Analysis: Assessing Syria's true intentions a tricky task

There is no doubt that both Israel and Syria are escalating the activities of each others militaries.

assad in iran 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
assad in iran 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
On Sunday in Kuneitra, just east of the Israeli-Syrian border, Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri opened activities of the first Golan Festival by pouring cement for the foundations of a new war memorial. During the event, Otri stressed the importance of the memorial and claimed that it demonstrated President Bashar Assad's decision to place the 'liberation of the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation' at the top of Syria's list of priorities. The Golan Festival did not go unnoticed in Israel. Both the defense establishment and the Foreign Ministry recognize the significance of Assad's decision and fear that the Syrian leader might go as far as to draw Israel into a war in an attempt to redeem the Golan. Following the Second Lebanon War and the country's poor showing in the fight against Hizbullah, Israeli defense officials have pointed to an increase in chances for war with Syria, referring to the double-tongued Assad as someone who extends his hand in peace while simultaneously threatening the use of force to win back the Golan. While Damascus has made several clear and repeated overtures to engage the Israelis in peace talks, on the other side of the border a cacophony of assessments and opinions within the Israeli intelligence community has created confusion as to the authenticity of the Syrian proposals. On Monday, head of the National Security Council Ilan Mizrachi threw his hat into the ring and expressed to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he believed the overtures were authentic, contradicting an assessment voiced at the same committee by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who said Assad should not be taken seriously. Dagan and other defense officials believe that Syria is actually preparing for war with Israel. Add to this the periodic press reports about the Syrian military buildup along the border, as well as the deployment of ballistic rockets pointed towards Israel, and you get a very confused picture of what is really happening on Israel's northern front. Maj.-Gen. Wolfgang Jilke, commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) along the Syrian-Israeli border, told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview that not only was Syria not preparing for war, but that the increase in military activity was far more noticeable on the Israeli side. While his assessment cannot be taken at face value, it should also not be ignored. Jilke lives in Damascus and is based out of Camp Faouar on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. He holds daily meetings with Syrian and IDF officials and has a sense of the mood within the Syrian military and political echelons. His motive is quite clear - as the UN commander responsible for maintaining the ceasefire he is intent on preventing war at all costs. While Jilke might be telling the truth when he claims that there is no Syrian military buildup along the border with Israel, there is no doubt that both countries are escalating the activities of their respective militaries. Syria, which is in negotiations to purchase advanced anti-aircraft systems from Russia, has moved up its annual military exercises in advance of a possible conflict over the summer. The IDF is conducting massive brigade-level exercises throughout the country aimed at preparing the military for war on all of its fronts - in the Gaza Strip against Hamas, in southern Lebanon against Hizbullah and against Syria. In Israel, there is a real concern about the prospects of war with Syria. Defense officials are predicting that should another round with Hizbullah erupt, it would not remain isolated to Lebanon. And unlike last summer when it watched from the sidelines, Damascus will be forced to join the fray, With all of these different assessments it is difficult to predict what the government will do, particularly following the publication last week of the interim Winograd report on the failures of the Second Lebanon War. The growing consensus in the defense establishment is that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be extremely careful and hesitant before sending Israel back to war. While Mizrachi's Knesset announcement could be per Olmert's bidding as part of an effort to lay the ground for a new diplomatic initiative vis a vis the Syrians, it may also be an attempt on Mizrachi's part to prevent war and to urge his boss to answer the Syrian overtures. In an opinion piece published Monday in the New Republic, Dennis Ross, the former American envoy to the Middle East, questioned Olmert's decision to ignore the Syrian peace offers until now, which he claimed stemmed from American opposition to the talks. The Bush administration, Ross writes, is opposed to negotiating with Syria since the talks would not be used to make peace but to get back at Lebanon and forestall the international tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Ross, however, asks an important question - one that given the lack of clarity within Israel should be brought to Olmert's attention: "If the Israeli military is right and the prospects for war in the coming year with Syria and Hizbullah are increasing... what exactly would be lost by testing Assad's call for talks?"