Analysis: Making sense of all the Syrian noise

One day the headlines are about an impending war, the next they trumpet Israel's willingness to return the Golan Heights.

assad 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Conflicting reports and dueling trial balloons regarding Syria have the head spinning. One day the headlines are about a real possibility of war with Syria this summer, and the next they are trumpeting an Israeli willingness to return the Golan Heights to Damascus. One day the IDF is taking over mock Syrian villages in large-scale maneuvers, and the next Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is allegedly getting US President George W. Bush's blessing to engage Syrian President Bashar Assad. One day it's war, the next day peace. If you feel baffled by these mixed messages, you are not alone. A senior government official said after Sunday's cabinet meeting that the ministers themselves were so confused about the issue that they don't where the ball is - in Syria's court, or in Israel's. Matters are made more complicated by the fact that the public is not hearing directly from the highest political and military echelon what is happening on the Syrian front, but are only getting second-hand reports of what these officials said in closed meetings. Olmert held a security cabinet meeting on Syria last week and - according to Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit - called for unconditional talks with the Syrians. The only problem was that the public did not hear Olmert say that in his own voice. Indeed, a statement released by the Prime Minister's Office after the meeting made no mention of such a call. National Security Council head Ilan Mizrachi reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last month that he felt Syrian President Bashar Assad's overtures over the last few months were genuine. The operative word here is "reportedly," because the public didn't actually hear Mizrachi utter these words. In fact, the Prime Minister's Office denied that Mizrachi ever made the comments, and said his words were badly twisted. Mossad head Meir Dagan was also reported to have changed his mind regarding the Syrians, and - in an about face - reportedly said in a private meeting that Assad's overtures should be looked into. Few people even really know what Dagan's voice sounds like, and the public has no first hand clue on where he stands on the issue. A ministerial committee set up last week by the security cabinet to deal with the Syrian issue met for the first time on Monday, and afterward Pensioners Minister Rafi Eitan admitted that the spin was the thing. "All that is happening are things being tossed to the media," he said. "They [the Syrians] are throwing things to the media, and we are throwing things to the media. In my mind, the chances that something real will come out of this are very low." What is striking from the Israeli side, however, is that some of the leaks are banging the drums of war, and others are unleashing the doves of peace. There are a number of plausible reasons for the conflicting messages. First to the doves of peace. According to one school of thought, Olmert - because of his domestic political woes, and his need to dangle some diplomatic hope before the Israeli public - wants to get the US to alter its policy on engagement with Syria. According to this logic, since exactly nothing is happening on the Palestinian track, and little is likely to develop there in the near future, Olmert is interested in testing the Syrian waters. One problem, however, is that the US is opposed, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has let this be known, speaking out clearly in her own voice two weeks ago about the need to focus on the Palestinian track, not the Syrian one. Constant media reports about senior IDF officers warning of war if Israel does not engage Syria, or about various public figures advocating engagement with the Syrians, could strengthen Olmert's hand when he discusses Syria with Bush at their meeting planned for Washington on June 19. "Mr. President," Olmert could then say with greater ease, "I need to talk with Assad - my army wants it, my public demands it." How, then, could Bush stand in his way? Regarding talk of war, there are various explanations for this as well. One explanation has to do with budgets. According to this school of thought, the IDF, like every army in the world, is keen on increasing its budget. The war in Lebanon has led to a significant budget increase, but the army would like more. What better way to ensure that that budgetary faucet remain open than to warn of a war this summer? Another explanation for the summer war jitters has to do with what one senior government analyst said was a genuine Syrian concern that Israel may launch a preemptive strike. According to this analyst, the Syrians are currently engaged in a fundamental, strategic reorganization of their army, with an emphasis on long- and medium-range missiles that could hit anywhere in Israel. To protect these missiles, they are buying massive quantities of antitank and antiaircraft missiles. What Syria is concerned about, this analyst said, is a repeat of what happened more than 50 years, when Israel perceived that a massive Soviet arms sale through Czechoslovakia to Egypt had tipped the balance of power in the Middle East. According to this analyst, Israel perceived this pending shift of military power as a strategic threat, and at that moment the countdown began toward the 1956 Sinai campaign. According to the analyst, the Syrians - in the second year of their new military program - are looking at the precedents from more than half a century ago and are concerned that history could repeat itself.