Analysis: What's behind ministers' conciliatory noises about Syria?

Not expecting peace, just staving off war.

By
August 21, 2006 23:23
3 minute read.

 
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This is the time of the year to be on the Golan Heights. The air is cooler, the fruit in the orchards is ripe, there's still water in the rivers and there are lots of new restaurants to try out. But right now it's mainly the reservists who are enjoying all this, when they have the time between guard duty and patrols. Israelis are returning to the bed-and-breakfasts up north, but while they're going to the Upper Galilee to show support for the locals who spent more than a month under Katyusha fire, in the villages and kibbutzim on the Golan, they're chalking up a lost tourism season. And if that's not bad enough, all of a sudden there's talk at the highest levels of a possible deal with the Syrians, with their homes and livelihoods as the price. What has Hassan Nasrallah's arms dealer, Bashar Assad, done to deserve this? And what does Israel hope to gain from any agreement with him? For more than three decades, the border with Syria was Israel's quietest. Even when the IDF and the Syrian army were slogging it out in Lebanon in 1982, the Golan front remained peaceful. But over the last month, the General Staff has begun to fear that all that might come to an end. A significant share of the tens of thousands of reservists called up during the war were sent to the Golan. Tank battalions were deployed, their cannons pointing east and north, and emergency outposts were manned. There were military and diplomatic reasons for this heightened level of alert. To minimize the chances of a flare-up, both sides normally keep their main forces a few kilometers back from the border. Small things can signal a lot, such as Syrian observers riding motorcycles close to the fence, troops in forward outposts suddenly carrying weapons, something not normally done by the Syrian army, and APCs driving around near potential attack routes. Intelligence began arriving of commando and anti-tank unit reinforcements and movement toward attack positions. Was Assad hoping to take advantage of Israel's preoccupation with Hizbullah to make a quick grab on the heights the Syrians lost in 1967? In this scenario, an attack would be motivated by Syrian frustration at being pushed out of the Lebanese picture. Damascus has always seen itself the real lord of the Land of the Cedars and only Assad's miscalculation in allegedly ordering the murder of Rafik Hariri last year forced the Syrians to relinquish their control and to withdraw from Lebanon. The latest Lebanese war ended with a diplomatic deal in which they had no part, edged out by the assorted powers. Perhaps a little war with Israel could buy them a seat at the negotiating table. Belligerent speeches from Assad and his foreign minister, Walid Moallem, haven't done anything to allay these concerns. There are two kinds of Syria experts. The first group is composed of Israelis in the army, intelligence services and academia; they were seriously worried about a possible attack. And then there are the foreign experts, those who have actually visited Syria in recent years. Most of these are next to certain the impoverished, isolated and shaky regime wouldn't dare start a war that would almost certainly end in yet another military humiliation. However, these analysts don't live here and wouldn't have to bear the consequences of being wrong. The war passed and the cease-fire came, and so far Assad has managed to restrain himself. However tensions remain high and the IDF's alert hasn't been called off. The reservists on the Golan are still in uniform while most of those who fought in Lebanon have returned to their families. Most of the IDF's commanders are confident that a war with Syria could have only one outcome, but none of them want another round of warfare right now, with it's own death toll and civilian casualties from Syria's considerable tactical missile arsenal. That's one of the main reasons why senior ministers are suddenly sending reassuring noises in Assad's direction, so he shouldn't think his only option is a military one. No one really thinks there is any possibility of giving up on the Golan in the near future, but if a few conciliatory remarks are enough to make Assad relax, then why not. Meanwhile, no one's taking any chances.

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