In their 63 year struggle against the occupation and colonisation of their homeland, the Palestinians have been short of friends and allies. The main world powers have taken Israel’s side in the conflict and provided it with all the political, economic, and military support it needs to carry on with its colonialist project. As for the Arab nations, while in the early days of the conflict they were vocal supporters of the Palestinians, today they provide little, if any, material support. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties, trade ties and security cooperation with Israel, and the Mubarak regime in Cairo collaborated with Israel in its siege of Gaza. However, one Arab country, Syria, has always stood out as a supporter of the Palestinian cause. It hosts a large Palestinian refugee community who have the same rights as citizens of Syria. It is also the home-in-exile of numerous Palestinian factions including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
For this reason, and for its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, it has been branded a “state supporter of terrorism” by the United States. On the other hand, Arab commentators refer to Syria, alongside Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, as a member of the “resistance camp” against US and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. However, while it is true that the people of Syria support the Palestinian cause strongly and are proud that their nation has been associated with resistance to Israel, the regime’s support for the Palestinians is in fact nothing but opportunism. The popular uprising which began against the Syrian regime on 15 March has proven that comprehensively.
Even before the beginning of the uprising, the truth about the regime’s hypocritical attitude to the Palestinian resistance was hinted at in one of the US diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks. The Syrian government has always said that it views Hamas as a legitimate Palestinian resistance movement, and that it supports it along with the other Palestinian factions in its struggle against Israel. However, the leaked document revealed that President Bashar al-Assad, in conversation with a delegation of visiting US Congressmen, described Hamas as an “uninvited guest” and compared the organisation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whose brutal suppression at the hands of his father, Hafez al-Assad, culminated in the Hama massacre of 1982 during which an estimated 25,000 people were killed.
Syria’s image in the Arab popular imagination as a stronghold of defiance to Israel and America and a haven for Palestinian resistance groups has always sat incongruously with the reality of life there. Syria is a totalitarian country and its citizens are probably more suppressed than anywhere else in the Arab world. The watchful eyes of the mukhabarat (secret police) are everywhere and, prior to March 15, no one dared to utter even the mildest criticism of the regime openly. Opposition political parties are outlawed and repressed and political dissidents are jailed. The corruption of the elite is vast but cannot be discussed publicly and the press is strictly controlled; it reaches farcical levels in its sycophancy to the regime. However, following the successful revolutions against dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt, people began to lose their fear of the regime and protests broke out. The regime’s response was predictable, using the same repression that all the other Arab regimes employed. So far, around 1,500 people have been killed and one city, Jisr al-Shughour, has been emptied of its inhabitants due to a sustained government attack. The only difference is that the Syrian regime is willing to sink lower than its counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain in the depths of violence and depravity to which it is willing to sink. One gruesome hallmark of the regime’s repression of protesters has been the torture of children. The most notable case is that of 13-year old Hamza al-Khatib who was arrested in Deraa on 29th April, but there are many others. Hamza’s mutilated body was returned to his parents on 24th May. His genitals had been cut off and his neck was broken. There were bullet wounds in his arms and legs and signs of electric-shock torture.
The regime’s willingness to use violence and sadistic tactics against protestors has severely damaged its legitimacy both at home and abroad. It has responded with a public relations campaign claiming that it has been targeted by “armed gangs” from abroad and has shown funerals of dead soldiers on state TV. It is, however, believed that these soldiers were executed by the Syrian security forces for refusing to fire on demonstrators. In order to shore up the regime’s legitimacy in the Arab world its spokesmen have emphasised repeatedly its resistance credentials and its support for the Palestinian cause, saying that this is why it has been targeted by a foreign-led conspiracy. When speaking to a Western audience, however, the regime has taken a very different line. In an interview with the New York Times, Rami Makhlouf, who is Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and is believed to control at least 60% of the Syrian economy, said that the security of Israel depended on the security of the regime in Damascus.
These two contradictory narratives may show the duplicitous nature of the regime but they came together on Nakba Day and Naksa Day. Nakba Day is the anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel in 1948 and is marked on 14th May. This year, Palestinian refugees and their supporters in Arab countries organised protests at the borders of historic Palestine and in Jerusalem, highlighting the plight of Palestinian refugees and the ethnic cleansing which caused them to be driven from their homeland for the entire world to see. Palestinian refugees from Syria demonstrated at the border of the Israeli- occupied Syrian Golan Heights and some managed to cross the border. A few travelled deep into their lost homeland. The Syrian regime saw this as a perfect opportunity; by appearing to support the Palestinians in this endeavour they could gain sympathy in the Arab world. However, they were also sending a message to Israel that they were the only guarantors of stability on the frontier of the Golan Heights. The Golan is Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967. Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war the front line between Israel and Syria has been quiet. For all its claims of opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinians, the regime has allowed Israel to control this area of Syria undisturbed; it is now home to thousands of Israeli settlers.
On Naksa Day, the anniversary of the 1967 war which falls on 5th June, the regime tried to repeat the same trick. For 43 years Naksa Day had come and gone without incident but this time more Palestinian demonstrators were sent to the Golan Heights; 23 were killed, most probably by Israel, although the Zionist state denies responsibility. Two days earlier the Syrian regime had killed at least 65 peaceful protesters in Homs and began its attack on Jisr al-Shughur. This time, no one was fooled by its pretensions of support for the Palestinian cause. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) had organised the Naksa Day demonstration. It is a Palestinian group widely seen as a front organisation for the Syrian government and it had expressed support for the Syrian government’s repression of Syrian demonstrators. The families of the protestors attacked its headquarters in the main Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, accusing it of organising these demonstrations for the political benefit of the Syrian regime, to take away the spotlight from its crimes against the Syrian people. Fourteen family members were killed by PFLP-GC militiamen.
This tragic incident draws attention to the true nature of the relationship between Syria, Israel and the Palestinians. A corrupt and brutal dictatorship which is now creaking under the weight of popular discontent, one of the Syrian regime’s few claims to legitimacy was its “steadfastness” in support of the Palestinian resistance. Indeed, before the uprising broke out, President Assad said that he didn’t fear one because Syria’s foreign policy was in tune with the opinions of its people. On the other hand, in Syria, Israel had the perfect bogeyman, a country on its borders with which it had no peace treaty, which supported “terrorism” and which had close links with its other enemy, Iran. This was thus a symbiotic relationship. The Syrian government could blame all sorts of economic problems, the true source of which was corruption, on the continuing state of war with Israel, and Israel could use the Syrian regime’s nominal enmity towards it as a justification for its belligerent policies, while counting on that same regime to safeguard its occupation of the Golan Heights.
The Palestinians in Syria are now in danger of becoming pawns in this game and those in the PFLP-GC fell into that trap a long time ago. “To their credit however, Hamas and other Palestinian groups have expressed no support for the Syrian regime’s persecution of its people, choosing to remain silent. Some would say that this amounts to complicity with the regime’s excesses. Either way, Hamas’s position in Syria is now quite precarious. The regime has been pressurising it to condemn the protests and so far it has resisted. There were even reports, now denied by Hamas, that its leadership was seeking to move to another country. If any major Palestinian group falls into the trap of supporting the Assad regime, whose crimes against its own people will soon exceed those that Israel committed in its 2008 assault on Gaza, this will damage the Palestinian cause seriously and lose support for the Palestinians among the Syrian people and in the wider Arab world. The Palestinian groups must continue to distance themselves from the Syrian regime. They should look at ways of basing themselves outside Syria temporarily, if need be, and resist taking part in any activity that will benefit the regime politically. They cannot allow themselves to be used by a regime which is as hypocritical and opportunistic as it is murderous.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.