Civilian casualties are the currency of Middle East diplomacy. The military
issue in the region has never been whether Israel had the power to crush its
opponents, but whether it had permission to do so. Iran and Syria have supplied
Hezbollah with 50,000 rockets, many capable of hitting any target in Israel
with precision. Many are emplaced under homes, schools and hospitals. Thousands
of civilians used as unwilling human shields would perish if Israel were to
destroy the missiles.
Too much collateral damage will "stain the conscience of the world", as United
States President Barack Obama intoned over
Libya. By this reckoning, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and other Arab
dictators have enhanced Israel's strategic position by cheapening Arab life.
Another 34 Syrians died in last Friday's protests, the largest to date,
bringing the body count to 170 in the past three weeks.
Estimates of the dead in Libya's civil war, meanwhile, range from 1,000 to
10,000. No one paid much attention to the dozen and a half dead in Israel's
latest retaliatory strike in Gaza. At the US State Department briefing April 7,
spokesman Mark Toner condemned the latest rocket attacks on Israel "in the
strongest possible terms", but said nothing about the Israeli response.
That is harbinger of things to come. Assad may cling to power, but Syria has
vanished as a prospective player in peace negotiations. A comprehensive peace
is impossible without Syria, which explains why Washington has not demanded
Assad's ouster along with Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
To do so would amount to a formal announcement that the Oslo Accords are dead.
For reasons I laid out in a recent essay (Food
and Syria's Failure, March 29), Syria will only fracture further.
Israel's best course of action is to dig in its heels through the November 2012
US presidential elections while its prospective adversaries descend into chaos,
and await the right opportunity to settle accounts with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran and its proxies cannot defeat Israel in open war, but they hope to provoke
it into actions which would lead to diplomatic isolation and an imposed
settlement on the 1949 ceasefire line. With just 13 kilometers between Arab
territory and the sea, Israel would be vulnerable to rocketry on its western as
well as its northern and southern borders, and even more constrained from
military action by the presence of a recognized Palestinian state. Salami
tactics of this sort, Iran and Syria believed, eventually would make Israel's
Only one country's opinion has real weight in this matter, and that is the
United States. Under the previous administration of George W Bush, American
policy explicitly rejected salami tactics. In return for Israel's withdrawal
from Gaza, Bush gave a letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon stating, "In
light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli
populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final
status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines
of 1949," as former National Security Council official Elliot Abrams reported
in the June 29, 2009 Wall Street Journal.
On the other hand, then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice engineered a
settlement to the August 2006 war on Israel's northern border by forcing Israel
to accept international guarantees to demilitarize southern Lebanon, which Iran
and Syria ignored and the US did nothing to enforce.
Obama, by contrast, leans toward advisers who in the past have proposed an
international military intervention to impose a settlement. Samantha Power, the
reported architect of the recent Libyan intervention, became a liability to
Obama's 2008 presidential campaign when journalist Noah Pollak unearthed  a
2003 interview with Power in which she explicitly called for military
intervention to impose a settlement: "Both political leaders [Arafat and
Sharon] have been dreadfully irresponsible. And, unfortunately, it does require
Power was cashiered from the campaign over a public insult to Hillary Clinton,
and appointed to a lowly human-rights position at Obama's National Security
Council, but has since emerged as Obama's lead adviser on the Middle East.
Power disavowed her 2003 intervention proposal, but it seems unlikely that her
views have changed, given her lifelong devotion to "human-rights" politics.
Stanley Kurtz profiled  her radical views April 5 at National Review,
concluding, "Obama and Power are attempting to accustom us to a whole new way
of thinking about war, and about America's place in the world." The object of
the Libyan intervention is not to protect the US or to assert American
interests, but to forestall civilian deaths.
Power is not only insidious, however, but also incompetent. Her Pulitzer Prize
for human-rights reporting did not prepare her for the unpleasant realities on
the ground in the Middle East. She shot her bolt prematurely over Libya,
landing America in an embarrassment.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's desultory air strikes have had little
impact on the outcome, and the ragtag rebel forces (who include elements of
al-Qaeda) have crumbled before Gaddafi's counterattacks. America ditched its
old ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and bombarded Gaddafi, who cooperated with US
counter-terrorism efforts, without managing to dislodge him. America's limited
intervention will contribute to a prolonged civil war and a humanitarian
catastrophe, mocking the idea of intervention to protect civilian life.
Judge Richard Goldstone's recent personal doubts over his charge that the
Israeli army deliberately targeted civilians in its Gaza incursion came at a
propitious time for the Jewish state. America's United Nations ambassador Susan
Rice declared that the United States wanted Goldstone's 2009 report to the UN
Human Rights Commission to "disappear".
Syria will prove impossible to stabilize, for reasons sketched in my March 29
essay, and explained in more detail by economist Paul Rivlin  in a note
released the same day by Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center, entitled
"Behind the Tensions in Syria: The Socio-Economic Dimension."
Quoted at length in the Arab press, Rivlin's report went unmentioned in the
Western media - a gauge of how poorly the Western elite understands the core
issues. Clinton has been ridiculed for calling Assad a "reformer" (in fact, she
said that some members of congress think he's a reformer). Rivlin explains
Syria's president is a reformer, at least in economic policy. The trouble is
that Syrian society is too fragile to absorb reforms without intolerable pain
for the 30% of Syrians below the official poverty line of US$1.60 a day. As
Syrian agriculture is suffering from the country's
move to a so-called "social market economy" and the introduction of a new
subsidy regime in compliance with international trade agreements, including the
Association Agreement with the European Union (which Syria has still not
ratified). The previous agricultural policy was highly interventionist,
ensuring (at great cost) the country's food security and providing the
population with cheap access to food items. It is now being replaced with a
more liberal one that has harsh consequences for farmers and peasants, who
account for about 20% of the country's GDP [gross domestic product] and its
Syria's farm sector, Rivlin adds, was further
weakened by four years of drought: "Small-scale farmers have been the worst
affected; many have not been able to grow enough food or earn enough money to
feed their families. As a result, tens of thousands have left the northeast and
now inhabit informal settlements or camps close to Damascus."
Assad abolished fuel subsidies and freed market prices, Rivlin adds. "In early
2008, fuel subsidies were abolished and, as a result, the price of diesel fuel
tripled overnight. Consequently, during the year the price of basic foodstuffs
rose sharply and was further exasperated by the drought." Against that
background, Syrian food prices jumped by 30% in late February, Syrian bloggers
reported after the regime's attempt to hold prices down provoked hoarding.
The rise in global food prices hit Syrian society like a tsunami, exposing the
regime's incapacity to modernize a backward, corrupt and fractured country.
Like Egypt, Syria cannot get there from here. Rivlin doubts that the regime
will fracture. He concludes, "Urban elites have been appeased by economic
liberalization, and they now fear a revolution that would bring to power a new
political class based on the rural poor, or simply push Syria into chaos. The
alliance of the Sunni business community and the Alawite-dominated security
forces forms the basis of the regime and, as sections of the population rebel,
it has everything to fight for."
The most likely outcome is a prolonged period of instability, in which two
sides that have nothing to gain from compromise and everything to lose from
defeat - the dispossessed poor and the entrenched elite - fight it out in the
streets. Like Yemen and Libya, Syria will prove impossible to stabilize;
whether Egypt's military can prevent a descent into similar chaos remains
As Anwar Raja, a leader of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation
of Palestine, told the RIA Novosti Russian-language service April 2 (I
translate), "Syria plays a key role in the region as a supporter of the
resistance movements in the Arab world, especially in Palestine and Lebanon.
Destabilization of this country would allow the US and Israel to restore their
dominance in the region, which they lost, especially after the changes in
That is a remarkable statement, given that Washington pulled the rug out from
under its old ally Mubarak, thus undermining its position in the region, but
benefits from the misery of Assad, of which it is guiltless. On the contrary,
the Obama administration clings to the delusion that democracies will flower in
the "Arab spring", and that Assad is a crucial partner for peace. In the race
to the bottom, Damascus has plummeted ahead of Washington. That is why Anwar
Raja's estimate is precisely correct. The scenario would be hilarious if not
for the grim death toll.
Sadly, Arab corpses will continue to pile up until the Western media tire of
photographing them, and the "conscience of the world" finds it tiresome to read
about it. That Islamists will attempt to exploit the chaos goes without saying,
but even Islamists need to eat almost every day. For the third of Syrians below
the poverty line, the March increase in the price of a liter of cooking oil was
equal to a quarter of daily income. It is not hunger so much as humiliation and
hopelessness that drives the protesters back into the streets, and into the
guns of the security forces.
Under the circumstances, Obama's claim rings hollow that an Israeli-Palestinian
accord is "more urgent than ever". When all the actors in the region are in
play, whatever Israel might negotiate with the Palestine Authority is
meaningless. Neither bombs and rockets, nor the droplets of economic assistance
the administration might squeeze out of constrained budget, will stop regime
failure from revealing itself to be a symptom of societal failure.
The Palestine Authority will continue to campaign for "recognition" by the
United Nations General Assembly, a meaningless step unless the major powers
endorse it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already told the Palestinians
not to act on their own. The vote that outweighs all the others, to be sure,
belongs to Washington. Given the massive support for Israel among American
voters (63% against 15% for the Palestinians, according to a Gallup Poll ),
it is most unlikely that the Obama administration would put the screws on
Israel before the November 2012 elections.
And by then the map of the Middle East may look quite different.
Obama, to be sure, wants Israel to make unilateral concessions on West Bank
settlements in order to maintain the illusion that a peace process still
exists. But the only stick he has to brandish at Jerusalem is to failure to use
the American veto should the Palestinians seek United Nations recognition for a
state within the 1949 ceasefire line.
But this threat is empty. As the Israeli commentator Caroline Glick wrote on
April 4 :
Perversely, if [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu bows to
Obama's wishes, he will not avert US support for Palestinian UN membership and
UN recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and
Gaza. He will facilitate it by making it appear non-controversial. Netanyahu's
best bet in this case is not to ask Obama for favors. Since the General
Assembly will likely approve Palestinian membership even if the US does veto a
Security Council resolution, Obama's ability to prevent the gambit is limited.
And the price he wants to exact for a veto is prohibitive.
price that Obama would pay in American politics for throwing Israel under the
bus would be even more prohibitive.
Nothing about this will be pleasant for Israel, which may suffer considerable
damage from Hezbollah rockets in the event of another northern war. In that
event, Israel will have the opportunity to fight, and win decisively. I do not
wish war on anyone, but it is worth bearing in mind that nothing wins like
winning. An Israeli military victory would do more to discredit the Islamists
in the Arab world than all the elections in the world.