Friend of the Palestinians?

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Miriyam Aouragh dismisses the claim that a revolution in Syria would be a disaster for the Palestinians

Syria lies at a very sensitive nexus in the Middle East. It borders Israel, a state that poses a very real threat to it. The country lacks it own natural resources, and is dependent on other states economically. US president George Bush described Syria as a "state sponsor of terrorism", and the regime sees itself as standing alone. So it looks to ally with other anti-US and anti-Israel movements, such as Palestinian Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, in order to strengthen its position.

For this reason many people have sided with the regime over the popular revolution, arguing that the only winner will be imperialism. They attempt to paint the revolution as part of a western plot, and the Syrian people as dupes in a wider strategic game.

They cite Syria's support for the resistance as proof of the regime's anti-imperialist credentials, and say that its downfall would be a set-back for the Palestinian struggle. But this ignores the contradictory nature of the regime and its relationship to the Palestinian movement. Syria has only ever offered selective support to the Palestinians, conditional on the regime's interests.

When Syria intervened in the civil war in Lebanon in 1976 it acted to crush the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Lebanese left. The Syrian regime did not stop the rightwing Phalange militia in its massacre of Palestinians at the Tal-al Za'tar refugee camp outside Beirut. It prevented Palestinians resisting the massacre perpetrated by Israel's allies at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in 1982. So the Syrian regime has been prepared to back the Palestinians resistance at some points, only to turn on it when it threatens to go beyond its control.

The regime's relationship to imperialism is also contradictory. In 1991, Hafez Assad, father of Bashar, helped the US in its war on Iraq. But the regime continued to support resistance to Israeli occupation and opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (while quietly aiding the US by choking off support for the Iraqi resistance). The regime offered its services in the "war on terror", becoming one of the stops in the global rendition program.

The Syrian regime did acquire some respect as the only Arab state to defy Israel. But this was not because it actively fought Israel's brutal behaviour, but because all other Arab states did not. It has made no move to directly challenge Israel. This explains why Israeli pundits have kept a low-profile over the Assad regime's crisis, because in the face of uncertainty the status quo is the better option. Israel knows that it does not have to fear Syria's military threats - Assad did not retaliate after Israeli troops gunned down dozens of Palestinians when they protested along Syria's border with Israel during the Nakba protests last year.

Ordinary people in Syria are more pro-Palestinian than the regime. This is important in the light of the argument that says if the regime falls the consequences will be worse for Palestinians. If the revolution succeeds in Syria and is organically connected to other revolutionary experiments such as Egypt, a new regime based on people power will be more, not less, committed to the Palestinians.

Palestinians in Syria

Palestinians who live in Syria are largely integrated into society with access to education and jobs. There are many cities and towns where Palestinians have joined the protests, and in Damascus anti-regime meetings have included many Palestinians. This is high risk for them, since everybody knows that if the regime gets the upper hand these Palestinians will be vulnerable to the state's revenge.

The shelling of Homs in the name of supporting Palestine can only damage the Palestinian struggle. What would an ordinary Syrian think when they hear, "I can't support your revolution for the sake of Palestine?"

We should reject the argument that the revolutions and mass uprisings are an "imperialist plot". There must be more to a simple "you are either with us or against us" choice in the name of anti-imperialism. Those who back the repression seem unable to imagine an alternative based on home-grown democratic and popular resistance. The answer is not foreign US or Nato lead intervention, nor one of the (Qatar or Saudi sponsored) opposition groups deliberating what to do in fancy hotels in Istanbul or Paris. It is ordinary Syrians who are making their own history.

The Arab regimes have at every point attempted to limit and control the Palestinian movement, Syria has been at the forefront of this. The fall of the regime does not mean the end of the resistance, as Hamas has shown when it broke all its links with the regime and publicly supported the revolution.

Hamas's leadership's motives may not simply be a question of siding with the revolution, but nor are they simply blindly following Qatar. They are making a bet based on the expectation that the Syrian regime will fall. But nevertheless it opens up space for greater solidarity between Palestinians and the Syrian revolution.

The revolutions in the Arab world will release the Palestinian movement from the stifling interference of these regimes. The revolution in Syria is not a "revolution against the resistance", or "a western plot" but a popular uprising that opens the possibility for the Palestinian resistance to re-emerge once again as a popular movement.