For Syria's Assad, Will Playing the Israel Card Work?

For decades, Arab autocrats have had a cynical but effective strategy for silencing dissent: whenever the temperature gets too hot, change the topic to Israel

Israeli soldiers stand guard along the border fence as Palestinian protesters crossed from Syria into the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 15. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images.

For decades, Arab autocrats have had a cynical but effective strategy for silencing dissent within their countries: whenever the temperature gets too hot, change the topic to Israel and its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the latest to play the Israel card, allowing hundreds of Palestinian protesters to travel through military-controlled territory on Sunday in order to mass along Israel's northern border and attempt to cross into the Jewish state. Israeli troops opened fire on some of the Palestinians, and the clashes killed at least 13 people. The violence was just days after Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian business mogul with close ties to the Assad regime, warned that Israel's future stability depended on Assad retaining power in spite of widespread public protests across Syria calling for his resignation.

With the normal state of play throughout the region upended by the Arab Spring, the bloodshed along the Golan Heights is emerging as an important test case of whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict retains its historic potency as a rallying cry for endangered Arab rulers. Israel faced confrontations on Sunday on three of its borders--Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria.

For the moment, there are some early signs that Assad may have miscalculated. The White House held Syria solely responsible for the violence, with press secretary Jay Carney telling reporters that the United States was "strongly opposed to the Syrian government's involvement in inciting yesterday's protests in the Golan Heights."

"Such behavior is unacceptable and does not serve as a distraction from the Syrian government's ongoing repression of demonstrators in its own country," Carney said.

Assad was criticized just as sharply by many Arab journalists, even those normally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The critics accused the Syrian ruler of orchestrating the violence with Israel in order to shift attention away from his regime's ongoing crackdown on Syria's pro-democracy protesters. Human rights activists estimate nearly 1,000 Syrians have been killed by Assad's forces, most of them unarmed protesters.

"Damascus is ready to sacrifice every last Palestinian in order to achieve its own goals without firing a single shot, not even in the air," Tariq Alhomayed, the editor of the London-based newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, wrote in an op-ed. "Damascus has decided to distract the world from its barbaric suppression of the peaceful protests on its own soil."

There is little doubt that many of the Palestinians who flocked to Syria's border with Israel Sunday came out of a genuine sense of historical grievance. Sunday was the anniversary of Israel's creation, which the Palestinians describe as the "Nakba," or "catastrophe," and it is a day that is routinely marked by violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces.

Indeed, the most notable aspect of Sunday's violence was where it took place, not when it occurred or who it involved. The Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria in 1967, has long been Israel's quietest border. The Syrian side of the frontier is tightly-controlled by the Assad regime, which maintains a network of checkpoints there and requires anyone wishing to reach the border to have paperwork issued by its Interior Ministry.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident now working at George Washington University, said in an interview that five buses ferried Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria to the border with Israel. Ziadeh said it would be impossible for so many protesters to reach the Golan Heights without the express permission of the Assad regime.

"The border has been quiet for 40 years, and then it suddenly goes crazy. How did all of these people suddenly get permission to cross the border?" Ziadeh asked. "This is something orchestrated, down to the last detail, by the Syrian regime. They have played this game before and they will play it again."

Ziadeh noted that the clashes came just as human rights activists in the Syrian city of Dera'a, a hotbed of the growing rebellion against Assad's rule, discovered a mass grave there filled with recent victims of the crackdown. "This is the kind of crime that Bashar Assad wants to hide," Ziadeh said.

Assad isn't the only endangered Arab ruler trying to hold onto power by stoking public anger at Israel. In March, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told a crowd of about 500 students and academics at Sanaa University there was a secret "operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing" the Arab world. "The operations room is in Tel Aviv and run by the White House," Saleh said.

Saleh sent a formal apology to the White House just days later after deciding his unproved allegation about Israel was exacerbating his tensions with Washington without buying him any more support at home. Assad, who is already facing the most serious challenge to his family's decades-long rule, may soon come to the same conclusion.