Analysis: A decision needed on Syria

Assad has only two alternatives: negotiations or conflict. Both options are laden with liabilities.

assad 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
On one matter there is a consensus within the defense establishment and intelligence community: Very soon the government will have to make a decision on Syria. Years of immobility are about to come to an end and an historic junction is near. Will Israel enter controversial talks with the Assad regime, or will a military confrontation become almost inevitable? All information now indicates that Bashar Assad has decided that regaining the Golan Heights is his immediate concern, now that the tribunal over the murder of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri is endangering his survival. Assad has only two alternatives: negotiations or conflict. The arguments between the Mossad and the IDF's intelligence directorate and the Foreign Ministry are over which course Assad prefers. But both sides agree the decades-old standoff is not long for this world. Both options are laden with liabilities. A new diplomatic process could put Israel on a collision course with the US, which is interested in isolating Assad with the aim of toppling him. And of course, the eventual price of a deal would be pulling back from most, if not all of the Golan - a price that a politically weak government such as this one can ill afford. Meanwhile, the military option, however limited at first, could very easily get out of hand and evolve into a full-scale war, at a time when the IDF is still in the middle of its rehabilitation process. Simultaneously, warfare might also break out on three other fronts - against Hizbullah, in Gaza, and against Iran's nuclear program. The Syrian situation is one of the reasons that there is a reluctance to launch a wide-scale offensive in Gaza against the Kassam launchers. Assad might leave us no choice. As an admirer of Hassan Nasrallah and an avid student of his methods, the president might be tempted to imitate him with a limited ground attack at a weak point on the border, snatching a small parcel of the Golan, coupled with missile attacks on Israel's soft civilian underbelly. Syria's armed forces are run-down and ill-equipped, but some of its units seem to be prepared for this tactic. Syria has no chance of beating Israel, but it could deal it a painful blow with a surprise attack, buying Assad much needed popularity among the masses of the Arab world. To prevent this, Assad either has to be offered serious negotiations or else the IDF will have to brace for conflict. The IDF is preparing itself for just such an eventuality. This summer, the IDF isn't going to be caught unprepared. This leaves the political echelon. With Amir Peretz measuring the time left to him in the Defense Ministry in days, it's obvious that the cabinet awaits a new defense minister.. So do the military and intelligence chiefs, who are all closely watching the runoff between Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon in the Labor's primaries. But it's not only the identity of the new minister that is worrying the generals; they are all aware that the shadow of the Winograd Committee still lies heavily over Olmert and his colleagues and are concerned that a leadership fearful for its survival won't be capable of making the right decision when the crunch comes.