Why Syria's Tough Talk Won't Turn Into Action

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tensions between Israel and Syria are rising amid the flames of Lebanon. Since last weekend, Israeli jets have bombed the Masnaa crossing between Lebanon and Syria at least three times, temporarily shutting down a major road-route to and from Lebanon for the first time since the current conflict began. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) attacks destroyed buildings at the site, as well as what they said was a Hizballah-bound arms shipment, which the Lebanese claimed was part of a relief convoy. And, on Sunday, a landmine was triggered — perhaps accidentally, perhaps deliberately — along the Syrian boundary with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, near Quneitra. No injuries were reported.

Syria — already edgy after Israeli jets buzzed Damascus early in the conflict — reacted by calling up several reserve units, sending special forces and anti-aircraft batteries towards the border, and putting the country's military on its highest state of alert since the war of 1973. Participants at a government-approved conference in Damascus called for the return of the Golan Heights by any means necessary, and openly criticized the regime for its failure to recover the area.

On Thursday, Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal told TIME that Syria was determined to send its army into Lebanon if Israeli ground forces, which have not made much progress beyond the southern edge of Lebanon, managed to advance toward the Masnaa area. "We hope in the end we do not need to enter this adventure, He said. "But we do not trust them so close to our borders. If they come that close, we will not stand by with our arms folded."

Israel also ratcheted up the rhetoric, with Defense Minister Amir Peretz warning on Monday that every vehicle carrying a Hizballah-bound weapon from Syria would be targeted. Still, despite the mounting tension, neither side is looking for a fight.

Israel, facing an unexpectedly tough slog in Lebanon, wants to avoid war with Syria; the weekend moves came, officials say, because they worry Assad is too unpredictable, and his allies too radical, to ignore. (Even as Peretz announced the new bombing regime on the Lebanese-Syrian border, he insisted that the Israelis had "no intention to open a new front with Syria.") "This is not a fight Olmert is looking for at the moment," says Eyal Zisser, head of the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University. The IDF would undoubtedly win, he says. But badly needed resources and attention would be diverted from the battle with Hizballah in southern Lebanon. Israelis don't want to embark on a regime-change experiment when the most likely replacement at this point is an Islamic theocracy.

Damascus, for its part, is more than happy to avoid a punishing bout with the IDF. Despite tough talk, Syrian officials know their military is no match for the Israeli army — their antiquated weaponry and training can't compete with Israel's. That may be why Assad, in a previously scheduled speech hours after the Masnaa attacks, made no mention of the incidents. He may have insisted the "powers of hegemony" would not force Syria to "stop backing our brothers and the resistance," but his message to his own armed forces was confined to urging them to "pay more extensive efforts in terms of training and persistent work to reach more readiness."

While young people sporting the ubiquitous T-shirts bearing the image of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah have expressed their anger on Syria's streets, the official media was somewhat mute on events in Lebanon. In the capital the first night the border was bombed, cabdrivers and café owners knew about the hits, but they were not reported on the state-run media — typically the first to run with lurid tales of alleged Israeli aggression. Although the regime benefits domestically from its identification with the popular Hizballah, it can't afford to be dragged into war by an outraged public.

"[Assad] is very smart. Syria is not ready for war," says Syrian journalist Sami Moubayed. "But if the country is attacked, he will have no choice." Given their current limitations, Syria and Israel would certainly make for reluctant combatants — in fact, Syria is still angling to be part of any permanent Lebanese cease-fire solution. But neither of those facts would necessarily be enough to keep them from the battlefield, if there are a few more faceoffs like the one this past weekend. Experts say the odds are still against an armed clash between the two — but they aren't quite as long as they were just one week ago. "We're not looking for bloodshed. Nobody wants this," Expatriates Minister Bouthaina Sha'aban told TIME. "But if it comes to us, we will fight."