Syria’s curious plea

Assad’s cousin called on all those who have Israel’s best interests in mind to make sure that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad survives.

assad brothers 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
assad brothers 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” said Rami Makhlouf, Syrian president Bashar Assad’s cousin, during an interview with The New York Times published on Tuesday. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”
The interviewer wondered whether this constituted a threat of war.
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“I didn’t say war,” Makhlouf retorted. “What I’m saying is don’t let us suffer, don’t put a lot of pressure on the president, don’t push Syria to do anything it is not happy to do.” The implication: If Syria is pushed too hard, Israel may pay a price.
Makhlouf is one of the more influential figures in the beleaguered Damascus regime. He is considered Assad’s close confidant; it’s often said that when Makhlouf speaks, he reflects Assad’s thinking.
Makhlouf’s three-hour interview to the Times was no coincidence. Any discourse with the leadership of the regime in Damascus is rare. Hence, when senior figures do decide to avail themselves of Western news conduits, we must assume that they have important messages to transmit.
Conventional wisdom is that Assad, under unprecedented threat at home, may instigate trouble with Israel – either on the Golan or via Lebanon – in order to create a diversionary confrontation to distract world opinion and his own population.
But conventional wisdom doesn’t always fully recognize the complexities of the Syrian ethnic/religious mix. Syria is more of a hodgepodge than many of the other Arab nations where mass uprisings have erupted over recent months.
The widespread perception is of a Syria in which an overwhelming Sunni majority is mustering the courage to demand an end to oppression by the Assad-led Alawite minority. But the reality is that the Assad dynasty has managed a rule of fear over a quilt of constituencies. The Alawites (a Shi’ite offshoot) are indeed the elite, but linked to them are the Druse, Circassians, Shi’ites, Ismailis and an assortment of Christian sects such as the Assyrians, Greek Orthodox and Armenians. The Sunnis too are divided – into Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and more. The capacity to play off these splinters against each other has been one of the sources of Assad’s power.
Each of the pro-Assad groupings has vested interests in his survival; each fears outright extinction if fanatic Arab Sunnis take over. And that fear is being avidly fanned by Assad. He and his mouthpieces have spent a great deal of energy in the past few weeks warning the various minorities of the dire consequences that await them at the hands of the Sunnis should he be toppled. They are being told that Muslim extremists are behind the unrest and are waiting in the wings to seize control. If they do, warn the pro- Assad forces, all hell will break loose and everyone will rue the president’s departure.
THAT IS exactly the message that Makhlouf was passing onto Israel and its presumed well-wishers in the international community. In a sense, Israel in particular – and the Jews in general – was being addressed as yet another component in the multifarious composite that is Syria and the region. We were being told – just as Syria’s Druse and Christians are being told – that Assad is the devil we know, and that he’s more restrained and more responsible than whoever may replace him.
Whether or not we buy into this thinking, what is significant is that, rather than genuinely threatening Israel, Makhlouf’s comments underline his clan’s mounting desperation.
For Assad’s cousin was calling on all those who have Israel’s best interests in mind to make sure that the president survives. Rather than a threat, indeed, this may be construed as something akin to a curious plea for forbearance.
It is curious because it appears to arise from the sometimes anti-Semitic assumption that Jews wield inordinate clout and can sway world powers and others to do their bidding. In this context, it may be recalled that many in Eastern Europe expected Israel to help bring them economic miracles after the fall of the Iron Curtain, because stereotypically Jews were reputed to be financial wizards.
The imperative here for Israel is to refrain from opining on any “desired” result of the Syrian upheaval. Certainly, we share the fervent desire to see an end to the killing of innocent people who are seeking the freedoms we insist upon. But Israel would do well to remember that, as with the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, this Arab push for freedom is not actually about us. The temptation to babble is often overwhelming for our leaders. Sometimes there are circumstances where the less said, the better.