(photo credit: AP)
This weekend's report of Israeli air force activity over northeastern Syria along the Turkish- Syrian border on September 6 comes in the context of disturbing trends in Syrian military behavior.
Syria served as a primary conduit for the build-up of Iranian- backed Hizbullah prior to the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War in July 2006. Damascus supplied the majority of the heavy payload rockets Hizbullah fired at Israel, including, 220mm rockets and 302mm rockets. Syrian- supplied rocket warheads usually contained anti-personnel munitions - a mixture of lethal explosives and steel balls or fragments.
Syria has also upped the tempo of its military exercises and removed roadblocks that existed for years between Damascus and the city of Kuneitra in the Golan Heights that is adjacent to its front line with Israel.
Historically, the Syrian Israeli military balance has been characterized by a gross asymmetry in Syria's favor in standing active-service formations along the Syrian Israeli border. While Syria maintains battle-ready status, the bulk of the Israeli army is organized around army reserve units that are only mobilized in the event of an imminent attack. For example, in October 1973, Israel was forced to repel a massive Syrian ground assault with only 177 tanks against a total Syrian force of 1,400 tanks that stretched back from the Golan Heights to Damascus, providing an advantage for Syrian armor of more than eight to one.
Key factors in Syrian behavior
At present, Syria's behavior is a function of the following factors:
1. The Syrian perception that it has a realistic military option against Israel based on its view of Hizbullah's successes in last summer's war.
2. Syria's continued sponsorship of radical Palestinian Islamic terror groups including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and other Jihadi organizations.
3. A massive Syrian military build-up focusing primarily on Scud (B, C, and D) heavy rockets and chemical warheads, with a massive commensurate increase in military spending over the past few years. The Syrian armament build-up in recent years has included a major investment in chemical weaponry, in which Syria has become a regional superpower. It is important to stress that Damascus's strategic decision to build up its military arsenal preceded the US decision to provide advanced military weaponry to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
4. Syria has also increased the tempo of its military exercises, and has enhanced its infrastructure on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Syria's recent military build-up is all the more destabilizing in view of the decision by Russia to upgrade its influence in the region by providing state-of-the-art Russian weaponry and military technology, and to reopen a Russian naval base on the Syrian coast. Additionally, Iran's huge petrodollar- driven financing capability has played a major role in Syrian weapons procurement.
Syria's destabilizing role in the region
Current Syrian-Israeli tensions are also punctuated by the additional Syrian strategic need to free itself of international pressure in the context of its continuing involvement in destabilizing Lebanon, as well as Damascus's interest in shaking off international pressure stemming from Syria's suspected main role in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Syria's destabilizing role in the region was underscored by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., former US Commander in Iraq, who confirmed that Syria has acted as a primary line of supply for weaponry and volunteers that continue to stream unfettered over the Syrian- Iraqi border to support the Iraqi insurgency against US and coalition forces.
At this sensitive juncture, it is in the interests of both Syria and Israel to prevent further deterioration of the situation.
Reprinted courtesy of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Institute for Contemporary Affairs