One of the iron fisted rules of the Middle East seems to be "what an Assad giveth, an Assad also taketh away." Since protests began in his country, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has lifted the emergency law, abolished state security courts, and stepped up the repression that has been a hallmark of his now 11-year rule. No one should be surprised that Syria's security forces have used violence against peaceful demonstrators. Still, if there was any lingering doubt about the nature of the regime, the 500 or more dead in the streets across several Syrian cities should be plenty evidence of its brutality.
Many smart people, in Washington and elsewhere, have long been willing to forgive the Assad family for their many sins, going back to the tenure of Bashar's father, Hafiz al Assad, who ruled from 1971 to 2000. The allure of bringing the Syrian-Israeli state of war to an end and the tantalizing possibility (a fantasy, it turns out) of breaking the Tehran-Damascus axis led observers to believe that Hafiz was capable of making peace and that Bashar was a reformer. Bashar has been tolerated, engaged, even supported in the hopes that the world could entice him, with the prospects of good relations with the West, to change. But there was never any real evidence that Damascus was genuinely interested in peace or reform.
As the world (slowly) comes to grips with the horror of Syria and the Assads, there remains a coalition of nations that appear to be acting under the belief that the Assad regime is better than what might come next. It's an odd group in the rather strange new world of the Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. For the Israelis, already reeling from the loss of a regional strategic asset -- Hosni Mubarak's Egypt -- the predictability of Assad's Syria was some consolation. Israel and Syria may be in a technical state of war, but the Syrians have scrupulously kept the armistice on the Golan Heights and it has been a long time since Syria's military posed any significant security threat to Israel. The Israelis put a premium on authoritarian stability in the Arab world, where they fear change will almost always rebound to the benefit of hostile Islamist groups. Sitting in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it is little wonder the Israeli leadership is having serious qualms about the unrest in Syria. Assad may be an implacable foe, but he is better than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. From the perspective of the Israeli security establishment, at least Assad is doing what Hosni Mubarak should have done: using all available means to save his regime.