Israel's Dilemma in Damascus

Jerusalem's View on the Syrian Uprising

Courtesy Reuters

In January, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sat down for a rare and expansive interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which he boasted of the contrast between the crisis then raging in Egypt, which would ultimately topple Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and the apparent stability prevailing in Syria. That changed on March 19, when riots and demonstrations began in the cities of Deraa and Latakia and then spread through the country, echoing the calls issued across the Arab world for political reform and freedom. In particular, demonstrators demanded an end to Syria’s stringent emergency laws -- in place since 1963 -- which ban opposition to the ruling Baath Party, censor the media, and authorize the government to monitor and arrest individuals at will. In their efforts to quell the unrest, Syria’s security forces are estimated to have killed more than 100 civilians since the protests began.

While the uprising festered, Assad at first remained silent, probably due to inter-regime squabbling about how to respond. When he finally spoke on March 30, instead of ending the emergency law or offering any reforms, he turned to an all-too-familiar trope. "Syria is a target of a big plot from outside,” he said. “Our enemies’ aim was to divide Syria as a country and force an Israeli agenda onto it, and they will continue to try and try again.” In other words, Assad argued, those protesting against the regime are doing so in the service of Jerusalem and Washington.

It is curious and significant that while Assad attempts to paint Israel and the United States as the masterminds behind Syria’s problems, Israel itself is ambivalent about the future of his rule. This hesitation stems from the fact that for the past two decades the Israeli-Syrian relationship has unfolded along two, often contradictory, tracks. One has been the quest for a political settlement, launched during the 1991 Madrid conference -- a gathering of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians convened by George H.W. Bush’s administration

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