BEIRUT – A brief but deadly border incursion has broken more than 35 years of quiet along the Syria-Israel frontier — and it could not have come at a better time for Syria's embattled leader.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has much to gain from the furor over Israeli soldiers opening fire on thousands of Arab protesters Sunday, killing 15 Palestinians who made a stunning march on the Jewish state from Lebanon, Gaza and Syria. Four of them died on the Syrian frontier.
The unrest diverts the world's gaze from Assad's growing troubles at home — specifically, his regime's brutal crackdown on a popular uprising that has killed more than 850 people in just two months. But it also plays directly into the narrative Assad is spinning to maintain his grip on power.
Facing an unprecedented threat to his rule, Assad is desperate to show that only he can guarantee security in a troubled region where failed states abound. The violence along the border was a not-so-subtle message that a calm border with Israel will be the first casualty if Assad is swept from power.
There is little doubt that the Palestinians' protest was driven by a real fervor for statehood, inspired by the extraordinary Arab Spring. But there are signs the Syrian regime — and its ally Hezbollah, in Lebanon — at the very least facilitated the run on the border in a cynical attempt to exploit the gatherings.
Washington has openly accused Syria of inciting the violence. Speaking aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday the unrest was intended to draw attention from the Syrian government's violent crackdown on its own people, who are pushing for reforms.
The march on Israel's borders occurred as the Palestinians marked the "nakba," or "catastrophe" — the term they use to describe their defeat and displacement in the war that followed Israel's founding on May 15, 1948. Each year, Palestinians throughout the region mark the "nakba" with demonstrations.
But never before have marchers descended upon Israel's borders from all directions.
Surprised and overwhelmed, Israeli troops fired to keep the crowds from breaching all three borders. In addition to the dead in the Golan Heights, 10 were killed in Lebanon while another was fatally shot as dozens rushed Israel's border wall with the Gaza Strip.
The Syrian incursion was especially surprising, given the regime's tight control over the area.
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 war, and Syria demands the area back as part of any peace deal. Despite hostility between the two countries, Syria has been careful to keep the border quiet since the 1973 Mideast war.
On Sunday, however, Syrian forces did not intervene as thousands approached the frontier, hoisting Palestinian flags, shouting slogans and throwing rocks and bottles at Israeli forces. When hundreds of people burst across the border fence into the Israeli-controlled town of Majdal Shams, soldiers opened fire.
Salman Facherdin, a 57-year-old resident of Majdal Shams, said it would be impossible for people to get that close to the border without Syrian forces being aware. There is a Syrian military checkpoint at the entrance to the area, so anyone passing through would need the soldiers' approval.
Tarek al-Hamid, editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, said Syria used the anniversary to send a message that there will be no stability in the region if Assad's regime crumbles.
"Damascus is ready to sacrifice even the last Palestinian to serve its ends without itself losing one bullet," al-Hamid wrote Monday.
In both Lebanon and Syria, the nakba events were meticulously organized and had much larger crowds than in the recent past. Palestinian organizers bused hundreds to Lebanon's border with Israel and to the Syrian frontier in the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah supporters wearing yellow hats and carrying walkie-talkies organized the entry to Maroun el-Rass village and handed out Palestinian flags. Thousands of Palestinian refugees traveled to the village in buses adorned with posters that said: "We are returning!"
A correspondent for Hezbollah's television station, al-Manar, was among those who crossed the Syrian border and was reporting live from the Israeli-occupied side.
It is unlikely that the border killings will do much in the long term to shift Syrians' attention from their problems at home, where the military and security forces have responded to anti-government protests by opening fire on demonstrators, shelling residential neighborhoods and arresting thousands of people in a sweeping campaign of intimidation and torture.
But at least for a day or two, the Palestinians' march on the border was a temporary distraction.
"Yesterday, no one was talking about what's going on in Syria," Hamed Awidat, a 27-year-old from Majdal Shams, told The Associated Press.
Kennedy is the Associated Press chief of bureau for Syria and Lebanon. AP writer Aron Heller contributed to this report from Majdal Shams, Golan Heights.