October 06, 2003

The Israeli Strike on Syria

The Israeli Strike on Syria

It's perhaps a bit early to get too worked up about this strike. For one, the target in question appears to have been pretty much deserted.

Put differently, the IDF didn't intend to inflict human casualties on Syrian soil with this strike. It was meant as a carefully calibrated action meant as a signal to Syria to reduce cooperation with the likes of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Still, what appears carefully calibrated to one side can appear a reckless provocation to another. This was the first attack this deep in Syria for three decades.

Bashar Asad knows that he has no satisfactory military option. The Israelis have overwheming military superiority. Still, he might allow Hezbollah to pursue rocket attacks and the like from southern Lebanon (a front that has been relatively quiet recently despite the continuing violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories). It's not hard to see how, pursuant to robust Israeli responses to such attacks, a more significant escalation could occur in the coming weeks.

I'm also worried about whether Tel Aviv is signaling a change of strategy going forward. Over the weekend, both Dore Gold and another Israeli spokesman made mention of an "axis of terror" involving Syria, Iran and Gaza.

The undertone of the message is pretty obvious. If the U.S. has its "axis of evil"--and feels it can pursue its national security interests vigorously vis-a-vis the axis countries--so can Israel with its "axis of terror."

But as Arik Sharon contemplates further moves he should recall that, to date, the U.S. hasn't pursued military action in two of the charter "axis of evil" countries--Iran and NoKo--preferring to employ diplomatic pressure. And the Administration, while not explicity condemning the Israeli action--has pretty much made it clear that further attacks on Syria would be counterproductive.

Indeed, the Administration has sought to distance itself from the attack a bit by stating that it had no foreknowledge of the planned Israeli strike. Still, the Administration's reaction has been perceived as something of a blinking green light extended to the Israelis--especially in the Arab world--where conspiracy theories run rife and few think Sharon would have attacked Syria without prior approval from Washington.

We have no way of knowing what Bush has communicated privately to Sharon. But I would suspect that he has indicated that further military action by Israel in Syria would negatively impact U.S. interests in the region. For one, it would make it more difficult to ask Bashar Asad to seal his border with Iraq if he needs to be concerned about a possible conflagration on the Israeli border. For another, there will be a perception that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has emboldened the Israelis to violate Syrian sovereignty for the first time in decades. This would further antagonize Arab public opinion.

For such reasons, it would be a mistake if the Israelis feel they have a green light from the U.S. to pursue more significant strikes on Syria. If that were to occur, Asad would be compelled to respond in a manner more forceful than callling a UNSC special session and perhaps turning on the spigot of Hezbollah activity in southern Lebanon.

The risk of a regional war would thereby be significantly enhanced. If history is any guide, there's been one about every decade (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982). All parties should do their best to help prevent another one. Avoiding further attacks on Syrian territory would be a good start from the Israeli side. And Syria making more stolid moves on closure of Jihad Islami and Hamas offices in Syria would be another.

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