Analysis: A wary alert on the Syrian front

Damascus is better off having Hizbullah do its dirty work, but the IDF is taking no chances.

syrian troops 298.88 AP (photo credit: AP [file])
syrian troops 298.88 AP
(photo credit: AP [file])
Last week, a Hizbullah rocket, perhaps misfired, fell next to a Syrian military outpost in Kuneitra, opposite the Israeli border. The reaction was surprisingly quick. Squads of soldiers armed with machine guns and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles ran out of the post and took up firing positions. After a few minutes, they were ordered to stand down, but the incident served to emphasize the level of readiness on the border. The IDF's large-scale reserves call-up over the last two weeks has an implication barely commented on in public, and perhaps the government and the IDF General Staff would prefer that it stay that way. In addition to the reserve battalions joining the regular units conducting the ground offensive in southern Lebanon and the reservists who took over security duties on Israel's other fronts, in the West Bank and around the Gaza Strip, freeing other units for Lebanon, there has been a major build-up of IDF forces on the Golan Heights, facing the Syrian army. The concentration of units is evident even to an untutored civilian eye. The fields around the roads of the Golan - at this time of year usually packed with vacationers flocking to the mountains for the air, hiking, waterfalls and berry-picking - are filled now with tank companies and makeshift encampments. Most of the civilian cars on the roads belong to reservists joining their units. Positions usually held by small units are being filled with more soldiers than usual, in full view of the opposite side, both in readiness for possible war and as a clear signal: Israel is not going to be caught unprepared like it was 33 years ago, when the Yom Kippur War broke out. Ever since that war, the Syrian front has been Israel's quietest border. Even when the two armies were locked in bitter battles during the 1982 Lebanon War, the Golan remained peaceful. Neither side had any interest in breaking the balance there; Israel didn't need another front on its hands while the Syrians were well aware that an IDF advance beyond the Golan would threaten their capital. The perception of the Syrians as a low threat even led to a decision three years ago to further cut back the IDF's presence on the heights, from two brigades down to just one. The large amount of forces currently on the Golan has no precedent in the last two decades. The decision to put the Golan front on high alert followed maneuvers observed on the other side, as well as a buildup of forces and units that have moved from their regular bases to forward positions there. This has been accompanied a heightening of the rhetoric from Syrian leaders regarding their preparedness to join Hizbullah in its war with Israel. Messages have been passed through diplomatic back-channels that Israel has no intention of attacking Syria but that didn't stop its foreign minister, Walid Moallem, from saying on a visit to Lebanon that if Israel wants war, then "ahlan wasahlan," - Arabic for "be my guest." Despite Israel's assurances that it has no aggressive intentions, Syria is deeply worried. They hear what Israel's leaders, with the US acting as a chorus, are saying about Syria's assistance to Hizbullah and from their point of view, it would make perfect sense for Israel to exact revenge for that. President Bashar Assad is viewed by many as a paranoid, unpredictable leader, and considering he has heard rumors over the last few years that he is next in line after Iraq for a regime-change, he is quite capable of ordering a preemptive attack, especially if he feels his despotic rule is threatened. The Syrians also remember that in 1982 Israel promised that it was going to wage war only against the PLO but ended up decimating the cream of the Syrian army and wiping out its entire anti-aircraft corps. Another Syrian motive for going to war is its frustration at being pushed out of what it sees as its exclusive sphere of influence, Lebanon. While senior diplomats are shuttling to-and-fro and the Security Council is set to pass resolutions on the country's future, Syria, which was forced last year to retreat from Lebanon following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, has been pushed aside. It is Iran that is seen as a major player; Assad is perceived as a mere nuisance. An attack on Israel, ostensibly to help his Lebanese neighbors, would give him a place at the table. It doesn't even have to be a major offensive. For decades, Syrian military planning has been oriented toward a rapid, limited attack designed to grab back part of the Golan Heights seized from it in 1967, followed by a call for a cease-fire and talks from a position of strength. Another reason for Syria's frustration is that after being humiliated by Israel on the battlefield time and again, suddenly it is a small Shi'ite organization that is, at least in Arab eyes, succeeding in scoring points against the most powerful army in the Middle East. An attack on Israel, even if its advance is halted after a few kilometers, would do wonders for the Assad gang's prestige throughout the Arab world and would boost patriotic fervor within Syria. One of the main concerns in the IDF is that merely by both sides building up their forces, an unstoppable process will begin that will quickly lead to open war. For this reason, the buildup on the Golan has been measured. If Israel was certain that war was about to break out with Syria, the buildup would have been on a greater scale. The intention is to bolster the defences, send a clear signal to Syria and provide the necessary deterrence, while taking care not to overheat the situation. War with Syria is still far from inevitable. Senior IDF intelligence sources stress that the new Syrian positions are still defensive, but at the same time warn this could change in a matter of hours. Besides, a Syrian attack wouldn't necessarily be carried out by ground forces; Syria has an arsenal of Scud missiles pointed at Israel for that purpose. Some IDF officers may actually favor a limited war with Syria. After falling behind local and international expectations in the fight against Hizbullah, a successful offensive against Syria would boost the IDF's self-image and, after all, the army has been training on the Golan for decades for just that kind of war. The Syrian army is equipped for the most part with old Soviet weapons and while having extensive artillery formations and large commando corps, is ill-prepared for a confrontation with a modern, high-tech army. But most generals and politicians agree that it would be better avoided. Even a resounding victory against the Syrians would mean a much larger reserve call-up, the likelihood of hundreds of casualties and more bombings of cities, and at a minimum an economic slow-down, if not a full-blown recession. The IDF is already fighting on two fronts, in Gaza and against Hizbullah. It has the necessary forces for a third front against Syria but it still is something it would prefer to do without. Most intelligence experts believe that ultimately other considerations will prevail in Damascus and Syria will make do with bluster instead of fire. A war with Israel might mean yet another humiliation and would almost definitely spell ruin for the already very weak Syrian economy. Defeat could also lead to widespread internal unrest and spell the end of minority rule by Assad's Alawite sect. Despite the PR that Nasrallah is getting, from a strategic point of view Syria is much better off having Hizbullah carry out its dirty work while it continues to supply arms. But despite all these qualifications, no one in the IDF is going to take any risks when it comes to the Golan front. The ghosts of 1973 are still alive and well.