The violence on the Syrian-Israeli border on Sunday could signal a change in the Syrian government’s strategy as popular protests continue among its citizens into a third month, says the New York Times. The Syrian-Israeli border had been relatively quiet for the past 37 years but Sunday’s demonstrations in the Golan Heights — which Israel seized in 1974 — and elsewhere on Syria’s borders, including that with Lebanon, “could augur a new phase of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and the web of international relations he is navigating.”
The White House has accused Syria of provoking clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian demonstrators to divert attention from Syria’s brutal crackdown of the uprising within its own borders. The Syrian government has so far blamed the protests that started in the southern city of Dara’a in March on foreigners and armed groups backed by Islamists.
Four people were killed by Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights on Sunday. But the very fact that the authoritarian Syrian government, which severely limits access to the area and to its borders, allowed protesters to venture there is notable. This was the first time in President Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year reign that he has “demonstrated to Israel, the region and world that in an uprising that has posed the greatest threat to his family’s four decades of rule, he could provoke war to stay in power.” Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident and visiting scholar at George Washington University, underscored this point:
“It’s a message by the Syrian government for Israel and the international community: If you continue the pressure on us, we will ignite the front with Israel.”
As the New York Times observes, with Syria’s troops deployed throughout the country to put down protests in several cities and towns, the country is not at all able to go to war. A relatively poor nation with a population far smaller than Egypt, Syria has “long played an assertive role in the region by making itself a linchpin” among Middle Eastern nations.
Indeed, it is thought that one reason the US and other nations have not demanded Assad’s ouster as they have that of other Arab leaders including Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi is because Assad has kept the border with Israel quiet. Syria’s closest ally is Iran and the US has long sought to “lure away” Syria from this alliance.
Al-Jazeera reports that Syria has been tightening its surveillance of its borders and has sent 15 tanks to its border with Lebanon. According to activists, on Monday tanks deployed around Arida, near the Jisr al-Qomar border crossing point with northern Lebanon.
The Guardian also reports that three Syrian soldiers who accompanied refugees crossing the border and who defected to Lebanon have been handed over to Syrian authorities by the Lebanese military. Activists say the Syrian soldiers are likely face torture and execution.
In Dara’a, villagers dug out 13 bodies from a mass grave; five of the bodies were children. “It was not clear when they died,” says the Guardian, and the reports could not be independently confirmed because of the government’s tight control of reporting. However, video footage “appeared to show the decomposed bodies of children lying in recently turned earth.”
The video below shows people uncovering mass graves near Dara’a.
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Photo: Map of Israel, Lebanon and Syria from Wikimedia Commons