Analysis: Watch the Syrians, very carefully

Syria does not have to definitively win a war against Israel to acquire major political gains.

By MORDECHAI NISAN
October 9, 2006 00:56
2 minute read.
Analysis: Watch the Syrians, very carefully

Assad Nasrallah 298.88. (photo credit: AP [file])

The war in Lebanon has sparked considerable Syrian political bombast directed at Israel. Alternating statements on war and peace, though the two themes complement rather than contradict each other, President Bashar Assad has adopted an activist and aggressive stance, catalyzed both by Iran's provocative nuclear policy and Hizbullah's performance in the war which Israel failed to win. The Axis of Evil is functioning and fomenting further rounds of violence, as the Arab culture code instinctively perceives weakness and reacts to it with battle-ready arrogance. Damascus's emerging autumn 2006 war scenario with Israel is evolving according to the pre-Six Day War model: Border tension increases, charges are made of an imminent Israeli attack, Russian support for Syria is demonstrated and all the while Israel appears sluggish, with a weak prime minister and unimpressive government. As if to coax Arab aggression as in 1967, Israel's political leadership seems not to truly suspect the dangers lurking east of Kuneitra. Jerusalem dismissed as a "political maneuver" Assad's declaration in early October that "Syria is ready for war against Israel." Instead of strengthening army units on the Golan Heights, the IDF chose to be alert to developments, while the military intelligence apparatus tried to figure out what was going on in Assad's head. Assad, known for his admiration of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, has been successful in supporting the Muslim insurgency against American and allied forces in Iraq without suffering any US punishment. He has also pursued with impunity a policy of political assassinations against key Lebanese personalities, while suffering only ineffective diplomatic denunciation here and there. Thus, upping the political ante against Israel is a tempting card to play. Syria does not have to definitively win a war against Israel to acquire major political gains. In October 1973, boldly initiating war and undermining Israel's military self-confidence were sufficient benefits for Syria. In July-August 2006, Hizbullah did not win the war, but it definitely caused great physical, human and political damage to Israel. Syrian aggression designed to "recover" the Golan Heights from Israeli "occupation," even without conclusive military victory for Damascus, could nonetheless politically unfreeze the standoff between Syria and Israel, prompting Israeli territorial concessions. Israel's strategic environment is problematic and threatening, but without menacing its existence. Egypt, Jordan and Iraq are not considered potential participants in any evolving Arab/Muslim war coalition. Even Hizbullah is to some degree blocked from any aggressive action for now, as domestic Lebanese political considerations and the new military parameters in south Lebanon could well assure quiet on Israel's northern front. Yet, Syrian or Iranian warfare could elicit Hizbullah's active involvement. It follows that Israel, though very much preoccupied with Palestinian warfare in Gaza and the escalating flow of events in Iran, should concentrate its military attention on Syria across the Golan Heights. Assad's threat to open an insurgent guerrilla front on the Golan, along with Syria's conventional military preparedness, cannot be dismissed as haughty bravado alone. It is essential for Israel to both manifest its own impressive military readiness facing Syria, while warning of the immense damage that Syria will suffer if a military confrontation erupts. A credible Israeli threat to heavily bomb Damascus may help cool the escalating war-like atmosphere created by the young Ba'athist president, and thereby deter a spree of violence. This despite the fact that Israel's strategic profile coming out of the Lebanese war would be bolstered by a sweeping and conclusive military victory in the immediate future against any one of its enemies. The writer lectures on the Middle East at Hebrew University.


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