THE SYRIAN regime of Bashar al-Assad on Sunday made a desperate effort to distract attention from its continuing, bloody assaults on its own people. Hundreds of Palestinians were bused from refugee camps near Damascus to the de facto border with Israel in the Golan Heights, where they broke through a fence and invaded a nearby town. Surprised and badly outnumbered, Israeli troops eventually opened fire, killing at least one person. Crowds of Palestinians also marched on Israeli border posts with Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; all together more than a dozen fatalities were reported.
Palestinians demonstrate every year against Israel’s founding, and Facebook organizers helped drum up support for Sunday’s marches in the style of the Arab Spring. But no one can reach the heavily militarized Syrian front with Israel without the consent and cooperation of the Assad regime. That Syria’s allies in Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas, were visibly involved in the demonstrations was also telling. Like the dictatorship in Damascus, the terrorist groups are profoundly threatened by the Arab demands for democratic change — and trying to switch the subject to Israel is the region’s most familiar political gambit.
Sadly, we know the answer to the Post's question, and it's almost certainly "no." While the paper's editorial board praised the Obama Administration for "calling" the Damascus government on its latest maneuver, that criticism came rather late. The White House has largely been silent while Bashir Assad's security forces slaughtered protesters in the street; by some accounts, at least 1,000 Syrians have been killed by the military and police since the anti-regime demonstrations began over a month ago.
And, as the Post observes, Mr. Obama himself has not yet publicly condemned the violence, or withdrawn our ambassador to Damascus. Administration officials have promised to "adjust" relations with Syria if the situation worsened. Now, with Mr. Assad provoking a conflict with Israel, hasn't the time come for that "adjustment," as the editorial asks rather pointedly?
Unfortunately, there are those in Washington (and even Israel) that prefer the current devil in Damascus to what might come next. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had no problem calling for the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but the departure of the younger Assad is a different matter. Sure, he's a brutal despot, but Mr. Assad is a known quantity. Besides, there are still those in government (hellooo...Foggy Bottom) who still hold hope that Bashir Assad could be instrumental in the Middle East peace process.
We hate to burst their bubble, but hopes of a lasting peace between Syria and Israel evaporated years ago, about the time that Mr. Assad put his camp squarely in the Iranian orbit. As Tehran's closest ally in the region, it's Syria's job to keep pressure on Israel, by supporting terrorist proxies, keeping them supplied and dominating affairs in Lebanon.
Sunday's border incident was nothing more than a transparent ploy to shift focus from Assad's own domestic troubles by provoking another confrontation with Israel. Most assuredly, there will be more. The Syrian dictator has yet to crush the pro-democracy movement within his borders; accomplishing that goal will require something along the lines of the 1982 Hama massacre, which claimed the lives of at least 15,000 residents of that city. Assad clearly wants world attention focused elsewhere during the next phase of his crackdown, so why not stir things up with Israel?
The danger, of course, is that any border skirmish between the two countries can quickly escalate into full-scale war. And don't believe that option isn't on the table. As we noted recently, the battle for the future of the Middle East is being waged in Syria. The Assad government will do anything to survive and Iran is fully committed to that effort. Without its friends in Damascus, Iran would lose a valuable proxy in the fight against Israel and face severe difficulties in maintaining Hizballah's grip on Lebanon.
All the more reason for the U.S. to get even tougher on Damascus. The administration's Middle East peace envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, stepped down over the weekend, affirming that the process is dead--and has been for years. Mitchell's departure also demolishes the notion that Syria is ready for serious talks with Israel, so the White House has no reason to maintain that charade any longer. It's time for that "adjustment" in relations with Damascus, beginning with the withdrawal of our ambassador, comments on the Syrian situation from Mr. Obama himself, and more support for Israel.
What are the odds of those events actually happening? You can probably answer that one yourself.