Golan protests: Is Syria's Assad stirring up trouble with Israel?

While the Golan Heights returned to a tense calm today, yesterday's clashes signaled increased turmoil ahead – perhaps spurred by Syria's Assad as he battles revolt at home.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israeli soldiers patrol along the Israeli-Syrian border near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights June 6. Israel remains on high alert a day after Palestinian demonstrators in Syria rushed to the frontier fence in what Israel called a challenge to its sovereignty. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the war and annexed the territory in 1981, a move not recognized internationally.

The border between Israel and Syria remained tense but quiet a day after Arab marches on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights left as many as 23 dead and hundreds wounded.

The marches commemorated the defeat of Arab armies at the hands of Israeli forces in 1967 and the consequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. They marked the second showdown in three weeks between pro-Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers.

Despite the easing in turmoil today, Israeli officials and analysts suggest that the quietest Arab-Israeli frontier for the past three decades could see more turmoil going forward.

They posit two potential reasons: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, weakened by nearly three months of domestic revolt, may either intentionally stir up trouble with Israel to distract from his own brutal crackdown. Or he may simply be too focused on quelling internal dissent to prevent pro-Palestinian protesters from directly confronting Israeli soldiers in the Golan.

"In normal times, the Syrian army wouldn’t enable them to do it," says Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. "Now probably the Army doesn’t care because it serves Assad’s interests."

Worst violence since 1973

From a mountaintop overlooking the Quneitra border crossing, there was no sign today of a repeat of Sunday’s processions. Israeli police maintained roadblocks around the Golan Heights to prevent civilians from reaching the conflict zones. A military spokeswoman said there were no protests today in Syria opposite the Golan Heights Druze village of Majdal Shams, the site of showdowns yesterday and during Nakba protests on May 15.

Yesterday's clashes were the worst violence seen in the Golan Heights, a strategic Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, in more than 30 years. Despite Israeli warnings not to advance on the border, pro-Palestinian protesters and their Syrian supporters near the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams moved ahead anyway. When the procession tried to dismantle barbed wire about 100 yards from the Israeli border fence, Israeli snipers fired at their lower bodies.

Syrian state TV claimed that 23 were killed and as many as 350 injured in the Golan, even as a weekend Syrian crackdown in the northern part of the country killed at least as many of its own citizens protesting Mr. Assad's regime.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said eight people were killed by land mines on the Syrian side of the border.

Some see Assad's hand in protests

There are different assessments in Israel a day after the clashes about the degree of active involvement of the Assad regime in encouraging the protesters.

Current and former Israeli government officials suggest that the demonstrations were inspired by the government to distract attention from the domestic upheaval inside the country.

"These demonstrators could not have approached the border the way they did without a green light from the Syrian government," says a government official who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, accuses Assad’s regime of deliberately putting the protesters in harms' way to distract attention from domestic unrest. "It was very well orchestrated, and that’s what makes it so cynical and so brutal," he says.

But Liel, who once promoted peace talks with the Syrians, counters that Assad’s regime was too busy handling the week’s long uprising to organize the demonstrations.

"The motivations are not pro-Assad, but anti-Israeli. I don’t think he can take the credit for it," he says. "He is not strong enough to send Palestinians to die for him."

Symbolic protests, but how much of a real threat?

In an interview with Israel Radio, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said it was only a matter of time before Assad's regime would be replaced, and added that the military must prepare itself to handle more turmoil despite its history of tense calm.

That said, analysts say that the protests won’t change the military balance of deterrence between the two enemies.

"This is symbolic. There’s no strategic or military dimension to this at all," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. "There’s no real threat to Israel out of this."

A statement from the office of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged caution nonetheless.

"The events of today and of 15 May on the Golan put the long-held cease-fire in jeopardy," the statement warned. "The secretary-general calls for maximum restraint on all sides and strict observance of international humanitarian law to ensure protection of civilians."

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