wag The Dog

Protests erupted in the West Bank and Gaza today on the occasion of "Nakba Day." The observance commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who either left or were forcibly removed from their homes during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. 45 youth were injured in protests, which were particularly heated in the West Bank town of Qalandiya.

Separately, protests erupted on the Syrian border with Israel in the town of Maroun ar-Ras. 8 people were killed out of a group of hundreds, including some trying to infiltrate across the Israel-Syria border. The protests are widely understood, by both Israeli and Arab analysts, to be an attempt by the Assad regime in Syria to draw attention away from the brutal and repressive tactics it has been using against non-violent Syrian protesters in Damascus, Homs, Daraa, and elsewhere in the country.

Interestingly, IDF Spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai claimed the events had Iranian fingerprints. This is an accusation normally leveled by members of the Israeli government, in particular those on the right. That the IDF is making such comments indicates the validity of the idea that Iran is directly intervening in Syrian politics and in today's protests. The vast majority of Syrian protests have focused on Syrian domestic political issues and have been non-violent in nature. Today's protests are an anomaly in that they both address Israeli policy, and included violence as a tactic.

Additionally, that any protesters would risk facing the same deadly fate as thousands of Syrians in the past few weeks just to support Palestinians clashes with basic understandings of the behavior of individuals in regimes facing the process of revolution (See: Timur Kuran).

As the spin-fest continues out of the Middle East, analysts will need to determine the answers to three important questions which impact the political impact of these protests.

1) Will they persist past Nakba Day? If the protests on the Syrian border were a one-time act, the political fallout will follow a linear progression from today. If the border protests repeat themselves, the political fallout will by cyclical, restarting each time a new protest erupts. Different paths require different responses by Israel,the West, and major Arab players.

2) Will an Israeli overreaction affect Arab perception of the Assad regime? In other words, will the protests work? The immediate answer appears to be no, but the political war of words which will erupt in the next few days will have important impacts on Arab perception of the legitimacy of Israel's reaction. Israel must be very very careful not to be a lightning rod for the frustration and anger currently focused on the Assad regime. It must contain and mitigate the anger it generated in the enforcement of its borders.

3) Will the protests draw attention away from real Palestinian protests? Ironically, while the protests on the Syria-Israel border were with regards to Palestinians, they de-legitimize the Palestinian cause by using violence, and draw away from Palestinian political wins like today's protests in Qalandiya (for which the IDF and the Israeli government were also much more prepared).

The best case scenario would be for the protests on the border to draw the ire of the Arab world for de-legitimizing the Palestinian cause and obscuring the brutal actions of the Syrian government against its own citizens. This ire in turn would put pressure on the Assad regime. However, this outcome is not guaranteed. Creating a favorable outcome will require careful diplomacy by Israel, the West, and major players in the Arab world.

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