Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What some view as preparation for a US hit on Iran

War and peace, Israeli style

By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The Israelis insist they are not seeking war with the Syrians, even as Israel began its biggest military maneuver in its history since 1948. This was on the border with Syria, which has been calm since the June war of 1967.

This nation-wide "exercise" is being carried out by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Home Front Command, in cooperation with the recently-established National Emergency Authority.

President Shimon Peres insisted this was not a prelude to war with Syria, telling the Syrians not to worry. Israeli Radio, however, told citizens the scenario being practiced was for how things would look like on the fourth day of an "imaginary" war with Hezbollah on one front, and the Syrians on the other.

The training envisioned Kassam rockets and Katyusha missiles raining down on Israel, yet the IDF gave out a statement assuring Israelis not to worry, saying that the drill was "part of the IDF 2008 work plan". It stressed the exercise was not in preparation for any adventure, nor was it in retaliation for earlier skirmishes between Syria, Hezbollah and Israel. For its part, Hezbollah is uncomfortable with the Israeli maneuver, saying it neither routine - nor normal - for two countries technically at a state of war since 1948.

As part of the exercise, sirens went off inside Israel at 10am on April 8. News anchor Gadi Sukenik was called in to stage "emergency instructions" on television - and to do the same in the event of a real war. Between 10-11am, Channel 33, broadcasting from the Home Front Command's new studio, gave instructions on what to do in a time of war. Major General Yair Golan gave guidance and showed tutorial videos on how to behave while under attack.

Kindergarten teachers practiced how to deal with little children when and if war were to break out with Syria or Hezbollah, while a field exercise simulated various scenarios - conventional and unconventional rockets being fired onto Israel, a chemical attack, along with search and rescue training.

Adding spice to the show were the words of General Dan Harel, the deputy chief of staff of the IDF, who said, "Anyone who tries to harm Israel must remember that it is the strongest country in the region, and retaliation will be powerful - and painful."

If all of the above is not a prelude for war, then what is?

Last September, four Israeli warplanes invaded Syrian airspace and reached the village of Tal Abyan near Deir ez-Zour. Things became murky after that. Some said the planes struck at targets in Syria. Others denied this, until President Bashar al-Assad came out and confirmed the story, a few months later, confirming that they had struck, but he downplayed the targets.

Syria called it a "flagrant aggressive act" and said it confronted the planes, forcing them to drop their fuel and ammunition so they could fly faster and escape. The Israelis at first refused to comment, then confirmed they had in fact carried out an air intrusion into Syria.

The Israeli and international media were filled with speculation on why the story was leaked by the Syrians, not Israel. One theory said that the Israelis were preparing to back the Americans in an upcoming war with Iran and were trying to reach Iranian territory - thus explaining the extra fuel. Another theory claimed the Israelis were searching for Russian missiles that Syria had acquired, and wanted to test Syrian defenses.

This was seconded by Israeli counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor, who said his country was "collecting intelligence on long-range missiles" deployed by Syria in the north. A third speculation said the Israelis wanted to hit a training camp for Palestinian militants in Syria (Hamas and Islamic Jihad); and missed their target. A fourth tale claimed the Israelis were trying to flex their muscles and remind Syria that although taken aback - or as the Arabs would say "defeated" in the war with Lebanon in 2006, Israel was still around in the Middle East - and could create trouble. One theory even said that the Israelis were after North Korean weapons being stockpiled in Syria.

Regardless of what the target was, this was provocation and an early warning for the Syrians. The Israelis "were not to be trusted" and were capable - and willing - to engage in a new adventure with Damascus. It also made all talk of a peace process seem increasingly silly since nations interested in peace don't go around invading other nation's air space, dropping bombs then flying away.

There was much speculation in the summer of 2007 that "something" was going to happen on the Syrian-Israeli front. The Israelis had mobilized the IDF on the Golan border, and reports in Israeli dailies said that 70% of the army's reservists were taking part in exercises along the Golan. Israel also declared that one of its famous units, the Golan Brigade, had just completed intensive training in war games.

Guy Hazoot, the officer in charge of the 91st Division deployed along the border with Lebanon, noted: "The worst case is war, and we have to be prepared for the worst case." United Press International, quoted "well-informed sources in Washington" saying that a "confrontation between Syria and Israel may happen this summer".

This was echoed by Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy of the era of US president Bill Clinton, who was quoted in Yediot Aharonot as saying there was a serious "risk" of war, adding, "The Syrians are positioning themselves for war."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak came out, however, to defuse the tension, one week before the air invasion, saying Israel was going to withdraw its troops from the Golan Heights. The mobilization, he said, raised the risk of an "accidental confrontation" between the Syrians and Israelis, something that Israel wanted to avoid. He seemed to be pouring cold water on the tensions and telling the world that there would be no war between Israel and Syria.

Syria responded with similar commitments to peace, saying that ever since it went to Madrid in 1991, its choice had been a "just and comprehensive peace" based on United Nations Security Council resolution 242; the "land-for-peace" formula.

After the intrusion, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara told the Italian daily La Republica, "All I can say is that the military and political echelon is looking into a series of responses as we speak. Results are forthcoming." When asked what kind of retaliation was expected from the Syrians, he replied: "I cannot reveal details." A journalist then spoke about an appeal from Peres to Syria, to which Shara responded: "Excuse me for smiling. The talks about peace are a disguise for blatant aggression. Israel's responses in light of the aircraft infiltration are amazing, with [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert saying he knows nothing about it."

The Syrians - who seem to be relatively calm about what is happening now - have not, however, crossed off the possibility of war with Israel. In May 2007, Assad spoke to parliament and said defeated leaders like Olmert could do strange things - like go to war rather than make peace with his neighbors, to right the wrongs done to Israel's image in 2006. Olmert responded in an interview with the Saudi channel al-Arabiyya, saying he was ready for peace with the Syrian president. "Bashar al-Assad, you know that I am ready for direct talks with you. I am ready to sit with you and talk about peace, not war." He added, "I will be happy if I could make peace with Syria. I do not want to wage war against Syria."

Assad in turn replied - indirectly - in his July 2007 inauguration address, saying: "The most Syria could do is send a Syrian to a neutral place to negotiate with a third party, who in turn would convey Syria's message to the Israelis, who might be staying at another hotel. Direct talks between Syria and Israel are also out of the question at this stage." The basis of the Syrian peace position would be resolution 242 and the border of June 4, 1967. Out of experience, however, he added, the Syrians do not trust Israel, "We did not trust them before the 1990s and now distrust them further."

The Syrians then went to Annapolis in the United States in November 2007, claiming beforehand that the entire peace conference was destined to fail because neither the Americans nor the Israelis was ready for peace. The Syrians believe Israel cannot sign a peace accord with the Palestinians or Syrians unless it corrects the damage done in the Lebanon war of 2006.

The Israelis, however, deny this, claiming that although the results were less than satisfying, they can live with them, just like the Americans learned to live with Vietnam. The Americans, however, in what remains of the George W Bush administration - are unwilling to engage the Syrians. They claim Syria is more interested in a peace process than a peace deal; a process aimed at breaking the isolation imposed by the US since 2005.

If the Israelis wanted to talk to the Syrians, however, the Americans insist they will not discourage them. They won't encourage - but they certainly won't say no. The Syrians, however, don't believe that, yet find themselves in a dilemma since they cannot enter into a peace process without an honest and reliable third party. The only acceptable broker (to the Israelis) is the United States.

The last eight months of the Bush administration cannot produce a peace deal, neither with the Syrians, nor with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. Left hanging is the war option.

At first glance, it is in nobody's interest to see yet another war - the fourth in the Arab world since 2001. A deeper look shows the Israelis might have their reasons for seeking a confrontation to wage a limited war - then peace - with the Syrians.

The theory goes: you cannot go to peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict without first having obtained your war medals. Olmert needs that for domestic consumption - and for a better hand at the negotiating table with the Arabs. This peace has many strings attached to it; no Hamas, no Islamic Jihad and no Hezbollah.

While the first two are to be dealt with via the Palestinian track, the last runs through peace and war with the Syrians. Many in Israel are starting to re-emphasize that the only way to get rid of Hezbollah is to alienate it from its natural allies.

Another war against Hezbollah will not succeed - and a ground invasion of Lebanon could prove disastrous for the IDF. The Israelis couldn't do it in 2006.

The Lebanese system, which in itself is on the verge of collapse, couldn't do it in 2006-2008. The UN couldn't do it with its resolutions. The Iranians would never do it.

So the Israelis believe the only people able to find a solution to the Hezbollah problem are the Syrians, and they would only do that if a full peace treaty were reached with Israel. No peace process is possible with Syria, however, without a war - a war that would redraw the front lines, impose new realities on everybody, and psychologically prepare all parties for an end to the conflict.

Re-visiting Sadat
In times like these, it is illuminating to revisit the late Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt. Undoubtedly, the Israelis learned more from Sadat than the Arabs. Sadat scored a psychological and political victory in 1973 - in addition to the famed crossing of the Suez Canal - by catching the Israelis off guard.

He began to send off messages to Tel Aviv - using all kinds of language to assure them that Egypt was not seeking war with the Jewish state. First, he requested that all Soviet experts working in Egypt since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser return to the Soviet Union in July 1972. In all, almost 20,000 advisors were expelled. He wanted to assure the Americans, and also wanted the Israelis to believe that he was not planning a war.

Israeli intelligence believed Egypt would not and could not go to war unless it had arms from the Russians. A spy in the Egyptian army, whose name until today has not been revealed and is known only as "the source", told the Israelis Egypt wanted to regain Sinai, but Cairo would not go to war unless Moscow supplied it with fighter-bombers to neutralize the Israeli Air Force and scud missiles to be used against Israeli cities.

As long as the fighter-bombers had not arrived, Israel believed Sadat would never attack because he did not have the weapons for war. The Israelis also believed that if Egypt did not attack, then Syria also would not. Both the Americans and Israelis believed the expulsion of the Soviet advisors would greatly weaken the Egyptian army.

Sadat also made sure that a constant stream of false information was given to Israeli intelligence. For example, Egypt made it public that it did not have trained or qualified soldiers to work with the new weapons that came from Russia. It also sent messages to Israel that it had a major problem with spare parts for its tanks and airplanes. In May and August 1973, he threatened to go to war. The Israelis mobilized to fight and Sadat did nothing.

Each mobilization cost Israel about US$10 million. Because he always threatened to go to war against Israel and never did anything, nobody believed him in 1973. That is exactly what Sadat wanted and he, along with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, managed to catch the Israelis off guard on October 6, 1973.

That is why the Syrians should worry about the Israeli operations that started on April 6. It might be costly to mobilize in defense, but a lack of response and believing the assurances of Peres would certainly be more costly for the region as a whole, not only for Syria. There are no assurances in war; and no promises kept in the Arab world. The Israelis said one thing and did the opposite in September 2007. They can - and might - do it again in April 2008.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
Original article posted here.

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