Two columns ago, I wrote about Syria’s importance in the regional rivalry between Iran and Israel. I hoped to give the context of the wider geopolitical climate and how that affected responses to the uprisings. But perhaps I should have taken more time to make clear what is becoming necessary to acknowledge: The facile idea of a pure dichotomy of America and Israel against its enemies is too simplistic. Recalibrating this perspective is even more urgent now that its power is being applied to drive Israel and Iran toward a potentially disastrous war.
In the simple narrative of Israel’s vulnerability to its enemies, the story is something like this: The Palestinians are supported by the Arab states and Iran, who are united by their hatred of Israel. Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, and the Arab armies, if not interchangeable, share the same interests and can be defeated through the same tactics. This picture of an Iran-Syria-Hamas-Fatah-Hezbollah axis, spanning geographical, ethnic, and religious lines, is not, to be fair, something that was explicitly depicted as a true portrait of the Middle East, nor is it entirely true that none of various factions has never worked with another for short-term goals. But the behaviors and opinions of policymakers and uninformed citizens have shown little evidence of the subtlety necessary for optimal solutions to region’s incredibly dangerous problems.
The simplistic picture and, by extension, policy that remotely invokes it, needs to be radically rethought. Consider, to say the least, Hamas: after the beginning of uprisings in Syria, Hamas left its headquarters-in-exile in Damascus. The organization was tight-lipped for a while about the reason, though many suspected it was due to increasing tension with the Alawite (and thus non-Sunni) Syrian regime run by the Assads, which has been cracking down on its people under the pretext of suppressing Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists. This is a category, which Hamas (at least by American and Israeli appraisals) falls into unambiguously. Recently, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’ second-in-command, was bold enough to confirm publicly that Hamas did indeed leave due to the crackdown. Abu Marzouk also explicitly declared Hamas’ support for the people of Syria and implicit opposition to the regime.
Of course, even within the Palestinians, there are divisions; the proposed unity government notwithstanding, the two main factions – Hamas and Fatah – have radically different ideas about how to deal with Israel (with Fatah, of course, being much more liberal). It is known that Fatah receives money from the United States, but it also receives money from other sources – some have suggested Iran as a possible supplier, though it is more likely that money comes from sources in Saudi Arabia, for precisely the theo-political divides mentioned.
It is Syria, whose political uprising is in danger of (or likely already) becoming a big proxy war, where these divides are most present.
Iran is clearly standing with its man, Assad, while the Saudis and the gulf nations are very interested in backing specific factions of the Sunni opposition and generally weakening Iran. Hamas is against a prior patron, the Syrian regime, while Hezbollah is for it.
Events in Syria are being scrutinized carefully in Washington and Jerusalem, as the potentiality of eventual war will like be decided in this conflict. The Obama administration has been scrambling to pull back Israel from the brink, and, for this reason, it is likely that it has warmed so heavily to the prospect of a post-Assad Syria without knowing exactly what it will mean; in any scenario, it is likely to be less Iran-oriented. If Israel feels less threatened, perhaps it can be convinced to avoid the prospect of the disastrous war it seems quite ready for. Part of stabilizing the region and preventing that war is in breaking down that false picture, both in terms of assuaging the Israelis’ fear of a united front, as well as diminishing the perceived urgency in world opinion and thus increasing pressure to stop a possible attack. With Putin calling a possible attack on “truly catastrophic,” it is clear that opposition (albeit due to own interests rather than correctness) is already building. This comes, of course, in addition to statements by European leaders discouraging war with Iran.
Finally, it is worth considering once again the role of the media. Perhaps not since the revelation that the media had reported untruths and pure lies in the run-up to the Iraq war has this much critical self-analysis been conducted. It is the media that gives the air of inevitability to these possibilities, and yet, the media is as fickle as the turnover of whoever runs it. Even Bashar al-Assad was celebrated as a reformer and a hero, and his wife was glamorized in the controversial and later removed Vogue magazine spread; he is, of course, now reviled, and the media’s practical as well as editorial role in turning opinion against him cannot be denied. While late is certainly better than never, the media must accept that it is not just an objective instrument of reflection, but also of influence. Articles that constantly repeat the possibility of a coming war make it seem more inevitable, and resign opposition to accepting it, as well as allow its supporters to gain credibility supporting the only reasonable solution.
With times as perilous as these, that needs to change. The story matters, the picture matters, and simplistic, fickle, and ostensibly objective yet biased coverage must be changed. It could mean the difference between stable if uneasy peace and ruinous war.