In Syria, Protesters Are Pawns

What happens when a massively unpopular Arab leader does something that jihadi leaders support? That was precisely the question that popular Syrian jihadi ideologue Abdul Muhim Mustafa Halima, aka Abu Basir al-Tartusi, recently pondered in an online Q and A session.

“Why does the Syrian regime permit some of the demonstrators to cross the borders of the Golan with the Israeli state,” al-Tartusi asked in response to the opening of Syria’s border to protesters on May 15th. “Why now and with this timing, in which the Syrian people are going out chanting for the fall of the tyrant and his system?”

The question is of particular relevance in light of the response planned by anti-Israel activists on Israel’s borders, scheduled for May 20.

The questions also reflect a reality little discussed in Western media. Syria, easily considered to be one of the Middle East’s most oppressive regimes, has the ability to let off steam with anti-Israel demonstrations. Allowing Syrian infiltrations across the Israeli border is practically a godsend for jihadists around the world.

So the question is really why now? Why would the Baathist regime permit the first ever cross-border infiltrations by Syrian civilians? It’s a move that hasn’t been allowed during the nearly 40 years of al-Assad rule in Syria.

Interestingly, al-Bartusi’s answers hit the nail on the head. For one, al-Assad was telling the Arab world that he supports the “resistance” against the Jews. Simultaneously, he was also letting the West know that he is needed to control the border -- that without him, there would be mayhem and possibly another war. In addition, the act was a convenient distraction in the midst of his brutal crackdown on civilian protests.

On top of all these reasons, al-Assad was doing some serious signaling to Syrian society. “How are they demonstrating against the regime that permits them to demonstrate against the Zionist Jews in the Golan," al-Bartusi cleverly asks, "while he supports the front of the resistance and opposition?”

What’s missing from al-Bartusi’s analysis isn’t vitriolic anti-Semitism; there certainly is enough of that. Rather, al-Bartusi seems to miss that al-Assad had little choice in the matter. Never before has his family’s rule faced such a popular and cross-cultural threat to its existence, with so many segments of Syrian society calling for an end to oppression. Al-Assad didn’t permit the marches; he just chose to sidestep a wave of dissent that would further rock his shaky grasp on power.

Although al-Assad may have physical control over many parts of Syria, his regime has completely lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people. Controlling anti-Israel protests may give him the appearance of being the matador while Syrian society is the bull -- but events may steer him now more than he controls them.

On the following page, I provide my full translation of the jihadi question and answer session.