News analysis: A random border skirmish? Or Syria playing the Israel card?

By Anthony Shadid

New York Times News Service

Published: Sunday, May 15 2011 8:09 p.m. MDT

BEIRUT — For 37 years, the border between Israel and Syria, still technically at war, has proved as quiet as any of the Arab-Israeli frontiers silenced by peace agreements. On Sunday, it was not, and the tumult on the Golan Heights could augur a new phase of the uprising against President Bashar Assad and the web of international relations he is navigating.

Predictably, Israel and Syria blamed each other for the bloodshed — Israeli soldiers killed four people as hundreds stormed the border. But the message was far more important, since the Syrian government, which controls access to the border, allowed crowds to venture to a place it had all but declared off limits until now. For the first time in his 11-year reign, Assad demonstrated to Israel, the region and world that in an uprising that has posed the greatest threat to his family's four decades of rule, he could provoke war to stay in power.

Few questioned the sincerity of the Palestinian refugees who flocked to the border; the day that marks Israel's creation remains a searing date in the Palestinian psyche, and they cited the upheavals of the Arab Spring as inspiration. But as is often the case in modern Arab politics, they may have found themselves in a more cynical conflict that involves power, survival and deterrence and in which, to varying degrees, Iran, Israel, Turkey and the United States have a stake in the survival of a government that is bereft of legitimacy except as a force for a notion of stability.

"It's a message by the Syrian government for Israel and the international community: If you continue the pressure on us, we will ignite the front with Israel," said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident and visiting scholar at George Washington University.

The message carried profound risks in a combustible region. Israel is perceived as preferring Assad's government to an alternative that could empower Islamists, though Israeli officials stringently deny that. Poorly equipped and neglected, Syria remains utterly incapable of waging war, with its military deployed across the country in a ferocious crackdown on the two-month uprising. And even in Syria, some suspected that the Palestinians were being manipulated, though some warned that an even more aggressive Israeli response could quickly change that.

"Oh, Maher, you coward, send your army to the Golan," protesters chanted just last week at Assad's brother, who leads the elite Republican Guard and the 4th Division, which has taken the lead in military operations against restive cities.

"The idea of war against Israel hasn't even been part of Syria's mindset for a long time," said Louay Hussein, a prominent dissident who met with an adviser to Assad last week in what the government has called the beginning of a dialogue. "The Syrian government doesn't have a strategy. Its political performance is based on improvisation."

Unlike the Lebanese border, still a tense region where Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating and inconclusive war in 2006, Syria's border on the Golan Heights has remained remarkably quiet since a truce in 1974 that followed war a year earlier. Seized by Israel in the 1967 war, it remains at the heart of the two countries' enmity, though Syria has long indicated it holds out little chance to recover it except through negotiations.

To many in the Arab word, the frontier's longstanding quiet has even become a source of jokes, especially as Syria chose to pressure Israel through proxies beyond its borders, particularly with Hezbollah in Lebanon. In Arabic, Assad means lion, thus the taunt of Assad's father, Hafez, "A lion in Lebanon, but a rabbit in the Golan."

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