The Syria Situation/ Israel and the Obama Administration

Apr 1, 2011

Update from AIJAC

April 1, 2011

Number 04/01 #08

This Update contains new expert analyses of the developing situation in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad, responding to escalating unrest, first sacked the cabinet, but then unexpectedly failed to end a 45-year-old legal “state of emergency”.

First up is distinguished Israeli academic expert on Syria, and former peace negotiator, Itamar Rabinovich. Rabinovich points out that while the “Arab Spring” has reached Syria, there is a difference from places like Egypt, because the regime and the army in Syria are virtually synonymous. (More on this point here.) Rabinovich says the unrest will be both a blow to the ‘Iranian axis” of which Syria is a keystone, and put on hold any Israeli plans to pursue a “Syrian option,” as well as create new dilemmas for Washington. For all the details, CLICK HERE. Additional expert analysis of the Syrian situation comes from Israel’s Dr. Mordechai Kedar, British author and former Middle East correspondent David Pryce-Jones and Lebanon specialist Tony Badran.

Next up is a piece by another Israeli expert and former peace negotiator, Dr. Josef Olmert, whose analysis focuses especially on the vitally important ethnic factor in Syrian politics. He describes the Baath Party dominance of the country as the key to minority empowerment and rule in Syria, and recalls the history of ethnic strife that ended with massacres in the Sunni centre of Hama of 1964/65 and especially 1982. He argues that the pattern of the Syrian protests to date indicates that the sectarian genie is now very much out of the bottle, and may be very hard for the Assad regime to put back in. For more on this vitally important element of the Syrian situation, CLICK HERE. More on the sectarian violence, and other important reports on the unrest come from exiled Syrian liberal activist Ammar Abdulhamid. Another Syrian dissident leader abroad gives an interview to an Israeli newspaper on his view of the situation.

Finally, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post predicts that, despite the current focus on the “Arab Spring” unrest, Washington and Jerusalem are likely heading for a new clash over US President Obama’s ongoing  plans to push for rapid Palestinian statehood. He points to recent statements by US officials to this effect, plus the reality that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is unwilling to negotiate with Israeli PM Netanyahu and prefers to pursue unilateralism, while President Obama apparently continues to blame Israel for the impasse. Based on Israeli sources, Diehl predicts that Netanyahu will make a speech launching a new peace initiative on a visit to the US in May but will be hard pressed to both satisfy Obama and maintain his current coalition. For this important analysis from Diehl, CLICK HERE. Discussing the views of Israelis and their options in the current situation, both in the region and vis a vis Washington, is noted Israeli writer and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. However, former American mediator Aaron David Miller does not expect Israel-Palestinian issues to return to the “front burner” anytime soon.

Readers may also be interested in:

The Syrian Rift

Itamar Rabinovich

The Brookings Institute, March 27, 2011  

Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship is facing its biggest crisis since he inherited his father’s position in June 2000. Not long ago, in a long, thrilling interview with the Wall Street Journal, Assad spoke about the stability of his regime, in sharp contrast to the crumbling Mubarak regime. But in the end, the shockwaves of the “Arab Spring” also reached Syria. The opposition is nourished by the hatred the Sunni majority in Syria feels for the Alawite regime, but also by widespread feelings that the regime is outmoded, corrupt, and is blocking Syria from entering the central stream of life in the 21st century. There is a feeling of exhaustion in Syria from the regime and the oppression that comes with it, and in Daraa and other cities there is good reason to feel ill at ease. For years, the Syrians have resigned themselves to the unwritten arrangement that the regime gave stability and took away rights and freedom. In the political climate that is being created at present in the Arab world, a large part of the Syrian public wants to cancel the arrangement.

In sharp contrast to Egypt, there is no real difference between the military and the ruling authorities in Syria. Both reflect Alawite hegemony, and the various components of the elite know full well what price they will pay if the regime falls. The oppression and slaughter of the early 1980s is having a dual effect on Syria today. The Sunni majority has a bloody account waiting to be settled with the regime, but many people fear that violent resistance will bring about another bloodbath.

At the moment, the regime has responded with an unsuccessful combination of promises for reform and concessions and violent oppression, but apparently this has done nothing to stem the civilian revolt. There are also signs of internal discord within the regime, between those people on the side of far-reaching reforms, and those who claim that such reforms would put the regime in danger. Assad’s leadership will be tested on its ability to establish an effective policy and to enforce it on his regime.

Regime change, or an extended period of instability, in Syria would have a far-reaching impact on the Middle East and on Israel’s security. First, it would be a strong blow to Iran. Up to now, Iran has mainly benefitted from the recent developments in the region. Mubarak’s fall, the events in Bahrain, and the pressure on Saudi Arabia worked to strengthen the axis of opposition and also drew international attention away from Tehran’s nuclear program. Syria is the keystone of the pro-Iran axis. Weakening the Assad regime, to say nothing of its collapse, would be a blow to Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.

Second, this situation gives breathing space to opponents of the Iranian camp, starting with the moderate camp in Lebanon, but it also creates a temptation for Syria and Iran to ease the pressure on Syria by heating up the conflict with Israel.

The continued conflicts and the possibility of violent repression have created a dilemma for the United States and its allies. The international involvement in Libya was justified by arguments that Qaddafi should not be allowed to slaughter Libyan civilians looking for freedom and democracy. Obama and his partners will be asked to explain why they are not intervening in order to prevent bloodshed in Syria.

At the moment, Israel’s “Syrian option” will be shelved. This option is always hanging in the air as an alternative to the Palestinian track. In recent years, we have heard many times that the Israeli defense establishment prefers this track, because of the advantages of speaking to a stable regime, hurting the Iranian axis and as an opening to change in Lebanon. Others, most notably the prime minister, refused to concede the Golan Heights. This camp now claims, quite rightly, that there is no sense in making a deal like that with a regime whose stability is strongly in question.

In this situation, Israeli policy requires a correct analysis of developments in Syria. [It also requires] security readiness, conversation and strong coordination with the United States and other allies, but also an open mind [to capitalize] on the opportunities presented by the new situation.

Itamar Rabinovich was the Israel ambassador to the United States from 1993 to 1996. He was then the President of Tel Aviv University. He is currently a visiting professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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Syria: The Sectarian Genie Is Out of the Bottle

Josef Olmert

The Huffington Post,

03/28/11 12:24 PM ET

In the last 4 decades, it had been common knowledge that the Alawi community numbering about 15% of the population was the dominant power in Syria, due to its over-representation in the armed forces and the Ba’ath Party. This was the result of developments starting with the French Mandatory regime in Syria, which favored the non-Sunni minorities, and encouraged their enlistment to the armed forces. Many among the minorities, particularly Alawis, took advantage of this opportunity, and used military service as a vehicle through which they climbed up the social ladder.

The Ba’ath Party was another such vehicle, as it offered members of the minority communities — particularly Alawis, Druze and Greek Orthodox Christians — the opportunity to get away from the religious ghetto enforced upon them by the majority Sunni-Arab population of Syria. Thus, the combination between the army and the party became the key to understanding Syria’s modern history, and with it the role of the Alawis.

The famous Iraqi scholar, Abbas Kelidar wrote years ago, that the Sunnis of Syria feel that control over the country is their natural, unchallenged right. But for most of Syria’s modern history it was not to be. What adds insult to injury, is the fact that they are ruled by the Alawis of all minorities.

A British consular report from the 1870’s about Syria, stated “they hate each other… Sunnis boycott the Shi’ites… both resent the Druze… all despise the Alawis.” This was an attitude deeply ingrained among so many Sunnis, because the greatest Syrian Sunni scholar, Ibn Tayimiyya, issued a ruling in the early 14th century, forbidding his followers from marrying Alawis as they were worse infidels than the Jews and Christians. No wonder, that the Alawis always felt that they had to deal with a problem of legitimacy, so far as the Sunni majority is concerned.

Officially, in the Ba’ath paradise that exists in Syria, if we are to believe the official propaganda, there is no sectarian problem. All the Syrians are happy members of the Arab Syrian community, and sectarian affiliation is never mentioned in official Syrian documents, including the census figures. Go and tell it to the Sunni majority, particularly those residing in the ill-fated city of Hammah, a traditional center of Sunni opposition to the regime, which was attacked twice by the security forces in 1964/5 and in 1981/2. The second earned the unpalatable title of Majazarat Hammah (the Hammah massacre).

The greatest nightmare of the besieged Assad regime is a repetition of the sectarian tension and violence which characterized the period leading to the great Hammah Massacre, but it seems that the monster of sectarianism reared its head, and the nightmare is starting to materialize. The riots in the port city of Latakiyya, a mixed Sunni-Alawi community, in the center of the Alawi-dominated region of Syria, clearly indicate that things are fast getting out of control. As riots started there, the authorities denied their very existence, then they reported that 2 were killed, and later admitted that there were 12 fatalities. Other sources report that the actual number of casualties was much higher. Interestingly enough, the official communiqués referred to unknown armed gangs which opened fire on innocent civilians, a strange language which is reminiscent of the terminology used by the regime in the past, when reporting sectarian riots.

The Latakiyya carnage instilled a sense of déjà vu in Syria, whose population is fully aware of how quickly sectarian conflicts can spread, and how ferocious they can be. The regime must be aware of the fact that opposition sources in Syria keep referring to the support that Assad receives from Iran and the Lebanese Hezballah terror group. There is no independent confirmation to these reports and their veracity is questionable, but the opposition has a point trying to prove the non-Sunni character of the regime.

A full-fledged sectarian conflict in Syria will be disastrous to the country, as it will involve other minority groups as well, and it also has the potential to spread to neighboring Lebanon. In fact, Syrians living in Lebanon started demonstrating against President Assad. They were not members of the Alawi community of northern Lebanon. The Alawis are on edge, the regime is increasingly nervous and the slogans in the street demonstrations assume a sectarian tone. The genie is out of the bottle.

It will be very difficult to put it back.

Dr. Josef Olmert is Adjunct Professor, American University’s School of International Service.

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In Obama’s push for Mideast peace, whose side is he on?

By Jackson Diehl,

Washington Post, Sunday, March 27, 6:01 PM

So far what some are calling the Arab Spring has brought Israel the first terrorist bombing in Jerusalem in seven years and the first significant missile attacks from the Gaza Strip in two years. And that, for the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, is likely to be the easy part.

The hard part will be managing Barack Obama.

Netanyahu and the Israeli army know how to deal with Palestinian terrorist attacks. Their tanks and planes have been pounding targets in Gaza, and inflicting considerably more casualties and damage than have been caused by the rockets. The Israelis believe both the Jerusalem bombing and most of the missile strikes were carried out by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a small militia controlled by Iran. Gaza’s ruler, Hamas, is thought not to want a wider conflict, much less a repeat of Israel’s devastating 2008 invasion.

So barring a miscalculation by one side or the other, or a missile that wipes out an Israeli school, Netanyahu is likely to avoid major hostilities with Hamas. But what of the Obama administration and its renewed calls for “bold action” to revive negotiations on Palestinian statehood? For Netanyahu, that — more than a new Egyptian government or an offensive by Iran’s allies — may be the biggest short-term challenge emerging from the Middle East’s upheaval.

A reasonable person might conclude from the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria et al., that the Middle East’s deepest problems have nothing to do with Israel and that the Obama administration’s almost obsessive focus on trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement in its first two years was misplaced. But Obama isn’t one of those persons. Instead, like several American presidents before him, he seems to have concluded that the ideal segue from the latest Arab crisis is a new attempt to pressure Israel into accepting a quick march to Palestinian statehood.

A “senior defense official” accompanying Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his visit to Tel Aviv last week put it this way: “The Israelis have a very deep strategic interest in getting out in front of the wave of populism that is sweeping the region . . . showing progress on the peace track with the Palestinians would put them in a much better position for where the region’s likely to be six months or a year from now.”

That’s true, of course — in theory. In practice, Netanyahu’s problem is twofold. First, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no interest in negotiating with him, and never has. The 76-year-old Abbas has repeatedly shrunk from committing himself to the painful concessions he knows would be needed for Palestinian statehood. What’s more, he has despised and distrusted the Israeli prime minister since Netanyahu’s first term in office in the 1990s. Rather than bargain with Israel, Abbas seems inclined to go along with his aides’ plan to seek a U.N. declaration of Palestinian statehood at the next General Assembly in September.

This might not be so troubling for Netanyahu, who is also not eager to make concessions for a peace deal, if not for his second problem: Obama continues to believe that Israel’s government, and not the Palestinians, is the primary obstacle to peace.

The president made his mind-set clear from the beginning of his administration, when he chose to begin his diplomacy by demanding a complete freeze on Israeli settlement activity — a condition Abbas had never set but which he quickly adopted as his own. In a meeting with American Jewish leaders at the White House this month, Obama indicated that he hadn’t changed his mind. Abbas, he insisted, was ready to establish a Palestinian state. The problem was that Israel had not made a serious territorial offer.

Netanyahu feels compelled to counter the Palestinian offensive at the United Nations, which his defense minister, Ehud Barak, says could turn into “an anti-Israeli diplomatic tsunami.” For that he will need the support of Obama. So Netanyahu has committed himself to deliver what could be the most-anticipated speech in Israel’s history — an address to the U.S. Congress in May in which he is to lay out a new “vision” for peace.

To satisfy Abbas and Obama, Netanyahu will have to promise a significant concession. In the words of the Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar, “he will have to utter, with his own mouth, the magic words” — that a Palestinian state will be based on Israel returning to its 1967 borders. But if he does that, Netanyahu will infuriate most of his cabinet and probably cause the collapse of his coalition. His supporters believe he will also give up Israel’s best negotiating chip — territory — before the real bargaining even begins.

Netanyahu felt comfortable enough with the Gaza mini-war and the state of security in Jerusalem last week to carry on with a planned trip to Russia. The coming showdown with Obama will require his full attention.

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