The slaughter of innocents in Syria bothers Israelis no less than it bothers others. Perhaps it bothers Israelis more, insofar as it is happening next door. Syria''s capital is less than 200 miles from Israel''s capital, and less than 50 miles from the Israeli border. What happens there has spilled over into Israel, and can do so again. However, the complexity associated with events in Syria keeps Israelis from expressing any simplistic morality by cheering one side or the other. No Israeli in his/her right mind expects democracy or any other kind of enlightened government to emerge from the present chaos.
The history of the Assad regime gets mixed reviews in Israel. It was not noticeably more repressive than other places governed by Muslims between Assad Senior''s repression of a rebellion in 1982 that cost anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 lives and Assad Junior''s efforts of 2011-12. This death toll may have reached 20,000, with up to 180,000 Syrians refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. As many as 4,000 of the dead may have been members of government forces.
Syria is a country of minorities, with one of them dominating the regime since Assad Senior seized power in 1970 and began distributing key roles to fellow Alewites. The people at the top have emphasize the Arab character of Syria, but have kept Muslim extremists quiet or repressed. For Israelis and others, that is a big plus that deserves recognition.
The present Assad is linked with Iran, which produces little applause in Israel, insofar as Syria is a conduit for weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Israel-Lebanon border area has been quiet since the summer of 2006. The Iran-Syria connection has provided enough missiles of considerable range and carrying capacity to be a serious threat to Israel, but the prospect of what Israel could do in return has kept Hezbollah''s leader hiding underground for virtually all of the most recent six years
And for almost the whole time since the cease fire at the end of the 1973 war, the Israel-Syria border area has been quiet. Syrian rulers, like those of Hezbollah, recognize the realpolitik of balanced force.
Complicating the image of good guys vs bad guys conveyed in western media are indications that what began with anti-Assad protests has matured into two-sided or more complex violence with regime opponents getting material and financial aid from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other countries dominated by Sunni Muslims. Part of what is happening is Sunni Muslim opposition to Alewite heretics, and part of it is Sunni Muslim opposition to the principal client of Shi''ite Iran.
Some of the bloodiest incidents may have been the work of Muslim extremists operating under the label of al-Quida.
Commentators with reputations as experts on Syria quarrel as to whether events have escalated to a "civil war," or remain an "uprising" or some other term in the amorphous vocabulary for things political and violent. The armed and political opposition is highly fractured. Politicians claiming leadership of the anti-Assad forces are expatriates who have not agreed on a government in exile, and have little leverage over the various localized forces using imported weapons of increasing capacity to kill and destroy.
Involved in the outside participants'' debates over what to do about Syria is a reincarnation of the Cold War with Russia and China on one side against the United States and some Western Europeans. Involved in this competition is a simplistic American morality, which assumes that everyone is like Americans. Historian Robert Kallek portrays this as a moving force of American foreign policy since the middle of the 19th century. Kallek published The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs almost 20 years before George W. Bush confirmed his thesis with an invasion justified as meant to bring democracy to Iraq. Against this is Russian and Chinese realism--what some may call amoral realism--bolstered by their efforts to counter anything American. They are supporting the Assad regime, which still has the upper hand, arranges its own demonstrations with tens of thousands of participants, and may actually have a moral right to oppose those rebelling against the government in place.
Among Israel''s concerns is the fate of considerable munitions, including long range rockets, chemical and biological weapons that the Assad regime has produced or acquired.
Among the nightmares is that the nasty stuff will fall into the hands of Muslim fanatics who have not learned the lessons of balanced force, or think that their own deaths are less important than killing Jews.
Some of my correspondents have accused Israel of being excessively concerned with itself, and suffering from a paranoia that leads it to favor the status quo over the prospects of reform in its surroundings.
I would expect nothing less from friends who applaud aspirations that George Bush expressed for Iraq and Afghanistan, and Barack Obama along with Thomas Friedman expressed for Arab Spring.
We all hope for enlightenment, domestic equality and opportunity in the region from West Africa to Indonesia upward to Central Asia and downward to Central Africa, but we should not expect it to come quickly, if at all. Islam is a problem, inherently opposed to democracy, despite the declarations of Western leaders hoping that political correctness will keep most of a billion Muslims quiet.
Even in the best of circumstances, if a kind of democracy begins to grow in this area, it will take years, decades, or generations to mature. In the meantime there is likely to be chaos, a jockeying for power, with opponents competing by aggressive postures toward Israel. Barack and Thom may feel that patience is a small price to pay for eventual goodness, but it is Israelis who will pay a disproportionate share of that price.
Thus, our limited enthusiasm for Arab Spring, which by now should be renamed into something more likely to continue, so far with hardly a flicker of light from the protests, uprisings, rebellions, or civil wars.