Tel Aviv Diary: Will Assad's Crimes Be Forgotten?

Syria's President Bashar Assad attends prayers on the first day of Eid al-Adha at Al-Adel mosque in Damascus, Syria, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA on September 24. Putin’s military intervention to keep Assad in power changes everything in the Middle East, the author writes. SANA/Reuters

On the first day of October, statistics were posted confirming what most Tel Avivians have felt: This has been the hottest September on record (and that does not even account for the miserable sandstorm that remains as yet unexplained). The unseasonable weather is an appropriate match for the unsettled feeling harbored by many in Tel Aviv.

Is the news good or bad? How are we to evaluate the events that have taken place in the past few weeks? Sitting in Tel Aviv, there is a sense that the world has turned upside down.

On the evening of October 1 (Tel Aviv time), we had the uncomfortable experience of listening to what seemed, at least to this writer, a visionless, almost pathetic speech.

While the world is worried about massacres taking place in Syria, and a refugee situation in Europe unprecedented since World War II, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the first 30 minutes of his speech attacking the P5+1/Iranian nuclear agreement and giving a laundry list of complaints against actions taken by Iran. Netanyahu's speech seemed devoted primarily to depicting Iran as the greatest security threat that Israel and the world face today, and will probably be well-received by his supporters. Otherwise, it will be ignored.

Apparently, Netanyahu's address was not the only speech and call to action that seemed detached from reality—or from moral underpinnings. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the U.N. and alleged that Israel is endangering the Al-Aqsa mosque, and Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed at the U.N. that he is waging war on ISIS, then promptly bombed U.S.-supported rebels.

Meanwhile, many writers—like former White House advisor Phil Gordon, and the director of the German think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Volker Perthes—now call for an agreement that might keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, representing a complete change in their positions (and this despite the fact that Assad is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and is, without doubt, a war criminal). There clearly is something wrong.

Let's start with Abbas's U.N. speech, in which he decried the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, claiming Israel was not living up to its commitment under the Oslo agreements and warning the world that Israel was planning to do something terrible to Islam's third-holiest site.

While many residents of Tel Aviv normally sympathize with Abbas's first two points, many Israelis stopped listening at the beginning of his speech as he called on Israel "to cease its use of brutal force to impose its plans to undermine the Islamic and Christian sanctuaries in Jerusalem, particularly its actions at Al-Aqsa mosque."

Abbas lost his Israeli audience from the start by using a tried-and-true formula for incitement—stirring up anti-Jewish/anti-Israeli anger and violence, going all the way back to the Arab riots and Hebron massacre of 1929. The 1929 riots began with claims that the Jews were going to take over the Al-Aqsa mosque. The beginning of the Second Intifada, which truly marked the end of the Oslo Accords process, was triggered by a similar allegation, after the then-MK Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount.

On hearing about Abbas's speech, a friend asked how we were ever going to achieve peace. Indeed, without ignoring the failings of our own government, every time the Palestinians return to canards about the Jews wishing to destroy the Temple Mount, the elusive peace that once seemed close moves ever farther away.

Events in Syria appear even more confusing. The speculations as to why Vladimir Putin has decided to intervene at this point in the Syrian civil war are rampant. While there is much speculation, there are no good answers.

Did Putin fear Assad was about to fall? Did Putin see an opportunity and just grab it? Was Putin looking to further humiliate President Barack Obama? What impact will Russian intervention have on the Syrian war? Why would Putin be willing to make Moscow the No. 1 enemy of the Sunni Arab world? Is Russian involvement in Syria good or bad for Israel? Here, too, there are many questions and few clear answers.

Starting with the last question first: Is Moscow's intervention in Syria good or bad for Israel?

The answer is not clear. Russian forces in Syria might inhibit an Israeli strike on Syrians trying to transfer arms to Hezbollah. Israel and Russia (then the Soviet Union) last clashed directly in 1970, at the end of the War of Attrition. The result of that encounter was the downing of seven Russian pilots, with Israel sustaining no losses.

Today, however, Israel and Russia are friends, with deep trade relations and heads of state who uphold friendly relations. Therefore, aggressive types of encounter need to be avoided at all costs. Of course, the very fact that Israel and Russia maintain close ties could be a positive development—after all, if the Assad regime becomes more dependent on the Russians and less on Hezbollah and Iran, that could be considered a good thing.

In the end, it is impossible to definitively determine what is in Israel's best interest vis-à-vis Syria, since it has never been clear what Israel's preferred outcome in the Syrian civil war might be.

What impact will Russian intervention have on the Syrian civil war?

If in the past few months there were signs of a collapse of the Assad regime, that outcome is much less likely at the moment. Will the Russians be able to significantly impact the war in Syria, operating just from the sky? Unlikely. However, are the Russians willing to go further?

Is Moscow's recent action a source of humiliation for Obama?

Without a doubt, and despite Netanyahu's differences with the president, anything that weakens the U.S. is not a good thing for Israel in the long run. Putin's actions, whether ill-advised or not, clearly show how pathetic America's policies toward Syria have been.

This brings me to my final point. In light of Putin's intervention in Syria, there have been a spate of articles and posts with the same theme—i.e., we may have to accept the continued rule of Assad in Syria.

With millions streaming toward Germany and other points in Europe, that priority has now changed for many looking to stop the bloodshed regardless of who is responsible. Thus, although by almost all accounts Assad is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, and despite his use of chemical weapons and his indiscriminate bombing of civilians, all of his actions can be ignored since removing him from power seems too hard.

The end result seems to be that Israel will be vilified for the accidental deaths of too many civilians in a war it did not want and desperately wanted to end (the 2014 Gaza war), while Assad, an international criminal and mass murderer, will no doubt get a free pass on all of his heinous crimes.

The world has indeed been turned upside down.

Multimedia historian Marc Schulman blogs at