Foreign Policy Blogs

Border Dash

May 15th is a complicated day in the Middle East, and this year was no different. While Israel marks its independence day, Palestinians mourn the Nakba, or catastrophe. In years past there have usually been protests of a relatively low intensity, a few marches and a few protestors, heavy on slogans and low on impact.

However, this year the Nakba was a bit different. Due in part to the Arab Spring protests that continue to unsettle the region, and to the contagious spirit of those protests that has spread throughout the Arab world due to their success, Nakba Day 2011 had a bit more juice.

If you’re curious to read more on the wide spectrum of events that surrounded the Nakba this year I have a few suggestions.

Read here for a breakdown of events at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Here for the situation on the Lebanese border, and here for the West Bank and Gaza, and here for a background primer you probably won’t get anywhere else.

I want to focus on what took place at the de facto Syrian-Israeli border (big surprise!) and the complicated actions, actors, and motivations that underlie what happened there.

First the basics. A large group of Palestinian protestors (estimates are in the thousands) essentially stormed the de facto Israeli border fence in the Golan Heights. Reports conflict, but it seems that some, perhaps as many as 100, actually penetrated the fence and crossed over into the Israeli controlled village of Majdal al-Shams.

Border Dash

Protestors storm the Syrian-Israeli Border

This is surprising for a number of reasons. For starters I am really surprised that the Israeli Army actually allowed anybody to make it through the fence, let alone 100. I don’t think they, or anyone else really was prepared for thousands of civilian protestors to openly storm one of their borders.

More importantly from the perspective of this blog is to examine the timing of these events, and why some of the largest numbers of Nakba day protests just so happened to come from Syria, who just so happens to be dealing with a little protest problem of its own.

Traditionally, Syria has done a pretty thorough job of controlling its border with Israel. In general Syria keeps a very tight lid on its Palestinian refugee population, especially in relation to Israel, and Palestinian groups who reside in Syria do not act without the consent of the Syrian government. In fact former President Hafez al-Assad had a notoriously venomous relationship with Yasser Arafat for just this reason, as Arafat was not willing to take orders from Assad, and Assad was not willing to allow Arafat to use his country, or Lebanon for that matter, as a platform to attack Israel. Bashar has maintained the same level of control since taking office.

I find it very hard to believe that the timing and scope of these protests was not calculated by the Assad regime. One of the main sources of domestic legitimacy for Bashar is his resistance stance vis-a-vis Israel. By not signing a peace agreement which would be seen as an act of capitulation, and by publicly supporting organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, President Assad has positioned himself as a strong resistance figure.

During the now two month old struggle for power in Syria the president has suddenly been cast in a much less flattering light, lumped in with unpopular autocrats such as Ben Ali, Mubarak, and (GASP!) Ghaddafi. In western diplomatic and journalistic circles Assad is no different than those former leaders (fingers crossed on Libya). However, in Syria the jury is still out and this looks an awful lot like a return to the resistance brand for Mr. President.

The messaging involved in suddenly changing course and allowing a flare up on the Israeli border is not only aimed at the Syrian domestic audience. The Syrian regime is also sending a clear message to Israel and the US. Rami Makhlouf hinted at this last week when he said that if instability persisted in Syria, Israel would feel the same pain.

No one really wants to admit it, but the Assad regime is tailor made for Israel. Nowhere near capable of challenging Israel militarily, Assad’s Syria is relatively weak and posses no direct threat to Israel. However, those Soviet era tanks do a perfectly good job of maintaining control of the Syrian population; at least until March they did. By allowing a large scale event like this to take place the Assad regime is reminding Israel how nice it is to have a neighbor who minds its fences.

Israel has taken the issue to the UN and complained that both Syria and Lebanon have violated international law, personally I don’t put a lot of stock in anything Israel says at the UN.

The US has publicly denounced Syria for trying to distract from its ongoing internal unrest. It remains unclear how far they wanted the Syrian government to go in order to quell protests, as Syria has gotten a bit of flak on that score of late. The irony is not lost on this blogger.

While independent and accurate public polling is impossible in Syria, the Syrian public seems (to me, anyway) to be saying that Assad deserves some time to act on promised reforms. In spite of ongoing government repression, from what I can tell the majority of Syrians are still not willing to take action in order to force Bashar to leave. (If you don’t believe me, listen to one of the few international journalists to actually make it into, and then back out of, Syria. Read him here and watch him here.)

By allowing the border to boil over a bit Assad is not only reminding his domestic audience of why they support him, but he is also reminding his international audience of why they aren’t willing to force him to leave. Sounds like a win-win for the Syrian regime to me.



Walter Raubeson

Walter spent the last two years living and working in Damascus, reporting on the Syrian social, political, and cultural scene. Recently returned to the US, Walter continues to monitor Middle Eastern events with verve, and also gusto.

Having graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science- International Relations-in September 2008, Walter's MA thesis analyzed the Lebanese political system; focusing on the impact of foreign intervention within Lebanon, particularly the roles of Iran, Israel, Syria, and the US.