Commentary: Bashar al-Assad's dangerous regime

The Syrian people have good reason to feel let down by those around the world who claim to believe passionately in human rights and democracy. The international community has shown misguided restraint in condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of his own people. In trying to prove he should be allowed to stay in power, Assad has shown exactly the opposite.

On June 5, the world saw just how much more dangerous he has become. Assad wanted the events of that day to prove that his fall would create more risks than his survival does. We already had evidence of the unspeakable brutality he has deployed against his own people. Now we have seen that Assad is willing to risk a new war in the Middle East to prove he should be allowed to destroy Syria's pro-democracy opposition without international interference.

To make that point, the regime allowed, encouraged or perhaps helped orchestrate a protest at the Israeli-Syrian border in which more than 20 Palestinian protesters reportedly died. Damascus happily let the international media point a finger of blame at Israel. The facts, however, show this was no simple march for freedom.

The warning had come earlier. In an interview with The New York Times, Assad's cousin and Syrian regime insider Rami Makhlouf declared, "If there is no stability here, there is no way there will be stability in Israel. ... God forbid, anything happens to this regime."

June 5 was a time to illustrate. The date marks the anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, known by Arabs as the Naksa, the setback. Normally, government security forces keep the border with Israel quiet. Nobody approaches. This time, protesters arrived in buses, waved through checkpoints by Syrian soldiers. Syrian state television had already staked positions and ambulances took their places. Israeli officials, having had the experience during protests marking the anniversary of Israel's founding, had vowed to prevent anyone from breaching the border, but to do it with minimal use of force.

Israeli loudspeakers told protesters in Arabic to disperse. As they kept approaching the border, throwing Molotov cocktails, Israelis fired tear gas. When some tried to break through the border, they fired over their heads and later at their legs.

When it was all over, Syrian officials claimed more than 20 protesters had been killed by Israelis. Incredibly, the international media unquestioningly quoted the regime's figures and facts.

The protest took place in a disputed border dotted with landmines, where a war was fought. Israeli officials said troops fired very few bullets, saying firebombs started a brushfire that ignited mines, setting off explosions that killed protesters.

Israel filed a complaint at the United Nations accusing Damascus of "dangerous provocations." This risky Syrian gambit could trigger a war.

Journalists didn't have to accept Israel's explanation at face value. But it's astonishing they accepted Syria's without a second thought. That's especially true considering events in Syria. Two days before the border clashes, Syrian human rights groups say the regime massacred another 60 pro-democracy demonstrators. The Sunday of the border battle, they killed an additional 30 protesters.

The atrocities are causing seasoned experts to shudder. A Human Rights Watch report on Syria is called, "We've Never Seen Such Horror." The regime has killed more than 1,000 civilians, arrested thousands more. Look up the story of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb for a story of torture one can scarcely comprehend.

Assad has good reason for wanting to warn off the West from applying sanctions, and he would like nothing more than to distract his own people and the rest of the Arab world by stoking rage against Israel rather than contempt for Damascus and its axis.

This is not just about Assad. Syrian demonstrators have been chanting "No to Assad," but also "No to Iran, No to Hezbollah!" The protests threaten the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas bloc. There is much at stake here not just for the regime in Damascus but for the entire region. Syria and Iran have kept Hamas and Hezbollah stockpiled with weapons. Without Damascus, the structure would wobble; perhaps fall.

The lesson from the border protests is that Assad leads an exceedingly dangerous regime. If his brutality against the Syrian people was not enough, his willingness to trigger another regional war - with the support of his allies in Tehran, Beirut and Gaza - should convince the international community to impose stern sanctions, and work for his removal.


Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her email at

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