As more details emerged this week about Israel’s surprise air strike against a Syrian target two weeks ago, there were heightened fears that a miscalculation by either side could lead to the all-out war that some had predicted would occur this summer.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state, said he believes the Sept. 6 air attack increased the chances for war more than three decades after the 1973 Yom Kippur War was ended by a truce that has been scrupulously adhered to by both sides.
“For the first time in many years, a Syrian-Israeli military conflict is now imaginable,” Miller said, explaining that Israel’s air strike comes at a time of deep underlying changes in the two countries’ relationship.
Miller, whose book on the Middle East peace process, “The Much Too Promised Land,” is due out in February, cited the “impact on Israel of the ‘06 war in Lebanon and [Israel’s] need to demonstrate preemption and deterrence. That’s a need especially for a weakened [Israeli] prime minister whose approval rating is so low.”
And he warned that Syrian President Bashar Assad, who assumed leadership of Syria in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, has shown “a risk readiness I never saw in his father. I’m not saying he’s looking for a war, but his behavior indicates he’s less afraid of some sort of military action.”
A poll released Tuesday by Yediot Achronot, Israel’s biggest-selling paper, showed that a plurality of the Israeli public — 32 percent — consider war with Syria now more likely. Only 13 percent believed Israel’s operation had decreased the odds for war.
But that pessimism is not shared by many other Middle East experts. In fact, University of Oklahoma Syria specialist Joshua Landis says everything he knows about Syria tells him war remains highly unlikely.
“Syria would be devastated in a war,” he said. “Assad’s legitimacy rests on two things: stability and security. If Syria engaged in any adventure with Israel, [its] economic growth would be wiped out and Bashar would fail on his two claims to popularity.”
In conversations with Syrian officials since the incursion, Landis said “they keep saying the same thing — that they’re trying to keep a lid on this. They don’t want it to get out of control; they’re hoping it will die down.”
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that although war is possible, both sides appeared to be trying to avoid it.
He pointed to “Bashar Assad’s desire to avoid even confirming that an Israeli strike occurred. [That] suggests that he is not trying to rally either his countrymen or other like-minded people in the Middle East for a war with Israel,” he said.
In fact, all Syria has said about the Sept. 6 incident is that Israeli aircraft violated its airspace and that when they were driven off by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, the Israeli planes dumped ammunition and fuel tanks in open fields, causing no damage or injuries.
But CNN reported that the air strike left a big hole in the ground, and Israel’s director of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last Sunday, “Israeli deterrence has been restored.”
Yadlin was harshly criticized for that comment, with Israeli editorial writers and columnists citing Israel’s unwillingness to halt the daily rocket attacks from Gaza. On Wednesday, Israel’s security cabinet declared Gaza an “enemy entity” and approved disrupting its electricity and fuel supplies in an effort to compel the Hamas-run government there to prevent further attacks. Hamas said the action was in effect a declaration of war.
Even as tensions heightened, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday evening that the “nervousness in the relationship between Syria and ourselves is over.” There were signs the Israel Defense Forces were returning to a normal state of alert this week.
Israeli censors imposed a total blackout on the air strike and Israeli leaders were instructed to say nothing — a directive that appears to have been scrupulously followed.
Moshe Maoz, a Syrian expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the fact that both Syria and Israel displayed such great restraint after the air strike leads him to believe that neither side wants war.
“They don’t want this incident to develop into a war because in a war both sides lose,” he said. “Even though Syria said it would respond in time, it had to say that to save face.”
One big change as both sides appeared to be trying to climb down was the absence of any U.S. assistance in the process. In the past, Washington has played the role of go-between to two hostile governments, enabling quiet back-channel communication in times of tension. But Syria’s closeness to Iran — the Bush administration’s prime concern these days — has moved Washington to try to isolate Syria instead.
According to Makovsky, Javier Solana, the European Union’s senior representative, has stepped into the breach created by Washington, attempting to play the go-between role. In fact, said Makovsky, rising tensions between Israel and Syria in the weeks prior to Israel’s incursion had led Solana to pass a message of peaceful reassurance from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Assad “just a day or so before the strike.”
“So now the question is if any sort of communication has been disrupted,” he said.
Makovsky said it appears the attack was on a facility in northeast Syria and that it had something to do with a ship from North Korea, which had docked at a port near there Sept. 3. There has been some speculation the ship was carrying technology or material useful for making nuclear weapons. But Makovsky pointed out it could have also been carrying chemical, biological or conventional weapons.
Regardless, the cargo was of such “significant concern” that “Israel seemed willing to take a risk to hit it even though it could start a wider conflagration,” Makovsky said.
Moaz agreed, saying: “Israel would not go into this kind of operation — which is very daring and dangerous — without a good reason. And a good reason can be this material coming from North Korea. It might have been something crucial that had to do with a nuclear program or it could have been a warhead for missiles. North Korea has been supplying Syria for years with Scud missiles with a range that covers all Israel. They have chemical warheads and maybe now they have upgraded to nuclear warheads or some other means to help Syria develop a nuclear program.”
Indications of Syria’s chemical warheads program were strengthened Monday by a report in Jane’s Defence Weekly, a highly regarded military affairs publication. Its report said a Syrian-Iranian team was attempting to mount a chemical warhead on a Scud missile July 23 when an explosion occurred, killing dozens of Iranian engineers and 15 Syrian officers, and spreading the lethal chemical agents.
Maoz pointed out that Syria has tried in the past to develop a nuclear program but that “technologically Syria is not developed and so it couldn’t do it unless it had the help of foreign experts or something ready-made.”
The Washington Post reported that last spring Stephen Hadley, President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, presented evidence of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation – including satellite pictures from Israel of a Syrian facility that could have been used to produce material for nuclear weapons. There were reports that North Korea had representatives in Syria shortly before the shipment arrived, and there was speculation that North Korea may have simply been moving its nuclear arsenal to Syria and Iran to conceal it from United Nations inspectors.
Both Syria and North Korea vehemently denied the reports.
The Israeli attack on such a facility, Maoz said, would have also sent a signal to Iran that just as Israel was able to “destroy a bunker in Syria, it can do so in Iran.”
It also demonstrated that the Russian air defense missile system with advanced radar that is used by Syria and Iran to repel air attacks was immobilized by electronic jamming from Israeli warplanes, according to Jonathan Paris, a Middle East analyst who is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“It signaled to the Americans and the Iranians [that such an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations] is not impossible to do,” he said. “If Syria can be forced to abandon its nuclear program, it will set a precedent for Iran to do the same thing.”
Both the apparent success of the Israeli attack and Israel’s refusal to even acknowledge it are just two reasons the international community refused to condemn Israel for the raid, Paris noted. He noted that the only criticism came from Syria and North Korea.n
Stewart Ain is a staff writer and Larry Cohler-Esses is editor-at-large.