Believe it or not, there are protestors the Syrian regime has no desire to target. They are the hundreds of Palestinians bussed by the government to the Israeli border in a cynical effort to deflect attention from its campaign of murdering its own citizens. After decades of quiet on the Syrian-Israeli border, the Bashar al-Assad regime has sought twice in recent days to provoke a confrontation with the Israeli army.
The first instance coincided with the May 15 Nakba Day protests, marking the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation. One of the Syrians who breached the Golan Heights border fence was found later in the day strolling in Tel Aviv. All who illegally crossed into Israel were found and returned to Syria with stern warnings not to try again.
But on the anniversary of the June 1967 war, Palestinians rushed the border again, ignoring repeated Israeli warnings to backdown. Tragically, several were killed in the melee.
Clearly, Palestinians in Syria, kept for decades in U.N.-supported refugee camps and denied the chance for full integration in Syrian society, did not get the message that the planned June 5 protests had been cancelled in Lebanon and Gaza.
The Assad regime also missed that update, perhaps because it sporadically turns off Internet access, or, more likely, chose to ignore it. Some reports indicate that the Syrian regime paid Palestinians to protest at the border, with higher sums going to the families of those ready to die.
While the border clash was carried on Syrian TV, the main news event for the Syrian people remains the regime’s daily bloody assault, which after three months has now extended beyond major cities to remote sections of the country, and cost the lives so far of more than 1,300 Syrians.
In the two days before Sunday’s border confrontation, another 100 people were mowed down in what’s become a familiar, yet still shocking, weekly pattern of brutality.
Friday prayers in mosques are followed by peaceful demonstrations, to which the regime reflexively responds with brute force, leading to dozens of dead protestors.
Then, on Saturday, the funerals, and accompanying demonstrations, are followed by more deaths resulting from the Syrian policy of shoot first, ask questions later.
It’s a wonder the country is functioning at all, with so many living in fear of their government. As the weeks go by, and the intensity of the repression rises, with the regime using tanks and helicopter gunships to slaughter Syrians, as well as counsel from its ally, Iran, so, too, have the levels of defiance and courage surged. Opponents of the Assad regime have come a long way since some activists, inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, used social media to tentatively organize a first public protest in early February.
The protestors are energized and getting more organized. Turkey’s decision to host a gathering of Syrian exiles, and the decision by some who daringly crossed the border from Syria to participate, reflects a growing impatience with the regime’s obstinacy. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who until recently had been an intimate friend of Assad's, also has appealed to the Syrian leader to urgently implement reforms.
But the ability to influence the deaf Assad regime is frustratingly limited. A possible U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn the Syrian crackdown, proposed by France and Britain after weeks of delay because of Chinese and Russian opposition, would be another important statement of international concern. As a practical matter, though, it will likely have as little impact on Syria as the U.N. Human Rights Council condemnation of a few weeks ago.
With the U.S. engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, and NATO enmeshed in the U.N.-sanctioned campaign in Libya, there will be little appetite for military action to unseat Assad, even as questions arise as to why Libya merits the use of outside force but not Syria.
Assad has not publicly called his opponents “rats” who should be killed as Qaddafi did, but the Syrian despot’s approach has been no less sinister. With few public appearances and statements, Assad has woven a web of deceit that in turn has severely diminished whatever last shred of credibility his rule may have held.
Assad has offered, albeit without any follow-up, “reform,” while also pursuing a merciless campaign of violent repression against the Syrian people. The story line his regime has projected, that those behind the protests are terrorists and armed gangs under the influence of foreign agents, is fanciful.
Distrust of what the Assad regime is saying looms now over the reported killing of as many as 120 Syrian soldiers in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour. While that number is unconfirmed, so are the circumstances in what has been largely an evolving civil war between nonviolent protestors and a harsh, well-armed regime. This may be the first indication that some who serve the regime may be reconsidering their loyalties and turning their weapons on the oppressors.
The reflexive response for a regime that has shown no tolerance for any dissent is disturbingly predictable. It likely will involve more carnage, which explains why Syrians are fleeing the northern towns.
Syria must be treated as an urgent international priority. Stronger statements from the U.S., EU and others pointedly calling for Assad’s removal, the only possible option to resolving the crisis at this point, are needed as well as serious consideration of additional diplomatic, economic, and other measures that can help bring about an end to the regime and set the stage for a new era for the Syrian people.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Media Relations.