May 16, 2011

THE SYRIAN regime of Bashar al-Assad on Sunday made a desperate effort to distract attention from its continuing, bloody assaults on its own people. Hundreds of Palestinians were bused from refu­gee camps near Damascus to the de facto border with Israel in the Golan Heights, where they broke through a fence and invaded a nearby town. Surprised and badly outnumbered, Israeli troops eventually opened fire, killing at least one person. Crowds of Palestinians also marched on Israeli border posts with Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; all together more than a dozen fatalities were reported.

Palestinians demonstrate every year against Israel’s founding, and Facebook organizers helped drum up support for Sunday’s marches in the style of the Arab Spring. But no one can reach the heavily militarized Syrian front with Israel without the consent and cooperation of the Assad regime. That Syria’s allies in Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas, were visibly involved in the demonstrations was also telling. Like the dictatorship in Damascus, the terrorist groups are profoundly threatened by the Arab demands for democratic change — and trying to switch the subject to Israel is the region’s most familiar political gambit.

To its credit the Obama administration, which has been slow to respond to Mr. Assad’s brutality, called him on his latest maneuver. White House spokesman Jay Carney directly accused the Syrian government of “inciting” the protests, adding, “it seems apparent to us that this is an effort to distract attention from the legitimate expressions of protest by the Syrian people.”

It bears repeating, however, that President Obama himself has yet to publicly condemn the violence in Syria; to say that Mr. Assad must go; to withdraw the ambassador he dispatched to Damascus last fall to “engage” the regime; or to impose sanctions on the ruler himself. The administration said 10 days ago that it would “adjust . . . relations with Syria according to the concrete actions undertaken by the Syrian government.” Since then Syrian troops have invaded more cities and killed scores more people. Now the regime has provoked violence with Israel. Has the time not yet come for an “adjustment”?

Israel, too, has cause to rethink its cautious response to the Syrian uprising. The government of Binyamin Netanyahu has been portrayed as preferring the Assad regime to a revolution, in part because Syria has kept the peace on the Golan Heights border. Yet now Mr. Assad has shown that he is ready to disrupt that peace in the effort to save himself. Perhaps Mr. Assad hoped to demonstrate on Sunday what Israel and the region have to lose if he is ousted. Yet the only reasonable conclusion, for both Israel and the United States, is that this Syrian regime can never be a reliable neighbor or partner — and that peace in the Middle East depends on its demise.