Analysis: The looking glass war

Despite the talk, Syria still hosting terrorists and arming Hizbullah.

syria map 298 (photo credit: CNN)
syria map 298
(photo credit: CNN)
Have pity for the Syrian intelligence officer whose job it is to try and make head or tail out of the headlines coming from Israel on Sunday. The Prime Minister is saying that we won't be speaking to Syria soon, so perhaps a bit more puzzlingly is his deputy, Nobel peace prize winner Shimon Peres. Another deputy of Olmert's, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, is in favor of exploring the Syrian offers, and most surprising of all, the head of the opposition, Binyamin Netanyahu, is overtaking the entire government from the left lane and advocating entering negotiations with the Syrians, at least that's what Yediot Ahronont's front page proclaimed in a banner headline. It's not enough that right and left seemed to have been mixed up in responding to the Syrian challenge, even in a normally monolithic party such as Shas, the ministers can't seem to agree. While Chairman Eli Yishai says that accepting Assad's entreaties will be "legitimizing the terrorist vermin," another of his party's ministers, Yitzhak Cohen, urged Olmert to test the Syrian president's intentions by inviting him to talks in Jerusalem. Olmert also said that Israel "cannot say the opposite" of the US position, but that, also, is far from clear. All recent signs coming from the Bush Administration indicate that for now, Syria is not a partner. On the other hand, the president has yet to respond to the recommendation in the Iraq Study Group, namely, that Israel immediately re-enter talks with Syria, ultimately leading to a deal which will include withdrawing from the Golan Heights. Meanwhile, until Bush makes up his mind, three US senators, including the man who was almost president, John Kerry, are visiting Damascus, relieving Assad from his diplomatic isolation. The three received some light criticism from the White House press secretary, but, according to Kerry, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't try and dissuade him from making the trip. What the hell are these crazy Israelis and Americans up to? Our friend the intelligence officer in Damascus is banging his head. Not that his counterpart in Israel is having an easier time. What does Syria want? For the last five months, Bashar Assad has intermittently been threatening war and bearing olive branches. In interviews with western newspapers and networks, he's been inviting Olmert to sit down to the table with him, while in speeches to Arab audiences he's been singing a different tune, broadly hinting at the possibility of a military attack this summer intended to return the Golan Heights to Syrian hands. Meanwhile, he's been backing up his words with a buildup on the Heights, and then standing down those forces, but moving anti-aircraft missiles back and forth at the same time. This weekend, his foreign minister, Walid Moallem, tried to be even more conciliatory towards Israeli by saying that ceding the Golan isn't a precondition to negotiations. While all this nice talk is going on, Syria is still a gracious host to all the anti-Israel terrorist organizations and a conduit for replenishing arms to Hizbullah. The military analyst is at his wits' end - where is Assad going? I think I might be able to help out both officers. Instead of trying to crack the enigma of inscrutable alien leaders, start by explaining your own side first; you might find the necessary hints there to shed some light on the opposition. The muddle on the Israeli side is understandable to anyone who has been following Israel's convoluted political scene for the last year or so. A discredited and unsure leader is incapable of keeping his ministers in line, especially not the unpopular defense minister who can be relied on to take an opposite position from him on every issue. When the government's so weak and disjointed, an opportunist opposition leader with no responsibilities can use the opportunity to leapfrog over his rivals and get a headline. Lacking authority of his own to back up his decisions, Olmert has no choice but to use the US position as a fallback, but the situation in Washington is scarcely more stable, and Bush is looking increasingly isolated in the White House, a bit like his friend in Jerusalem. Now that we've sorted out one side, let's see what we can do with Damascus. Yes, of course, the US and Israel are democracies and no one has to be afraid of being hauled off to the dungeon for contradicting the president. Neither is Assad up for re-election any time soon, but that doesn't make him more secure in his palace. Just like Olmert and Bush, Assad lacks the credibility to make an unequivocal stand and knows that he has very few allies he can fully rely on. Six and a half years after succeeding his father, Bashar knows that he hardly measures up to his old man. During his time in office, he has lost the exclusive Syrian hold over Lebanon, been forced to play second fiddle to Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did not bring Syria any closer to regaining the Golan Heights, and now faces the threat of an international tribunal for the murder of Rafik Al-Hariri. He realizes that the long oppressed Syrian masses are getting restless, and that the elders of the ruling Alawite minority are wondering whether to replace the disappointing heir. Unsure of his personal future, Assad has little choice but to blow hot and cold, offering peace and preparing for war, gambling with his nation's fortunes - just like the leaders on our side.