JERUSALEM (Mar. 9)
A violent anti-Israel pro-Syrian demonstration by Druze on the Golan Heights Sunday may alter Israel’s recent perception of Syria as a country too weakened by economic problems and ostracism by the West to pose an immediate threat to Israel.
The demonstration was occasioned by the 24th anniversary of the Syrian Baath Party, now headed by President Hafez Assad. It was the worst confrontation in a year between Golan Druze and the Israeli authorities.
About 100 high school students marched chanting pro-Syrian, pro-Assad slogans and waving Syrian flags. Police rushed to the scene were struck by rocks and other heavy objects. The policemen were injured and a Druze woman was wounded when police opened fire. She was reported in serious condition at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. The demonstrators were finally dispersed with tear gas. Several hours later, Assad appeared on Damascus television to hail the bravery of “the Syrian citizens in the Golan against the Zionist enemy.” He pledged that the “day of liberation” would come when the Golan will once again be part of Syria.
Assad’s bombast is nothing new and in fact most of his speech was relatively moderate, without the usual threats against Israel, the U.S., Western Europe and Egypt.
CHANGE IN ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT
But the outburst on the Golan focussed attention here on the sudden change in Israel’s strategic assessment of Syria that emerged in statements by top policy-makers last month. Their political purpose was unclear.
Whereas Syria was long depicted as Israel’s most dangerous foe in the region with greatly improved ground and air forces capable of striking without warning, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and others began to play down the menace.
According to them, Syria is in economic shambles, and Assad, constrained by domestic problems from adventures abroad, is forced to keep a low profile because of the exposure of Syria’s links with international terrorism.
Then the wheel began to turn. Assad, attending the Islamic summit conference in Kuwait in January appeared to join hands with his rival, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. A month later, Syrian tanks and infantry occupied most of Moslem West Beirut in what appears to be a successful effort to restore law and order in that violent city.
Israel, which itself entered West Beirut nearly five years ago, reacted calmly. Assad said he sent his army into the Lebanese capital because he could no longer stand seeing the city “drown in a bloodbath.”
Israelis of course know his motives were more self-serving than humanitarian. Syria feared the collapse of the mainstream Shiite militia, Amal, in its bloody confrontation with Palestinian terrorists and extremist Moslem factions. Damascus also shares Israel’s concern that the Palestine Liberation Organization may regain its power in Lebanon. Instability in Lebanon threatens the stability of Syria. Assad’s move into Beirut was also calculated to rehabilitate his image in Western public opinion and in the Arab world. For the time being at least, the daily shooting and bombings have ceased. Kidnappers are not snatching victims off the streets. Businesses have reopened and the Lebanese Pound has revived.
Syrian forces have inflicted bloody losses on the extremist, pro-Iran Hezbullah strongholds in Beirut and that alone may go far to restore Assad’s image in the West and put Syria on the map as a key element in Middle East strategy.
Assad made two connected remarks in his Sunday television speech. He said he expected reconciliation and an accord in Lebanon and he praised the “national Lebanese resistance” against the “Israeli occupier in the south.”
If a national accord is reached in Lebanon, Assad will doubtlessly try to unite the various factions against Israel. That will not be easy considering that the Lebanese civil war has been going on since 1976. But it is necesary to prevent Syria from sinking into the Lebanese quagmire.
Israelis agree that a stable Lebanon is in their best interests. As long as the Syrian army is kept busy maintaining order there, Assad is not likely to launch any strikes on the Israeli border.
Israeli policymakers assume he will avoid crossing the “red lines” which would trigger an instant reaction by Israel. Those lines have never been drawn. But Assad is aware of them and knows where they are.