Syria, others and us
By Ira Sharkansky
The latest numbers about the 2-year-old Syrian civil war are 80,000 deaths, one million refugees over the borders in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and a total of four million displaced Syrians either over the borders or away from their homes in Syria.
As always, we must be suspicious about round numbers published by organizations with an interest in portraying the carnage. Nonetheless, by all the indications, the death, dislocation and destruction have been great. Perhaps greater than Afghanistan, and more than in every other Muslim country since the onset of this century except for Iraq, where the round number estimates are exceeding one million deaths.
The Syrian story is entirely one of Muslims killing and dislocating Muslims, leaving aside the dozen or so who may have been killed by Israeli air strikes against the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.
Not so long ago it was common to estimate the remaining life of the Assad regime in days or months, but now reports tell of its resurgence, aided by thousands of Hezbollah troops, and taking back areas that had been lost to rebels. There is no end in sight, with continued aid from Russia, Hezbollah and Iran, and the Chinese and Russians blocking significant decisions by the U.N. Security Council. Assad’s forces appear to be better organized than the numerous groups of rebels, some of whom have been fighting one another.
Who cares? That is a significant question. The heads of other regimes are doing little more than lament the death and destruction. Barack Obama threatened retaliation if Assad employed chemical weapons, then mumbled his way out of any commitment. The head of the Turkish government spoke about a forceful response when he claimed that Syrians were responsible for explosions in refugee camps on Turkish soil, but a day later adopted the Obama posture of avoiding involvement.
Lots of worthies ought to care, if only on account of the destruction of people, resources and the governmental institutions of Syria, as well as likely spillovers that threaten its neighbors. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are already feeling the impact of refugees. All of those countries have restive sectors, with renewed civil war in Lebanon always a tick away. Assad has threatened to unleash his Palestinian refugees to attack Israelis on the Golan Heights, and the IDF says it is prepared for whatever happens.
Even Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has been sobered by the evolution of Arab Spring that he once cheered as the onset of democracy. Most recently he comes close to admitting he was wrong. Or at least he now sees a difference between the shift from autocracy to democracy in Eastern Europe to the move from autocracy to bloody chaos driven by religious and tribal hatreds in Iraq, Syria and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East.
Friedman writes back and forth on Iraq. It is the place he would like to forget but cannot. After a bad start, he credits the U.S. for putting in place a government that was promising, but has not delivered. Almost always the optimist and American patriot, he is hopeful of the rise of an enlightened party in Syria that comes to power with outside help, yet he says that his own president is wise in staying out of the fray. More likely the fighting will continue with no winner until all sides are exhausted. What then? We’ll have to wait for a Friedman prophecy yet to come.
Israelis dare not overlook the bloodshed and instability right over the border, with all sides agreeing that Israel is the enemy. An IDF general warned that the Golan would no longer be a safe venue for tourists. Northern resorts have not shown signs of distress, but the military has upped its preparations in the area, including the movement of anti-missile batteries to protect Safed and Haifa. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks much of the time from his underground bunker, where he threatens Israel with more death and destruction than it has ever experienced.
All this is occurring along with budget discussions that have focused on Finance Ministry proposals of cuts in most domestic outlays, and a cut of about eight percent in the overall budget of the Defense Ministry. That produced a meeting between the Finance Minister, Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and the IDF commander that began in the afternoon and recessed after midnight without a decision. Presumably on the agenda was Syria, Iran and the Sinai as a place for launching missiles uncontrolled by Egypt and unreachable by Israel unless it wants to violate its peace treaty with Egypt and threaten who knows what.
Saturday evening saw perhaps 12,000 polite middle class protesters marching against the prospects of budget cuts and tax increases that would impact them. That is another round number estimated by activists and media personalities inclined to hype the drama. It was a long way from the 200,000 said to demonstrate two summers ago, but more are promised for next week.
The Defense portion of the budget is not only complex, but much of is secret and parts come to security services from governmental units outside the boundaries of the Defense Ministry. One commentator speculated in the midst of government discussions that there would be a reduction, perhaps not to the extent proposed by the Finance Minister, but it would not matter. Moneys cut could be replaced in mid-year without publicity in order to avoid challenging the Finance Minister’s posture of being resolute. Any uptick in the threats from one or another hostile source would allow the IDF and other security services to go beyond their budgets, with the Finance Ministry having to redo its projections about deficits, debt, borrowing and future outlays to cover the costs.
Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.