Analyze This: In a cold war with Iran, can Syria become Israel's 'China card'?

Turning Syria away from Iran might mean the Golan.

assad ahmadinejad 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad ahmadinejad 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The good news from the intelligence forecast presented to the cabinet on Sunday is obviously the assessment by the security establishment that there is little likelihood of an attack on Israel by enemy states in 2008. Considering that there has been no such conflict here since 1973, the odds are pretty likely that this is an accurate guess. More to the point is their conclusion that Israel's principal state enemies, Syria and Iran, have concluded that any kind of conventional battlefield warfare is no longer a feasible alternative to defeating Israel. In the meantime, they prefer to harass us through their proxy allies, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the territories, while expanding their missile arsenals and perhaps adding the threat of nuclear capability. This scenario - one militarily powerful democracy engaged in a geopolitical conflict against two totalitarian states, both sides fighting each other in smaller "proxy conflicts" while looking ahead to a possible nuclear missile endgame - is starting to have a distinctly familiar "cold war" ring to it. So, too, does a relatively new development in this face-off, the growing ideological struggle over the hearts and minds of the peoples in the region's other nations, between liberal Western values and the radical, anti-democratic outlook represented respectively by the two opposing sides. If this is indeed a new paradigm in which to view the Israel-Arab conflict, then certain obvious assumptions may be drawn from it. The first is that while solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may bring relative quiet on the West Bank and Gaza fronts and help in winning hearts and minds in the more "moderate" Arab world, it will do little to resolve this nation's hostilities with its principal nation-state enemies. The second is to what realistic extent the "China card" can be played with Syria as Israel's cold war with Iran progresses. Just as drawing Beijing away from its natural ideological alliance with Moscow became a key strategic pillar of US policy during its conflict with the former Soviet Union, so there are those who believe that the secular rulers of Damascus can be lured away from Teheran's orbit as a member of the "radical Islamic axis." Not everyone believes this is feasible with the current regime of President Bashar Assad, in part because he lacks the authority his father had over powerful elements in the Syrian military that would oppose any peace deal with Israel. But Israel's military and intelligence leadership, in their briefing yesterday, clearly seemed to hold out the hope that "under certain circumstances and if there were certain developments," this strategic option was still a possibility. Since it is reasonable to assume that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was privy to this assessment before it was presented to the rest of the cabinet, this might well explain why at last week's meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he talked up the possibility of restarting negotiations with the Syrians - this at a time when Damascus's hand was being clearly seen as a factor in Hamas's aggressiveness in the south. Playing the "Damascus card" against Teheran, though, would carry a heavy political price - the return of the Golan Heights, possibly even up to the shores of Kinneret - and it is difficult to imagine that any but the strongest Israeli government would be in a position to make that deal. The Olmert-led coalition clearly isn't that government. Yet if the intelligence assessment is correct that Iran will reach a "point of no return" in its nuclear program in the latter half of 2009, and neither Israel nor the United States are successful in halting that development, then we will truly find ourselves locked into a cold war-type military stalemate with Teheran - a prospect that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic outlook makes far more frightening than the Kremlin's former belief in the historical inevitability of Marxist triumph. In that case, even all of the Golan may come to seem a reasonable sacrifice in breaking Syria's alliance with Iran - even if it is no easy task finding an Israeli Nixon to go to that particular China. [email protected]