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(photo credit: AP)
The Syrian front is the forgotten story of last summer's war. Instead of being utilized in the fight against Hizbullah, thousands of reserve soldiers and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles were sent to man fortifications facing the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Emergency warehouses were opened for the first time since the first Lebanon War and observation posts, normally unmanned, were occupied around the clock.
For the first time in a decade, the IDF was on high alert on the Golan, one that continued for a few days even after the cease-fire in Lebanon. Despite a few tense moments, not a shot was fired and the reservists eventually returned home.
In most of the large-scale maneuvers the IDF has done since then as part of its crash training plan, the scenario has been war with Syria. Some of the exercises - including the first one, carried out by the Paratroopers Brigade - took place on the Golan, in full view of the Syrians. But why are we so worried about them?
Syria is currently the sick man of the region - without oil assets, its economy and infrastructure crumbling, isolated by the international community ever since its agents allegedly murdered former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri - and most of its armed forces still use 30-year-old Soviet weaponry. It would seem that Syria is in no condition to wage war with Israel.
But then you have to take into account the other major Syrian weakness. Seven years after succeeding his father as dictator, President Bashar Assad is a total failure - a disappointment both for the peaceniks in Israel who believed that we could do business with him, and to his own people for steadily driving Syria into the ground.
It's hard to expect the tough guys in his own clan standing much longer for his limp leadership. Sooner or later they will lose patience and replace him. If not, they know that an uprising against the ruling Alawite minority will not be far off.
Assad has a whole raft of issues: He lost his only Baathist ally, Iraq, four year ago. The Iranians don't treat him as a partner. He is enthralled by the antics of Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah, even though he knows this is a friendship that can only cause him trouble. The US and France pushed his forces out of Lebanon two years ago after Hariri's assassination, at considerable cost to Syria's economy and his own prestige.
But worst of all, he knows his colleagues in the Arab League feel he is a poor substitute for his fearsome father. The only way he can redeem himself is by returning the Golan Heights that Syria traumatically lost in 1967 when Assad senior was defense minister.
His problem is that a weak Israeli government doesn't have the slightest inclination to enter negotiations in which ceding the Golan Heights is the foregone conclusion. Since the Bush administration is interested in isolating Assad now for his assistance to the Jihadists fighting US troops in Iraq, and leaving the Golan would be extremely unpopular with the Israeli public, there is little chance Israeli policy will change in the near future.
The Syrian war machine might be mostly dilapidated, but the two branches that have been modernized, the commando antitank battalions and the medium-range missile corps, are trained to go for Israel's weak points.
A sneak attack on the Golan Heights, before the IDF has time to mobilize, is designed to grab just enough territory to buy Assad a seat at the negotiating table while his missiles target Israeli cities. At a weak moment for his regime, Assad might just be tempted to give this plan a try. Besides, he's dying to imitate his hero, Nasrallah.
The IDF's Golan maneuvers are meant to deter Assad from succumbing to temptation - and to making sure that, even if he does, this time we'll be ready.