Silence is the policy of Israeli authorities with respect to the rebellion in Syria.
Figuring out what is happening, and what is likely to happen is like deciphering reports and comments about Iran.
Currently there seems to be a standoff, bloody in the extreme, between the regime and its opponents. The death toll is somewhere around 9,000 and climbing. The standard of comparison is the 20,000 to 40,000 deaths said to be caused by Assad's father in putting down an uprising during 1982.
The New York Times has summarized the situation, with comments from individuals supporting the regime, various opponents, and those ambivalent about the results, not feeling that they have any power to determine what happens, and hoping most of all that whoever emerges on top will not massacre them.
Israel is closest to the latter category. We are not worried about a charge of furious Syrians against the IDF, but have chosen a policy of silence in the face of ambiguity and ambivalence. It is unlikely that supportive comments from us would be welcome by any of the participants, and we are not sure whose victory would be best for us.
The New York Times article mentions all the other neighbors of Syria except for Israel.
"Tensions have spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan and raised fears that radical Islamic militants will find a new cause for recruitment."
Israel's Foreign Minister said that the lack of international concern for the carnage serves as a message to Israel not to rely on outsiders to do anything more than express dismay about what happens to us. He also indicated a willingness to provide humanitarian aid. Then the Prime Minister repeated his instruction that officials refrain from speaking about Syria.
From our perspective, perhaps shared by many enlightened westerners, there is not a good side in the Syrian fight. The general picture of Christian and Druze minorities abstaining from the rebellion reflects a concern that the defeat of a harsh regime that has ruled with an iron fist will unleash Islamic extremism that would be worse.
Assad has been an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, and has provided a conduit for munitions meant to hurt us if Hezbollah decides to use them. But it could be worse. For the better part of four decades, the Syrian frontier has been quieter than any other, with few infiltrations leading to violence
One of my assignments during the Lebanon war of 1982 was to an outpost on the Golan a few meters from the border. I saw a Syrian tank with its canon pointed at me, but with a clothes line tied to its canon and a nearby tree, and a Syrian soldier in his underwear tending to his laundry. Israel's intelligence assessment was that things like that were explicit messages that Syria had no intention of joining the fight.
Don't make things worse sums up Israel's policy. We get daily reports and pictures of what is happening, and no end of commentary about what may come next.
• Assad's capacity to crush the rebellion, with who knows how many killed in the shelling and bombing of neighborhoods and the punishments that come later
• A change in the rebels' actions toward urban terror, with car bombs and suicide attacks that resist the much greater fire power of Assad's forces
• A change at the top of the regime, with some other members of the Alawi minority taking power and offering concessions, or a soldier organizing a coup like colonels or corporals have done in Syria and other places
• The sudden collapse of the regime after an increase in the defection to the rebels by individual soldiers and military units, with chaos but no initial leadership, and a massacre of revenge against Assad, his family and regime personnel, perhaps spreading to the entire Alawi community, with survivors swarming toward one or another national border, including Israel's
The Druze of the Golan are one of Israel's unresolved oddities. Since Israel took control of the area in 1967, some 20,000 have been in a limbo reflecting their uncertainty, and the delicacy of Druze status wherever they live. Those of Israel (mostly in the Galilee), Lebanon, and Syria, have been loyal citizens of each, even though their family ties cross national borders. Except for those of the Golan, Israeli Druze are subject to military conscription, and have reached high rank in the military and appear in the Knesset delegations of several political parties. Those of the Golan were offered Israeli citizenship, but for the most part have retained their identity as Syrians. Their own lack of certainty about the future, as well as a concern for family members in Syria, has coincided with Israel's willingness to accept yet another unconventional arrangement. The Israeli film of 2004, The Syrian Bride, demonstrates the anomalies and accommodations.
There has been some movement of Syrian Druze into the ranks of the rebels. There have also been reports of Golan Druze expressing anti-Assad sentiments and applying for Israeli citizenship. Yet there are Golan Druze who continue to send their children to Syria for higher education, express their loyalty to Syria, and are careful to avoid saying anything that would jeopardize their future or family members in Syria.
Silence may not be golden when thousands have been killed a short distance from here, but the alternatives could be worse. If Israeli authorities or individual Israelis are involved in the conflict, no one is talking about it. Overt verbal support or something more would damn one or another side of the conflict, all of whom are likely to condemn Zionists, Israelis, and/or Jews. Insofar as greater powers and the Muslim neighbors of Syria are doing nothing more than expressing their dismay at the bloodshed, with some half-hearted proposals to serve as diplomatic intermediaries, there is no reason for Israel to do more.
Note: I have begun putting hyper-links to references in the text. They do not appear in this site. Those wanting them should send me an e-mail.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem