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Friday, September 07, 2007

Is there going to be a war with Syria?

Last spring, I thought there would be a war with Syria. As some of you may recall, I even set a date. It didn't happen, but that doesn't mean that things are any less tense with the Syrians now than they were then. And it doesn't mean that a war won't happen soon. The picture at top left is looking out towards Quneitra from the Israeli side of the border. If you see tents and pre-fab buildings in the right part of the picture, they are the UN peacekeeping forces' camp. I took the picture in July when we were in the Golan and UN forces were a frequent site. Let's look at the reasons why there may and may not be a war.

First, the Syrians have given every indication of 'losing patience' over the 'return' of the Golan, an idea that is very unpopular in Israel. The Syrians reopened the Damascus - Quneitra highway this summer for the first time in forty years with the apparent intention of allowing vigilante (and not-so-vigilante) actions against Jewish towns on the Golan Heights. They have encouraged Syrians to move into the Syrian side of the demilitarized zone in the Golan. They have deployed tanks all along their side of the Heights. But the Golan is most definitely part of the 'Israeli consensus.' Very few Israelis are willing to give the Golan Heights to Syria. Here's what I wrote about this a month and half ago:
Assad is making a serious mistake. Israel held onto southern Lebanon as a buffer zone against terrorists. It never claimed southern Lebanon as part of Israel, it had and has no territorial designs on Lebanon, and it never brought Israelis to live in southern Lebanon. The Golan Heights is part of Israel by law. More importantly, Israelis are overwhelmingly opposed to giving the Golan to Syria, even in exchange for 'peace.' In addition to its strategic topography, the Golan is a major source for Israel's water supply. And unlike (unfortunately) Judea and Samaria, the Golan is definitely part of the Israeli national consensus both left and right. Israel will not just pack up and give him the Golan like Ehud Barak did in southern Lebanon. That is true because of the reasons I cited above, and because most of the country now realizes that fleeing from southern Lebanon was a mistake.
Second, Iran is standing by Syria and encouraging it to go to war. Iran was screaming louder than Syria yesterday about the ostensible violation of Syrian airspace.

Third, Syria's information minister promised that Syria would 'find a way' to respond. Is he hinting at war?

Fourth, Israel's cabinet decision this week not to undertake a full scale invasion of Gaza was partly due to fear of having a two-front war in the event that the Syrians and/or Hezbullah started stirring things up while the IDF is in Gaza. Yes, that's exactly what happened last summer, and other than Gilad Shalit's continued presence in Gaza, most Israelis seem to have forgotten that there was a mini-war in Gaza before the war with Hezbullah. But Hamas has turned Gaza into an armory. And Hezbullah has regrouped in Lebanon. A war now - with or without the Syrians involved - is likely to be much more difficult for Israel than it was last summer.

The arguments against a war right now are mostly timing arguments. Were Syria to attack Israel and begin to lose, Iran might feel forced to intervene. But that would give the US and Israel a pretext to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons. Iran would rather that not happen until it is ready to fight back.

Syria is awaiting the arrival of Russian anti-aircraft batteries. Since they essentially have no air force, it is not in their interest to start a war with Israel until they have some of way of contending with Israel's air superiority. Until those anti-aircraft batteries arrive and are deployed, Syria has no means of doing that. Israel is unlikely to start a war with Syria in any event, because it has no designs on Syrian territory and because Olmert is so spooked by his experience with Hezbullah last summer that he will never start a war again.

All of which makes me wonder how to explain this post from a blogger in Damascus who seems to be very well plugged in:
So here's what we know: Israeli planes flew from the Mediterranean, and managed to get halfway across the country before being fired on at Tell Al-Abyad, north of Raqaa, near the Turkish border.

Syrian air defences fired, the Israeli jets dumped ammunition (note the Syrian announcement said 'dropped' ammunition, rather than 'bombed') and made their way out of Syria. [I have seen other stories that have the Israelis 'dumping' ammunition before the Syrians fired. I'm not sure that's significant. CiJ]


Now, Israeli Army Radio says there was no 'air raid', but has refused to comment on the veracity of the rest of the story.

This is important.

Israel felt the need to clear up the early confusion that they may have 'bombed' Syria. It seems they were only dumping ammunition. [Or more likely jet fuel. If it was 'ammunition' where is the damage on the ground? CiJ]

Let's be clear, there is very little new here. Israeli jets regularly enter Syria, and Syrian Air Defences regularly fire back. What is different here is that Syria has been playing the media game by putting the story out and getting control of it before Israel had the chance.
I don't think Israel had any interest in getting the story into the media. But the fact that he claims that Israeli jets enter Syria regularly and that Syria fires on them regularly is something I have never heard before. The only time I heard of Israeli planes being in Lattakia, for example, was when they buzzed Assad's summer home last summer. No one was hiding the planes then.

DEBKA gives what I think is the most plausible explanation:
A Western diplomat in Damascus said Thursday night: It appears that the Israeli planes were on a reconnaissance mission when they got caught by Syrian defenses and were forced to drop their bombs and extra fuel tanks.
But then, that's what I thought yesterday without DEBKA and without any 'Western diplomats.' And I speculated that it might even have been a reconnaissance mission that had nothing to do with Syria, but rather with our friends the Iraqi Kurds. The other possibility, as I noted when I updated the same post, is what Charles Levinson suggested: that it was a training mission over Turkey and one or more planes strayed off course.

Bottom line: I think it was a reconnaissance mission that was caught by the Syrians or a training mission that went off course. I don't think there's going to be a war this week, because I don't think the Syrians and the Iranians are ready yet. The Syrians, for reasons of their own, wanted to make sure that Israel (and probably more importantly the Syrian population) know that the Syrians know that the Israelis are there. Perhaps, although from their actions it seems unlikely, they would have been happy to capture an Israeli pilot or two. But perhaps not. The war is coming but not this week.


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