The Western, Arab, and Israeli press have likened the Tel Aviv tent-city protests over housing and other social issues to the Arab Spring, but the reality is that they indicate how removed the Jewish state is from the region’s troubles. While Syrians and Libyans and Egyptians are forming tribal militias or being shot and bombed by their countries’ military and security forces, Israelis are pitching peaceful protest tents in front of television cameras.
The last six months of instability in the region have brought a period of relative quiet to Israel, during which time the country has been enjoying unprecedented economic prosperity and the luxury of looking at some of its real social problems—which is to say that Israel really is enjoying a sort of democratic springtime. However, in the Arabic-speaking states, all that’s blossoming is violent conflict, especially in Israel’s neighbor Syria.
The Syrian uprising is now almost six months old, and some observers in Beirut, where I spent the past week, think it might go on for years. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ratcheting up the violence and still has plenty of cards left to play. The opposition, for its part, has braved week after week of atrocities and shows no signs of backing down. Neither the regime nor its opponents are going anywhere, and neither the Obama Administration nor anyone else in the international community has the leverage or willpower to bring the issue to a conclusion, peaceful or otherwise.
Many Lebanese believe that the bloody standoff between Syria’s Alawite minority, which controls the army and security services, and the country’s Sunni majority will invariably worsen as the opposition there takes up arms. It’s little wonder that officials across Beirut’s political spectrum—from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to Hezbollah, and from the Sunnis in the north to the Christians of the pro-democracy March 14 movement—fear that events in Syria will fuel Lebanon’s own simmering sectarian tensions.
Syria, in other words, is in the process of Lebanonization, referring not only to the madness of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in the 1970s and ’80s but also its aftermath, which continues to the present. In this configuration, tribal factors, as well as local regional and international interests, will act as highly volatile elements of a political climate marked by violence or stalemate. In a Lebanonized Syria, as now in Lebanon, the state will not be able to function normally.
What we’ve watched the last six months across the Middle East is less a series of democratic uprisings—in which people stake their claims to individual liberties—than a series of battles in which tribes, sects, clans, and classes turn against the rivals that have humiliated them for so long. This is most obviously the model in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, but it also pertains to Egypt and Tunisia, where the military and security apparatuses are best understood as privileged networks imposing their will on the rest of society. The courage on display in these uprisings, especially in Syria, is no less impressive or human just because it is based on communal grievances rather than on notions of individual rights.
Lebanonization is the region’s real status quo, but it is also fundamentally unacceptable to the United States, the Middle East’s great power for over half a century. This is why Washington backed various dictatorships, most of them much less cruel than that of the Assads, when those dictatorships’ repression allowed their societies to function at some level like real states. America’s interests in the region are energy, trade, and, after Sept. 11, stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. All of these interests are much harder to maintain and advance amid widespread conflict. Given the Obama Administration’s reluctance to take the lead in the Middle East, the entire region might well become Lebanonized, a scenario dangerous for U.S. interests and allies, including Israel.
The sectarian conflict at the heart of the Syrian uprising is precisely what the Assad family, Bashar and his father, Hafez, had fought to avoid for 40 years, and it was fear of this conflict that shaped the regime’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, there was Baathism, an ideology that subsumed sectarian difference under a totalitarian ideology similar in ways to both national socialism and communism.
In pre-Arab Spring Syria, few dared discuss minority issues, a taboo so powerful that it extends at present even to those most opposed to the regime’s physical and spiritual violence. Given the extensive brainwashing of many decades, it is too emotionally daunting for the opposition to push back the curtain and explain that they are being persecuted not as Syrians or human beings but simply as Sunnis.
To be sure, the opposition has extended its hand to the Alawites, but so far it’s not clear if many are accepting the invitation. A Lebanese activist recently relayed to me that a local Alawite official he’d just met explained that he had no choice but to side with Assad and was ready to defend his community against the Sunnis. When the Syrian navy shelled the Sunni neighborhoods of Lattakia this last weekend, there were reports that Alawites stood by cheering. If there were any Alawites prepared to cross communal boundaries, then surely the fate of a top Alawite official, Ali Habib, reminded the community where their allegiances should lie. The former defense minister was replaced last week, then either put under house arrest or, according to some reports, executed by the regime when word got out that he was someone to whom the Turks or Americans might reach out.
The White House fears the uncertainty that would likely follow Assad’s demise, but it’s pretty clear what would follow the present regime—not the specter of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the state but the ghost of Syria pre-Assad: an endless series of coups and counter-coups, which in the past ended only when Hafez al-Assad took the reins in 1970. The one-time air force officer and defense minister recognized that some of Syria’s instability grew out of its neighbors’ ability to cause problems in Damascus. The way to keep Syria’s rivals, like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel, in check was to go on the offensive. Sponsoring terrorism against its neighbors was a primary method by which the Assad regime ensured peace at home.
By exporting sectarian conflict abroad, primarily to Lebanon and most recently to Iraq, Syria’s ruling class deterred the domestic sectarian conflict that would have cost the Alawite regime power and the community its lives. All of the regime’s efforts, at home and abroad, were wrapped in the banner of Arabism, the war to liberate Jerusalem and eradicate the Zionist entity.
The Assad regime can no longer afford the luxury of ideology, which is why it shelled a Palestinian camp on the Mediterranean coast over the weekend, sending thousands of refugees scattering. The Palestinians are simply one card in a much bigger Middle East poker game (a game in which, it should be noted, Israel doesn’t have a seat at the table). The central issue in the region is not the Arab-Israeli peace process but the Arab civil war that has been reignited under the ultimately cynical label of Arab Spring.
Israel has very little to do with current turmoil in the Middle East, a fact made plain by the paranoid nature of Arab propaganda, which blames Jerusalem for backing Arab dictatorships while accusing Israel of plotting to set the Arabs at each other’s throats. But while Lebanon’s civil wars made clear that Israel does not profit from Arab conflict, it also suggests that the Jewish state will invariably become a proxy in someone else’s war, which will not be to Israel’s benefit. Nor is there any upside, strategic or moral, in Israel pursuing the policy of an alliance of minorities and aligning itself, as some Israeli analysts have called for, with minority regimes like Assad’s that massacre their own people in the streets.
There’s something to be said for the longstanding claims of its enemies that Israel doesn’t really belong in the Middle East. How does a modern neoliberal democracy fit with the rest of the region, as it looks now? So far, Israel has managed to keep its head down. For the time being, Israel’s neighbors seem to have forgotten about it. But that quiet can’t last for long.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).