Why Syria Strike Could Make Matters Worse for Israel

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A Syrian army truck destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Lebanon

It had been easy, during Ariel Sharon's election campaign, to dismiss as alarmist — even hysterical — his opponent's warnings that the old soldier would plunge Israel back into war. But Monday's bombing of a Syrian position in Lebanon, coming on top of three weeks of escalated military activity against the Palestinians, certainly suggests that Israeli reservists shouldn't be too surprised if they find themselves spending more time with their units in the near future. Three Syrian soldiers were reported killed and a number were injured in the air strike on a Syrian radar facility near Beirut, bombed in retribution for a Saturday rocket attack by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas that killed an Israeli soldier in the Shebaa Farms district that abuts Lebanon, Syria and Israel. And the Syrians condemned the move as a "dangerous escalation."

The purpose of the Israeli raid, said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gishin, was to signal the Syrians that "there's a new government in Israel and the rules of the game have changed." The Israelis insist that reining in Hezbollah is the responsibility of the Syrian army, which dominates Lebanon and has over the years assisted and encouraged the Shiite guerrilla movement in its war with Israel. But the "rules have changed" in the sense that the latest air strike reproduces Sharon's strategy in response to the Palestinian uprising — harshly punishing the Palestinian Authority for strikes against Israelis launched from areas under its control.

Testing a new leader's manhood

But the political and military calculations in Lebanon are quite different from those in the West Bank and Gaza, and even Sharon's own foreign minister, Shimon Peres, is reported to have balked at the timing of the raid. (Peres has been holding talks in Israel with Jordan's foreign minister, who condemned the air strike as an "unjustified escalation.") Syria remains militarily the most powerful of Israel's neighbors, and its domestic political situation increases the danger of the latest Israeli action provoking further escalation. President Bashar Assad has not been tested since taking over the reins from his late father last year, and the reform-minded 38-year-old may feel pressure to prove his manhood to Damascus hard-liners and his regime's key power base, the Syrian military.

Not that Syria has any appetite for a direct confrontation with Israel's vastly superior military. The response from across Israel's northern border is far more likely to come in the form of escalated Hezbollah strikes. The guerrilla movement uses a Lebanese claim to the Shebaa Farms district (not recognized by the United Nations) as a pretext to persist with attacks on Israeli forces there. In reality, however, Hezbollah's actions are more of an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians — on its own part as well as on the part of Iran, Hezbollah's primary backer — and their ability to hurt the Israelis has always constituted a form of leverage by proxy for the Syrians.

No Give Over Golan Heights

Despite Israel's tough talk and actions, though, Damascus is unlikely to rein in Hezbollah. Syria's position has always been that it would ensure Israeli security in Lebanon only as part of a comprehensive peace plan that included Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967. Negotiations to that end were begun by the late Yitzhak Rabin, more tentatively pursued through back channels by Benjamin Netanyahu and taken almost to the point of conclusion by Ehud Barak. But Sharon made clear in an interview published over the weekend that he believes Israeli withdrawal from the Golan is unacceptable under any circumstances, and that he won't consider it. In other words, from the Syrian point of view, Sharon is signaling that Damascus has nothing to discuss with the current Israeli government — and by that logic, little incentive to rein in Hezbollah. Sharon may be trying to create such an incentive with air strikes, but in the short term that's more likely to escalate the confrontation along Israel's northern border.