This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 17/05/2011
Let me portray the scene: On the Lebanese and Syrian borders with Israel, in Maroun al-Ras and the Golan Heights, buses are carrying young Palestinian protestors on the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, in order to try and cross the border. A battle then ensued, where people were killed and injured, on a border that has been quiet for the past 37 years, and which no one dares approach without the permission of the authorities. What has this got to do with people living in camps in Damascus, or in camps far away from south Lebanon, under the control of Hezbollah's ally, the Baath party?
Along the Syrian-Lebanese border, Syrian residents of the town Talkalakh have been fleeing to the Lebanese territories, from the relentless campaign that has been waged by the Syrian forces over the past eight weeks against the opposition who are demanding greater freedoms. All of this is taking place amidst reports of armed clashes between dissident Syrian soldiers who have refused to fire [on civilians], and others in the border town.
This absurd scene showcases typical Arab policies, old and new, namely escaping to the front when facing internal crises in order to distract people, even if this results in a war that is guaranteed to end in defeat. What is important is to remain in power, and everybody else can go to hell. "Its either me or devastation!" This is what Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was saying when he addressed the Libyans, saying: "forget oil, forget stability, and prepare for civil war". Now in Syria we see the same thing, with Rami Makhlouf, one of the pillars of the regime, saying "if there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel", and stability, according to his definition, means the survival of the regime.
Demonstrations took place in the Palestinian territories on the anniversary of the Nakba, which is a painful date for the Palestinians who have every right to inform the world of their anger at the international avoidance and neglect of their cause, which has been unresolved for decades. The demonstrations staged this year were different however. Young people are excited about what happened in neighboring Arab countries, and the changes brought about by popular revolutions. However the Israeli reaction, and its use of force, was excessive, whilst the official Palestinian stance was a responsible one, both from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza. The latter's police force sought to prevent the protestors from crossing the barriers, and this is because responsible authorities do not allow the blood of their people to be shed in reckless acts, or in an effort to gain publicity.
The situation in Syria and Lebanon is different. Buses left from camps that are controlled by factions that have gotten used to trading on the Palestinian cause for the benefit of others, and this is like a loud noise that is used to deflect attention, exploiting a just cause in order to cover up an internal crisis. We are looking at a situation of internal anger [in Syria] that is entering its nine week, and the demonstration's organizers, whatever their identity, have proven that they are extremely determined, despite the fact that they have not found anyone to stand with them, unlike what happened in Egypt and Tunisia where the army refused to fire on its people and stood alongside them. On the contrary, the regime resorted to the security option in the face of the rising ceiling of the protesters' demands, which began with simple demands such as freedom, dignity and justice, and then developed into total regime change. However this excessive use of force did not succeed in silencing the people; instead it removed the fear from their hearts.
During the past eight weeks, a lot of cards have been used to confront the popular uprising taking place in Syria, from political promises to the shooting of bullets and the storming of cities with tanks, from mass arrests to media blackouts, which the protestors were successful, to some extent, in circumventing. It seems that among the most recent cards to be used by the Syrian regime is the threat of igniting a war. This was the message that was communicated to the Israelis the day before yesterday across the Syrian and Lebanese borders, in order to press them to exert pressure on the U.S. administration before President Obama's speech next Thursday, so that he does not reach the point of calling for regime change [in Syria]. In other words this is a message, to the effect: work with Washington and rescue us!