Why Syria Will Keep Provoking Israel

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Hussein Malla / AP

A Syrian boy, is seen through a broken car window at the scene where a car bomb blew up in in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2008.

Oddly enough, Saturday's car bombing in Damascus will serve Iran's interests. Tehran thrives on chaos, which presents it an opportunity to come to the aid of friendly regimes and causes in the Middle East that need backing. More than likely, Iranian leaders were on the phone with counterparts in Damascus all Saturday, telling the Syrians not to lose heart. The Iranian message to Damascus is simple: If Israel and the United States see any weakness in the Assad regime, they will drive a truck through it and bring it down. And, if history is anything to go by, that's a message Damascus will listen to.

What we tend to ignore is why Syria has had an uninterrupted record of attaching itself to radical causes and countries like Iran. For starters, Syria is ruled by a besieged and insecure minority, the Alawites, a heterodox-Shi'ite ethnic minority. About 12% of Syria's population, the Alawites are looked at by extremist Sunni Muslims as heretics, fallen-away Muslims, usurpers who should be put to the sword. In the late '70s and early '80s, the Sunni extremists came close to getting their way. During a February 1982 Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in Hama, Syria's third largest city, Hafez al-Assad felt compelled to flatten it in order to stay in power.

But it wasn't until the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that Syria finally beat the Muslim Brothers. By joining Iran in the so-called "Islamic resistance" against Israel, Assad associated the Alawites with a cause larger than themselves. It was not unlike the '60s and '70s when Syria backed radical Palestinian groups — and fought Israel head-on in 1967 and 1973. The 18-year war in Lebanon (1982-2000) decisively undercut the Muslim Brothers' charge that the Alawites were apostate traitors and dupes of Israel and the United States. Had the Muslim Brothers continued to kill Alawites, they would have been considered the traitors. There's nothing like a good war to stabilize an unstable regime.

Given a choice, the Alawites would be happy to skirt the 21st century, satisfied with ruling a Third World backwater. But geography won't allow it. Syria is at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which Syria has no choice but take sides. Since the Alawites cannot settle with Tel Aviv and survive the wrath of the Muslim Brothers, it remains reliant on its alliance with Tehran. And this is not to mention that with the division between Shi'ites and Sunnis widening, the Alawites will feel they need Iran and its message of belligerence to Israel more than ever. So if, for instance, Iran suggests that Syria respond to Saturday's bombing by shipping more weapons to Hizballah, Syria will be inclined to agree. Having been embraced as honorary Shi'ites by Tehran, a regime whose survival depends on its maintaining some sort of Islamic credentials, in the face of accusations of heresy and apostasy, needs its relationship with Tehran, and to be seen to be shoring up fellow Shi'ites.

To Americans, it may appear reckless for the Syrians to provoke Israel by beefing up Hizballah —especially with Israel now constrained in how it can respond to Iran's nuclear program. (The U.S. has made clear to the Israelis that getting into a war with Iran is the proverbial bridge too far, and that Washington therefore won't support or enable an Israeli military strike on the Islamic Republic.) But, again, Americans don't understand the Alawites' dark insecurity — and the fact that they will risk war with Israel if they believe their survival requires it.