Analysis: Where did this summer's war go?

Was the Syrian threat overblown from the start?

lebanon war 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
lebanon war 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
You have to hand it to the Prime Minister's Office: For months it has consistently said there was no serious threat of an imminent war with Syria. This was the PMO's line when Syrian President Bashar Assad was threatening guerrilla action to regain the Golan Heights; when the press was giving way too much coverage to voices warning of war in the summer; when assorted analysts were warning of the inevitability of war if Israel did not respond to Assad's "peace overtures"; and even after Russian missiles began arriving in Damascus. The consistent message coming from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office, and from the prime minister himself, was that while Israel was ready for a war, one was unlikely to start because it was simply not in either side's interest. It seems they were right all along. But was there ever a real threat of a conflagration this summer? According to senior sources in the Foreign Ministry, the whole summer 2007 Syrian-war threat was overblown from the beginning - the product of confusing statements from Damascus, an inability to properly read what was happening in Syria, and a Syrian inability to read what was happening here. All that combined with budgetary wrangling and a breathless media ready to pounce on any sliver of news, yielded a war scare that was essentially baseless. The story about the Syrian-war threat can be divided into two parts, with the first beginning immediately after the Second Lebanon War. At that time, according to the officials, a conspiracy theory began running rampant in Damascus that went as follows: "Israel was beaten in the war, and, in an effort to regain its deterrence and honor, will initiate a war against Syria." The Syrians further believed that the US would give a green light this past summer for the operation, as it fit into Washington's plans to lash out at Syria because of American interests in Iraq. Regardless of the rationality or irrationality of this argument, it was a perception widely held in Damascus, one that - according to Foreign Ministry officials - was being fed by both Iran and Hizbullah. As these theories were circulating, Assad was making various contradictory statements, on the one hand talking of a willingness to discuss peace, and on the other saying that Syria had learned the lessons of the war, seen how Hizbullah had fought, and realized the power of "resistance." There was even talk of Syrian-backed "resistance" - we call it terrorism - on the Golan. Because Syria is a totally opaque society, all these mixed messages confused Israel. What was Assad up to? What were his true intentions? The ruling clique in Damascus was, according to assessments in Jerusalem, being pulled in two directions, one in favor of getting closer to the West, and another trying to strengthen ties with Iran. Assad's threats that he might initiate war if Israel did not grasp at a chance to discuss a full withdrawal did indeed concern decision makers here. It concerned them, but not unduly, and not as much as the media portrayed. And one reason Israeli leaders were confident that war with Syria was not an immediate threat was because as Assad was making these statements, his army was undergoing a massive reorganization. Syria did learn lessons from the Second Lebanon War, one of them being that Israel is vulnerable to missile attack. As a result, the Syrian army is being reorganized, mainly with the acquisition of both missiles and missile defense systems. This reorganization, however, will take two to three years to complete, so the likelihood that Assad would trigger a war before then was not really considered that great. But even if Assad didn't initiate a war, that didn't necessarily mean a war would not happen. Indeed, since the spring the primary concern here was not that Assad would start something out of the blue to recover the Golan, but rather that he might misread Israel's actions. And there were signs that he was indeed doing just that. Intelligence assessments in Jerusalem said Syria was misinterpreting IDF exercises on the Golan. According to these reports, Damascus saw the maneuvers, the largest in years, as a bellicose muscle-flex when, in fact, Israeli officials said it was little more than the IDF learning its lessons from last summer's war. One of the key lessons of that war, for Israel, was that the army was ill-prepared and rusty; that the soldiers had not undergone proper training for a cross-border war. The large-scale maneuvers over the last few months were designed to rectify that situation. This was all compounded by a budget battle over how much should be allocated for the Defense Ministry. When that issue comes up, cries of an imminent war are often heard, and this time the warnings were of a war coming from Syria. The press picked up on these calls and amplified them. Through it all, however, senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office maintained that the war threats were exaggerated. Thankfully, the much ballyhooed "war in the summer" does not look like it will materialize at this time.