Civilian casualties are the currency of Middle East diplomacy. The military issue in the region has never been whether Israel had the power to crush its opponents, but whether it had permission to do so. Iran and Syria have supplied Hezbollah with 50,000 rockets, many capable of hitting any target in Israel with precision. Many are emplaced under homes, schools and hospitals. Thousands of civilians used as unwilling human shields would perish if Israel were to destroy the missiles.
Too much collateral damage will “stain the conscience of the world,” as United States President Barack Obama intoned over Libya. By this reckoning, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and other Arab dictators have enhanced Israel’s strategic position by cheapening Arab life.
Another 34 Syrians died in last Friday’s protests, the largest to date, bringing the body count to 170 in the past three weeks.
Estimates of the dead in Libya’s civil war, meanwhile, range from 1,000 to 10,000. No one paid much attention to the dozen and a half dead in Israel’s latest retaliatory strike in Gaza. At the US State Department briefing April 7, spokesman Mark Toner condemned the latest rocket attacks on Israel “in the strongest possible terms,” but said nothing about the Israeli response.
That is harbinger of things to come. Assad may cling to power, but Syria has vanished as a prospective player in peace negotiations. A comprehensive peace is impossible without Syria, which explains why Washington has not demanded Assad’s ouster along with Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
To do so would amount to a formal announcement that the Oslo Accords are dead. For reasons I laid out in a recent essay (Food and Syria’s Failure, March 29), Syria will only fracture further. Israel’s best course of action is to dig in its heels through the November 2012 US presidential elections while its prospective adversaries descend into chaos, and await the right opportunity to settle accounts with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran and its proxies cannot defeat Israel in open war, but they hope to provoke it into actions which would lead to diplomatic isolation and an imposed settlement on the 1949 ceasefire line. With just 13 kilometers between Arab territory and the sea, Israel would be vulnerable to rocketry on its western as well as its northern and southern borders, and even more constrained from military action by the presence of a recognized Palestinian state. Salami tactics of this sort, Iran and Syria believed, eventually would make Israel’s position untenable.
Only one country’s opinion has real weight in this matter, and that is the United States. Under the previous administration of George W Bush, American policy explicitly rejected salami tactics. In return for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Bush gave a letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon stating, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” as former National Security Council official Elliot Abrams reported in the June 29, 2009 Wall Street Journal.
On the other hand, then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice engineered a settlement to the August 2006 war on Israel’s northern border by forcing Israel to accept international guarantees to demilitarize southern Lebanon, which Iran and Syria ignored and the US did nothing to enforce.
Obama, by contrast, leans toward advisers who in the past have proposed an international military intervention to impose a settlement. Samantha Power, the reported architect of the recent Libyan intervention, became a liability to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign when journalist Noah Pollak unearthed  a 2003 interview with Power in which she explicitly called for military intervention to impose a settlement: “Both political leaders [Arafat and Sharon] have been dreadfully irresponsible. And, unfortunately, it does require external intervention.”
Power was cashiered from the campaign over a public insult to Hillary Clinton, and appointed to a lowly human-rights position at Obama’s National Security Council, but has since emerged as Obama’s lead adviser on the Middle East.
Power disavowed her 2003 intervention proposal, but it seems unlikely that her views have changed, given her lifelong devotion to “human-rights” politics. Stanley Kurtz profiled  her radical views April 5 at National Review, concluding, “Obama and Power are attempting to accustom us to a whole new way of thinking about war, and about America’s place in the world.” The object of the Libyan intervention is not to protect the US or to assert American interests, but to forestall civilian deaths.
Power is not only insidious, however, but also incompetent. Her Pulitzer Prize for human-rights reporting did not prepare her for the unpleasant realities on the ground in the Middle East. She shot her bolt prematurely over Libya, landing America in an embarrassment.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s desultory air strikes have had little impact on the outcome, and the ragtag rebel forces (who include elements of al-Qaeda) have crumbled before Gaddafi’s counterattacks. America ditched its old ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and bombarded Gaddafi, who cooperated with US counter-terrorism efforts, without managing to dislodge him. America’s limited intervention will contribute to a prolonged civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe, mocking the idea of intervention to protect civilian life.
Judge Richard Goldstone’s recent personal doubts over his charge that the Israeli army deliberately targeted civilians in its Gaza incursion came at a propitious time for the Jewish state. America’s United Nations ambassador Susan Rice declared that the United States wanted Goldstone’s 2009 report to the UN Human Rights Commission to “disappear.”
Syria will prove impossible to stabilize, for reasons sketched in my March 29 essay, and explained in more detail by economist Paul Rivlin  in a note released the same day by Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, entitled “Behind the Tensions in Syria: The Socio-Economic Dimension.”
Quoted at length in the Arab press, Rivlin’s report went unmentioned in the Western media – a gauge of how poorly the Western elite understands the core issues. Clinton has been ridiculed for calling Assad a “reformer” (in fact, she said that some members of congress think he’s a reformer). Rivlin explains Syria’s president is a reformer, at least in economic policy. The trouble is that Syrian society is too fragile to absorb reforms without intolerable pain for the 30% of Syrians below the official poverty line of US$1.60 a day. As Rivlin explains:
Syrian agriculture is suffering from the country’s move to a so-called “social market economy” and the introduction of a new subsidy regime in compliance with international trade agreements, including the Association Agreement with the European Union (which Syria has still not ratified). The previous agricultural policy was highly interventionist, ensuring (at great cost) the country’s food security and providing the population with cheap access to food items. It is now being replaced with a more liberal one that has harsh consequences for farmers and peasants, who account for about 20% of the country’s GDP [gross domestic product] and its workforce.
Syria’s farm sector, Rivlin adds, was further weakened by four years of drought: “Small-scale farmers have been the worst affected; many have not been able to grow enough food or earn enough money to feed their families. As a result, tens of thousands have left the northeast and now inhabit informal settlements or camps close to Damascus.”
Assad abolished fuel subsidies and freed market prices, Rivlin adds. “In early 2008, fuel subsidies were abolished and, as a result, the price of diesel fuel tripled overnight. Consequently, during the year the price of basic foodstuffs rose sharply and was further exasperated by the drought.” Against that background, Syrian food prices jumped by 30% in late February, Syrian bloggers reported after the regime’s attempt to hold prices down provoked hoarding.
The rise in global food prices hit Syrian society like a tsunami, exposing the regime’s incapacity to modernize a backward, corrupt and fractured country. Like Egypt, Syria cannot get there from here. Rivlin doubts that the regime will fracture. He concludes, “Urban elites have been appeased by economic liberalization, and they now fear a revolution that would bring to power a new political class based on the rural poor, or simply push Syria into chaos. The alliance of the Sunni business community and the Alawite-dominated security forces forms the basis of the regime and, as sections of the population rebel, it has everything to fight for.”
The most likely outcome is a prolonged period of instability, in which two sides that have nothing to gain from compromise and everything to lose from defeat – the dispossessed poor and the entrenched elite – fight it out in the streets. Like Yemen and Libya, Syria will prove impossible to stabilize; whether Egypt’s military can prevent a descent into similar chaos remains doubtful.
As Anwar Raja, a leader of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told the RIA Novosti Russian-language service April 2 (I translate), “Syria plays a key role in the region as a supporter of the resistance movements in the Arab world, especially in Palestine and Lebanon. Destabilization of this country would allow the US and Israel to restore their dominance in the region, which they lost, especially after the changes in Egypt.”
That is a remarkable statement, given that Washington pulled the rug out from under its old ally Mubarak, thus undermining its position in the region, but benefits from the misery of Assad, of which it is guiltless. On the contrary, the Obama administration clings to the delusion that democracies will flower in the “Arab spring”, and that Assad is a crucial partner for peace. In the race to the bottom, Damascus has plummeted ahead of Washington. That is why Anwar Raja’s estimate is precisely correct. The scenario would be hilarious if not for the grim death toll.
Sadly, Arab corpses will continue to pile up until the Western media tire of photographing them, and the “conscience of the world” finds it tiresome to read about it. That Islamists will attempt to exploit the chaos goes without saying, but even Islamists need to eat almost every day. For the third of Syrians below the poverty line, the March increase in the price of a liter of cooking oil was equal to a quarter of daily income. It is not hunger so much as humiliation and hopelessness that drives the protesters back into the streets, and into the guns of the security forces.
Under the circumstances, Obama’s claim rings hollow that an Israeli-Palestinian accord is “more urgent than ever.” When all the actors in the region are in play, whatever Israel might negotiate with the Palestine Authority is meaningless. Neither bombs and rockets, nor the droplets of economic assistance the administration might squeeze out of constrained budget, will stop regime failure from revealing itself to be a symptom of societal failure.
The Palestine Authority will continue to campaign for “recognition” by the United Nations General Assembly, a meaningless step unless the major powers endorse it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already told the Palestinians not to act on their own. The vote that outweighs all the others, to be sure, belongs to Washington. Given the massive support for Israel among American voters (63% against 15% for the Palestinians, according to a Gallup Poll ), it is most unlikely that the Obama administration would put the screws on Israel before the November 2012 elections.
And by then the map of the Middle East may look quite different.
Obama, to be sure, wants Israel to make unilateral concessions on West Bank settlements in order to maintain the illusion that a peace process still exists. But the only stick he has to brandish at Jerusalem is to failure to use the American veto should the Palestinians seek United Nations recognition for a state within the 1949 ceasefire line.
But this threat is empty. As the Israeli commentator Caroline Glick wrote on April 4 :
Perversely, if [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu bows to Obama’s wishes, he will not avert US support for Palestinian UN membership and UN recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and Gaza. He will facilitate it by making it appear non-controversial. Netanyahu’s best bet in this case is not to ask Obama for favors. Since the General Assembly will likely approve Palestinian membership even if the US does veto a Security Council resolution, Obama’s ability to prevent the gambit is limited. And the price he wants to exact for a veto is prohibitive.
The price that Obama would pay in American politics for throwing Israel under the bus would be even more prohibitive.
Nothing about this will be pleasant for Israel, which may suffer considerable damage from Hezbollah rockets in the event of another northern war. In that event, Israel will have the opportunity to fight, and win decisively. I do not wish war on anyone, but it is worth bearing in mind that nothing wins like winning. An Israeli military victory would do more to discredit the Islamists in the Arab world than all the elections in the world.
1. Obama and Israel – It Gets Worse, January 2008.
2. Samantha Power’s Power April 5, 2011.
3. Behind the Tensions in Syria: The Socio-Economic Dimension March 29.2011.
4. Support for Israel in U.S. at 63%, Near Record High February 24, 2010.
5. Richard Goldstone and Palestinian statehood April 4, 2011.