burning issues 33

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June 7, 2007 17:22

 
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Question #34
Both Jerusalem and Damascus say they want to prevent war, and yet are preparing for an attack by the other side and escalating their rhetoric. What are the chances that a war nobody claims to want would actually erupt? If a war is coming, how can it be prevented? Contributors: (read it all or click on name to read post; link to writer's most recent column follows entry)
  • Yaakov Katz
  • Calev Ben-David
  • Daniel Pipes
  • Amotz Asa-El
  • Jonathan Tobin Yaakov Katz: With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's apparent signaling on Wednesday that Israel is willing to open unconditional peace talks with Damascus, it would appear difficult to understand the fuss within the IDF over the increasing possibility of war with Syria this summer. Even with Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz's clear calls for talks with Syria, the IDF believes there is a chance that war is around the corner. The reason - the military buildup and growing tension along the border could lead to a miscalculation by Israel or Syria. There is no hiding the fact that both Israel and Syria are preparing for war. Israel has been conducting almost daily exercises simulating war with Damascus. The Syrians also recently held a major military exercise, for the first time in several years. And they are buying advanced weapons and military platforms, mostly with Iranian funding. So with tension running high along the border, there is concern that a misstep, a wrong move, an accident or what the defense establishment calls a "miscalculation" will lead to a full-fledged war, one with very severe consequences for both sides. In the IDF, officers speak of several different scenarios. There is, of course, the traditional Syrian war scenario that was recently dusted off, a small-scale commando raid into a Golan community. Syrian President Bashar Assad then announces that he has conquered the village and demands - before Israel can respond - that Olmert meet him for peace talks. A miscalculation refers to two trickier scenarios. The first is a terror attack along the Lebanese border - Hizbullah renews Katyusha or mortar fire into northern Israel. In response, the IDF bombs southern Lebanon, and in one strike hits a target near the Syrian border. The local Syrian commander sees the action as an excuse to open a second front and attacks the Golan Heights. A second scenario refers to a terror attack along the Israeli-Syrian border. In response, IDF troops fire back into Syrian territory in self-defense. A local Syrian commander views this as an attack on Syrian sovereignty and the countries find themselves at war. According to defense officials, without diplomatic movement, the chances increase that one of these scenarios will materialize. All it takes is one miscalculation along the border. Calev Ben-David: As this week we mark the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, it is worthwhile to ask what lessons we can learn about the outbreak of that conflict in order to avoid another regional war between some of the same players. The primary reason for the 1967 war was the failure of the international community, especially the major powers, to respond in the face of openly aggressive and hostile actions against Israel by its Arab neighbors. Egypt's President Nasser brazenly violated international agreements by closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and moving his troops across the Sinai demilitarized zone right up to the Israeli border, with virtually no serious reaction from the international community. Arab leaders felt they could talk openly of throwing the Israelis into the sea, without facing any real repercussions from their global peers. As a result, a besieged Israel without any true allies felt it had no other choice to save itself that to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Egypt and Syria. Today, Syria is openly backing radical Palestinian elements committed to Israel's destruction; bullying and undermining a more moderate Lebanese government challenging its hegemony; aligning itself with an Islamic extremist Iranian regime that threatens to wipe Israel off the map; cracking down on even the slightest sign of dissent or desire for human rights within its own society; and amassing troops on its border with Israel without any justification. Nobody in Israel wants war with Syria - indeed most want to reach a genuine peace agreement with it, even if it involves territorial concessions. But if Israel is threatened by Damascus, it may find itself having to respond militarily. The only way to avoid that is to have the United States and the major nations of Europe make it absolutely clear to Bashar Assad beforehand that his regime will suffer the severest consequences if it does not back down on its nakedly aggressive behavior toward its neighbors. If Assad believes that Israel stands alone, as it did in 1967, he will only be emboldened to risk a military adventure; if the US and Europe make it clear that Jerusalem and Beirut has their support, the Syrian leader will probably choose the diplomatic option. Snap Judgment: Herald the Messiah, and 'play ball' Daniel Pipes: The talk of war and negotiations simultaneously points to the extraordinary instability and fluidity these days of Syrian-Israeli relations. Under severe pressure for his government's and perhaps his personal role in the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, Syria's Bashar al-Assad is desperately trying to change the subject. But his ambivalence in not knowing whether to change it to war or peace showcases his limitations as a leader. As I keep saying, let's hope he was a better ophthalmologist than he is a dictator. As for Ehud Olmert, he proved himself to be such a terrible military chief last year in Lebanon that a Syrian intifada on the Golan Heights now looms as a real possibility. And his severe political unpopularity makes him receptive to negotiations that a stronger Israeli prime minister would scorn. This unusual combination of circumstances makes the Damascus-Jerusalem confrontation unusually volatile. Incompetence has a way of generating unpredictability. I cannot assess the chances of war beyond saying they are worrisomely real. Deterrence offers the best chances of avoiding warfare. The Israeli government should assemble such convincing arguments that even al-Assad can understand the folly of his playing with this particular fire. Islamists in the courtroom Amotz Asa-El: The one government with strategic leverage over Damascus is in Teheran. And just like back in '67 Syria's (and Egypt's) patron, the USSR, was more belligerent than its proxy, now, too, Iran is more irresponsible than Syria. Unfortunately, Iran's geopolitical behavior is much less predictable than the Soviet Union's was in its time, since Iran is not counterbalanced by a rival power with which it dialogues systematically and effectively. It follows, that Israel's only course of action in face of the situation is to be defensive strategically while preparing to be offensive tactically. In this regard, Military Intelligence Chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin's babbling in the Knesset yesterday about Syria's intentions was just what the doctor did not prescribe. Part of being strategically defensive is to keep quiet, just like tactical initiative means preparing the troops for the worst-case scenario. (www.MiddleIsrael.com) Middle Israel: Just not Barak Jonathan Tobin: History teaches us that wars are more often caused by one side's mistaken impression of their potential opponent's weakness and resolve than anything else. Given the disarray of Israel's political leadership, the less than victorious outcome of last year's war with Hizbullah and the ability of Islamist terrorists to continue shelling Sderot with relative impunity, it would not be surprising if Syria's leadership thought it might well get away with bloodying Israel's nose in another conflict. The best way to deter them would be to make it clear via open statements and back-channel communications that the cost to the Syrians and their allies in Lebanon would be far more than they could possibly afford. It may also be that the Syrians think that the threat of war will strengthen their recent diplomatic offensive. Some believe that a signal to the Syrians that Israel is willing to negotiate the surrender of the Golan Heights would forestall violence. I fear that the opposite might be true since the Syrians have good reason to think that a war, whether successful or not, would lead to a diplomatic process which would lead inevitably to pressure on Israel to give up land in exchange for another dubious promise of peace. But even more importantly, the United States and Europe must demonstrate to Syria that it will not allow it to get off the hook for its mischief in Iraq and Lebanon. It should be told in no uncertain terms that any military diversion against Israel will not only not lessen the pressure on the Assad regime. View from America: The heavy burden of victory

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