Damascus on the Cusp

President Assad's latest declarations are on par with the desperate measures taken by his Egyptian counterpart. Eventually, something will give.


Syrian President Bashar Assad promised this week to rescind his country's emergency regime, after nearly 48 years. Later he announced that the police commissioner of the city of Banias would be dismissed because of the killing of demonstrators there, and that new laws relating to communication and political parties, as well as legislation permitting more than five people to assemble (thus legalizing demonstrations ), would be enacted.

Syria - Reuters - April 17, 2011

However, much of what has been taking place in the Syrian regime recently is reminiscent of the actions of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who used all manner of tricks to stay in power during his final days. Like Mubarak, Assad dismissed his government, used thugs in civilian dress to suppress demonstrations (in Egypt they were called baltajia; in Syria, shabiha ) and of course he also scattered promises of reforms and replacement of key officials. In any event, at this stage, Assad is still not yet where Mubarak was in the wake of the Tahrir Square protests: He has not yet been forced to appoint a deputy and to transfer his powers to him.

There is another major difference between Assad and Mubarak: In Syria, the army unequivocally stands behind the president. We can also assume that Assad, like Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi, has drawn what seems like the logical conclusion from Mubarak's fall: to use as much brutality as possible and ignore American protests, since that is the only way to stay in power. Assad and Gadhafi, as opposed to Mubarak, did not rely on American support and therefore consider themselves free of the restrictions that Mubarak faced.

But the key word in Syria is "still," for even Assad's military support is likely to evaporate. On his orders the army and the security services have slaughtered civilians in Deraa, Latakia, Homs and Aleppo. That can't go on forever.

Although the Alawite minority holds most of the important positions in the army there, there are enough Sunni officers in sensitive positions who will consider abandoning Assad if the trouble continues. In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, for example, soldiers and policemen have deserted to the opposition.

Meanwhile, Assad will continue announcing reforms and surviving from Friday to Friday, the day when major demonstrations are held, hoping they'll peter out. It is clear the president and his people are trying to keep Damascus free of riots, and they are succeeding so far. That is also a major difference as compared to Egypt: There have been almost no major protests in Syria's capital. If unrest erupts in Damascus, too, Bashar, his wife Asma and the rest of their family will be forced to start looking for refuge. Tehran might just fit the bill.

Unlike Eastern Europe in the 1980s, in the Middle East of 2011 there is no single solid cornerstone, like the Soviet Union. Not even Egypt. And yet, it is impossible to ignore the far-reaching international influences of recent events. In a world with Al Jazeera around, it is doubtful whether a young man in Damascus will accept life without certain rights while his counterpart in Cairo is having his voice heard for the first time.

Changing of the guard

The negotiations over a prisoner exchange to redeem kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit made major headlines this week, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that nothing significant has happened since December 2009. April 2011 is an era of a changing of the guard, in this realm. Senior Mossad official David Meidan will be replacing Hagai Hadas as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's special envoy for the negotiations. According to Hamas, Gerhard Conrad will resign and be replaced by another German mediator.

The spring and summer months offer the media many occasions to report on the family's suffering again: another seder without Gilad, another anniversary of his kidnapping (in June ), another birthday in captivity (in August ). Journalists, seeking opportunities to attack Netanyahu, exploit these dates to emphasize the his inactivity.

The relationship between supply (protests by the family and Shalit's supporters ) and demand (by the media ) generates phenomena that contribute nothing to the effort but another headline. These have included stopping traffic around the country for five minutes, having a seder on the sidewalk in front of the Netanyahu residence, holding a demonstration during the cabinet session, holding solidarity visits to the protest tent. But the Shalit family never really removes its gloves, and at this stage, even in light of the flood of images and gimmicks, it is doubtful whether any of the protest measures are having an effect.

According to various statements by Netanyahu, the heart of the dispute between Israel and Hamas is where to send the 450 senior terrorists that Hamas demands to be freed. The prime minister is refusing to release some of them, and is insisting others be expelled to Europe or Gaza - not to their West Bank homes. In December 2009 Netanyahu went further than his predecessor Ehud Olmert had earlier that year, but even that was not enough to close the deal.

There are two main reasons for this. The first and more important one concerns Hamas' military leadership: Ahmed Jabari and Mohammed Def are rejecting any deal that does not humiliate Israel. Sometimes it seems they would only agree if all 450 prisoners were to be released to their homes (along with 550 additional prisoners chosen by Israel ). Although Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of the Hamas political branch in Damascus, said this week that "Hamas will not be able to obtain the release of all prisoners" - he does not seem to have a definitive role.

Despite the fact that the political wing in Damascus and the political leadership in Gaza apparently want to close a deal, the military wing's veto is preventing this. One of Israel's significant failures in the negotiations so far involves its maneuverings between Hamas' divisions. Another is Netanyahu's behavior. Toward the very end of Olmert's term, it was reported that Netanyahu had granted his predecessor an "open ticket" to strike a deal before his new government took power. Even in his first months on the job, Netanyahu appeared willing to advance an agreement, but Jabari's stubbornness apparently changed his mind.

Last month Haaretz journalist Yossi Verter quoted Netanyahu as telling Likud MKs that he is standing "all alone" in the face of pressure to conclude an agreement that would free large numbers of murderers. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who often attacked Olmert for his refusal to be more flexible, has fallen silent. Even in the meeting with the Shalits before Passover, Netanyahu said he did not intend to be more flexible.

Are there other ways to pressure Hamas to be more conciliatory? Hadas, who was highly praised as a Mossad operative, supports such measures. There may even be some going on, as reflected in recent reports of the kidnapping of Hamas engineer Dirar Abu Sisi in Ukraine and the assassination of Tayser Abu Snima of Rafah, who was involved in Shalit's kidnapping.

In an announcement made on his behalf by the Prime Minister's Office, Hadas said he is leaving for family reasons, thus not responding to speculation that his departure is due to Netanyahu's indecisiveness.

On the other hand, Hamas and Hezbollah are apparently working to guarantee that Shalit will not be the Islamic terror groups' only Israeli captive.


Judge Richard Goldstone's op-ed in The Washington Post expressing partial regret for his eponymous report on Operation Cast Lead was enthusiastically received in Israel, but it had only a minor effect internationally. The other members of his United Nations commission attacked him, and Netanyahu's declared intent to establish an Israeli team to have the report formally voided is no more than a public relations move. The main thing the article did is to allow Goldstone once again to attend Yom Kippur services at his South Africa synagogue.

In any case, Goldstone, who did in fact change his mind (with considerable courage ), is not really exempting Israel from condemnation and international sanctions in the next round of fighting, whether in Lebanon or Gaza, which will not differ greatly from Cast Lead.

The fact that Military Advocate General Avichai Mandelblit came to his senses and belatedly convinced then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to begin a extensive investigation into the operation's alleged war crimes reduced the Goldstone report's damage and spurred Goldstone to reconsider. But the refusal by Barak and Ashkenazi to allow people outside the army to participate in the investigation - ostensibly as a show of support for IDF soldiers - damaged Israel's argument.

Article 5 in the Turkel Commission mandate for investigating the deaths aboard the Gaza flotilla examines Israel's policy of investigating violations during times of combat. Last week the commission heard testimony from several people, including Tel Aviv University Prof. Eyal Benvenisti, one of the leading Israeli experts on international law.

In a sharp, detailed and reasoned document, Benvenisti takes issue with Mandelblit's testimony before the commission, saying that he has been mistaken in refusing to recognize international law as totally binding, and that he allows himself too much freedom to decide when to open investigations and how to conduct them.

Benvenisti claims that during combat, the army has "an obligation: to intentionally not harm civilians," as anchored in the IDF's own binding ethical code. The army's obligation to investigate complaints is not limited to "the vague obligation to act in good faith," he notes. "Investigation is an inseparable part of the framework designed to ensure that essential obligations are upheld during combat."

He continues: "The obligation to investigate falls particularly on the military command, not only as a matter of principle but also due to specific instructions to prevent war crimes and to punish perpetrators.

"If these obligations are not met, the commanders may bear criminal responsibility for their subordinates' actions," Benvenisti writes, adding, "The civilian legal system is directly obliged to investigate civilians who were responsible, directly or through their orders, for combat violations."

He notes that in general, partial information about suspected war crimes is enough to require an investigation: "According to the MAG's document, the military prosecution appears to take a passive attitude ... waiting for evidence without taking steps to clear up erroneous information and is even liable to get dangerously close to the boundaries of criminal prohibition."

Benvenisti adds, "The MAG operates almost in a vacuum in constitutional terms. The civilian system inappropriately shrugs off its authority and responsibility in the field of combat rules, granting the military the exclusive authority to set the rules for warfare, examination and investigation and even the trial process."

The MAG himself has a conflict of interest because the chief of staff can decide whether he will receive the personal rank of general (as happened to the two previous MAGs ), notes Benvenisti. The MAG's rank must be determined via regulations, he says.

"It is only natural that the chief of staff will not want to give up the power to grant a rank to a potential critic," he adds.

Benvenisti believes it is not clear whether the civilian system can properly monitor whether the chief of staff has abided by proper combat rules, without discussing the IDF's de facto conduct.

He proposes a series of alternatives: establishing a Justice Ministry department to set combat regulations, manned by international law and combat experts, to help determine the IDF's operative instructions along with the military prosecution and the Foreign Ministry's legal advisers. He also proposes expanding the powers of the Justice Ministry's police investigations department to handle combat violations and investigations. He proposes that this unit advise the military police, as well, and also recommends drafting a guide with obligatory combat rules - like "every self-respecting Western army" has.

These are important and interesting suggestions, but one thing is clear even now: If the Turkel Commission even considers implementing Benvenisti's suggestions, Defense Minister Barak and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz will make every effort to prevent it.