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Syria: Winds of war, or just hot air?


Ever since Syria's president, Bashar Assad, announced his determination to retrieve the Golan heights by force last summer (see Truth about Syria", there has been a veritable flood of Syrian statements about war, reports of Syrian preparations and intelligence estimates. The latest ominous warning comes from an unnamed Syrian official, interviewed by World Net Daily:

...If Israel doesn't vacate the strategic Golan Heights before September, Syrian guerrillas will immediately launch "resistance operations" against the Golan's Jewish communities, a top official from Syrian President Bashar Assad's Baath party told WND.

The Baath official, who spoke on condition his name be withheld, said Damascus is preparing for anticipated Israeli retaliation following Syrian guerrilla attacks and for a larger war with the Jewish state in August or September. He said in the opening salvo of any conflict, Syria has the capabilities of firing "hundreds" of missiles at Tel Aviv.

"Syria passed repeated messages to the U.S. that we demand the return of the Golan either through negotiations or through war. If the Golan is not in our hands by August or September, we will be poised to launch resistance, including raids and attacks against Jewish positions (in the Golan Heights)," the Baath official said...

The Baath official said a new purported guerrilla group called the Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights has been training and is ready to attacks against Jewish communities in the Golan in August or September.

He said Syria is preparing for a war.

"More and more of our units have undergone intensive trainings starting at 6 a.m. and finishing late into the evening. If the need arises, we are ready for a war...

The spokesman is presenting a cynical charade. It is not the first time that Syrian government officials have made such statements. Terrorist groups are against international law. Responsible governments are supposed to fight such groups, rather than reporting on their training. Any government that is involved in deliberate attacks on civilians is committing a war crime. It is vain to attempt to blur whether it is Syria or the "Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights" who will be doing the fighting. The Lebanese government had some credibility when it stated that it could not be responsible for the Hezbollah. The case of Syria is different. Most likely, the "Committees" will be bait for Israeli reprisals, which will be Syria's cue to bring on the long range missiles, while claiming they have no control over the guerrillas. Syria's war will be very thinly disguised state-promoted terrorism, it seems.

Is Syria serious, or are they just bluffing? The goal of Syria is probably not to get back the Golan Heights, which they could get if they offered real peace in direct negotiations - up to the international borders. The goal of Syria might be to bluff the Israelis and Americans into agreeing to American mediated negotiations, giving Syria "legitimacy," immunity for its meddling in Lebanon and Iraq as a "peace partner," and alloing it to trade fruitless peace negotiation with Israel in exchange for getting away with the murder of Rafiq Hariri. In September or so, it seems we will know whether it is a bluff or not. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to find out. The Israeli government and the United States government on the other hand, seem to have their minds, or what passes for minds, on other things. Maybe they are more interested in how the last Harry Potter book will turn out.

The likely response of Israel would be long range bombing of so-called strategic targets in Syria. This is the same failed "strategic bombing" policy used in the Lebanon war. Strategic bombing in World War II was of questionable significance, but at least, some vital industries were hit by the allies. However, bombing relatively unindustrialized countries, without a ground invasion, just doesn't work. They don't manufacture their own weapons or industrial equipment. They import them from abroad. Bombing them only produces an international outcry about civilian casualties. There is no evidence that Israel has really learned this lesson of the Lebanon war, or that it has found a way to protect civilian population centers from rocket attacks.

Israeli doves insist Israel should be talking peace with Syria now, and they are right. Hawks insist that Israel needs to be preparing for a war with Syria, and they are right about that. The solution of the Israeli government and the US government is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, or so it seems. Americans are immersed in the Iraq mess, and Israelis are dealing with petty political squabbles, cutting the budget and Palestinian issues. No time for Syria.

Even if there is "only" a 20 percent chance of war, there is no reason for complacency. Smiling war hero Defense Minister Ehud Barak gives Israelis a sense of confidence. At least, unlike his predecessor, he knows how to use field glasses, but more than that will be needed to win the next war, or better yet, to avert it. He, and we, may be riding for a fall.

The United States doesn't want to 'engage' Syria. Therefore the route of US mediated talks, which would probably yield nothing, is blocked. On the other hand, the U.S. doesn't want to really confront Syria either, over its role in the insurgency in Iraq, its role in the "accidents" that keep happening to its opponents in Lebanon or its role in fomenting problems in the Palestinian authority, or its preparations for war with Israel.

Both Israel and the United States, and the UN, should be active in pursuing a solution to the problem, and if no solution is possible, then they ought to be making it clear to Syria that war is not an alternative. Israel should be actively offering and pursuing peace through direct negotiations, or through negotiations mediated by any agreeable third party. Otherwise, in the event of war, Israel may well find itself isolated, and the Israeli government will find it has lost the support of the people. If Syria really wants the Golan heights, and really wants peace, they will get it eventually one way or the other. Therefore, any war that would be fought over this issue would be a tragic waste. If Syria is just putting on a show to pressure the US and Israel, this too has to be determined. This is not the time for secret contacts that have deniability, because the whole point would be to show the world that Israel is willing to give up the Golan for peace, if that is what Syria really wants.

The United States and the European countries, rather than seeing Israeli-Syrian peace as an obstacle to attaining their own goals in Lebanon and Iraq, should be holding out the prospect of return of the Golan for real Syrian cooperation in Lebanon and in Iraq, making it clear that Syria can have peace if they want it. In other words, to borrow a phrase, they must provide Syria with a political horizon. Rather than trying the murderers of Rafiq Hariri, the goal of international policy in Lebanon must be to prevent further murders. Jailing a few Syrian war criminals will not save the situation, as the supply of such people is plentiful. Getting Syria out of Lebanon and neutralizing the Hezbollah before they take over that country is a much more important goal, especially because of persistent rumors that such a coup is just around the corner.

While offering peace, the international community must also make it clear that any Syrian attack on Israel, whether directly or through the ruse of "Liberation Committees," will be considered a violation of Chapter 7 of the UN charter, and will be met by international sanctions and force if necessary. Deliberate and indiscriminate murder of enemy civilians by a state is a war crime, and the war criminals should understand that they will not be immune to prosecution and cannot hide themselves behind the ruse of a "liberation movement." What worked for Syria in Lebanon - hiding behind the Hezbollah, cannot be allowed work when the attacks originate on Syrian soil, and are perpetrated by what are obviously Syrian soldiers by another name. If the international community goes along with this ruse, it is a green light for governments of states to become nothing more than collections of "oozlebarts" -- local gangsters and highwaymen.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 1 Comment

I don't know if it's fair to describe Israel as willing to give up the Golan for peace. I think the majority do not. There is a large minority that supports peace on these terms, but nott he majority.

This does not absolve Assad, who wants what Saddat got but whose actions are exactly the opposite. Nor would I consider it justified to start a war to regain the Golan.

I'm also very worried about a war. Is the army going to fight the right war in the right way this time?

Posted by Micha @ 07/10/2007 06:52 PM CST

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