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Syrians Strike Pose in Complex Mideast Game

Syrians at all levels have vocally condemned the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip as European leaders urged President Bashar al-Assad to help mediate a ceasefire.

In a country where spontaneous protest is not allowed, the government has organised daily street demonstrations against Israel, and has even allowed opposition parties to stage protest actions in the same vein.

Protesters burned Israeli flags and chanted slogans against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which they accuse of standing idly by while Gaza residents suffer.

“Nothing serves a regime like Syria’s more than events like these,” commented a political analyst in Damascus who wished to remain anonymous. “These protests justify the regime’s extremist speech and behaviour. Syria, Iran, the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah are heroes in large parts of the Arab world, whereas much of the rest of the international community backs Israel.”

Visiting Damascus on January 6, French president Nicolas Sarkozy urged Assad to put pressure on Hamas to help bring an end to the fighting. It remains uncertain whether Assad will accede to this request, especially as popular anger builds toward Israel and allied countries.

Syrians have been glued to their TVs and radios for updates on events in Gaza, and the state news agency SANA has a phone text news service which reports the latest developments, especially civilian casualty numbers.

The media also reported on the sense of outrage in Syria itself, not just at the Israeli military and its ally, the United States, but also at Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“Soon there will be a new American administration and a new Israeli government,” the political analyst said. “Syria and Iran want to say, ‘We are here, and the Palestinian dilemma cannot be solved without us.’ But countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt make that impossible. By backing the US and Israel, they ensure that the views of other Arab countries continue to be ignored.”

Outwardly, support for Hamas remains near-universal in Damascus, where the Israeli flag can be found depicted on doormats, and donation boxes to aid the Islamist group are common in shops.

In private, a few people blame Hamas as well as Israel for the renewed fighting.

“If Hamas can’t defend its people, it shouldn’t place them in the way of such a war,” said a 63-year-old electrician in Damascus. “If Syria and Hezbollah support Hamas, I can’t understand why they just sit back and watch.”

As a direct result of the conflict, Syria ruled out an early resumption in the Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks with Israel.

But the analyst cautioned that this suspension did not mean the process had come to an end.

“These negotiations were already partially suspended before Gaza happened because everyone was waiting until after the US and Israeli elections,” he said. “Some even suggest that if Hamas ends the aggression in a way similar to what happened in Lebanon two years ago, it would strengthen Syria’s position in any future negotiations.”

A Syrian political activist said it could be tricky for the authorities to resume negotiations, even indirect ones, as long as the number of Palestinian casualties continues to rise.

He suggested that if the fighting did damage Syria’s emerging relationship with Israel, it could be Tehran that benefited.

“Iran may have used Hamas as a pawn to end the truce and embarrass Syria, thus ending the peace process. We all know that the price of peace with Israel would be an end to the alliance between Syria and Iran.”

“We are in a big game with multiple players,” he added. “Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are just pawns in the hands of regional players like Iran and Syria. It isn’t easy to say who wanted this war to start and who stands to gain when it ends.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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