Page 1 of 2 Syria and Israel flirt with war
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Israel developed a regular habit of
violating Syrian airspace to deter the Syrians from supporting the Egyptian
army. The Syrians did not have radar at the time, so air force commander Wadih
al-Muqabari developed a scheme whereby police stations around the country were
linked by a 24-hour hotline to army headquarters in Damascus.
On spotting an Israeli warplane in Syrian skies, police personnel would phone
their superiors and report its direction, elevation and
estimated speed. Army headquarters would immediately call the nearest police
station to track it further, then send Syrian warplanes to bring it down or
chase it away.
On one such occasion, five Syrian aircraft set out for an operation that
included a young pilot, future president Hafez al-Assad. They were prevented
from bringing down the Israeli plane, although Assad had it in shooting range,
because it was flying over Turkish territory. The same plane violated Syrian
airspace later in the day. Another five-plane team set out, and the Israeli jet
was downed on the Lebanese border by an officer named Louis Dakar. The pilot
ejected, and the co-pilot was killed. When interrogated by the Lebanese, the
Israeli pilot said there was a 1% chance of his plane being downed by the
Syrians. The fact that they had succeeded meant that the Syrian army was
"dangerous" for Israel.
That was 51 years ago.
Last week, four Israeli warplanes invaded Syrian airspace after midnight on
September 6, breaking the sound barrier, and reaching as far as the village of
Tal Abyad in the vicinity of Deir al-Zour, about 160 kilometers north of the
city of Raqqa. A military source in Syria was quoted saying that the Israelis
violated Syrian airspace "through the southern border, coming from the
Mediterranean front toward the northeastern one".
Syrian defenses confronted the Israeli planes, forcing them to drop their fuel
and ammunition so they could fly higher and faster and escape. "We warn the
Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act, and retain the
right to respond in an appropriate way," the military spokesman said. Witnesses
reported seeing the warplanes at about 1:30am, but thought they were US ones,
The news caused a stir around the world, although it was pretty much expected
by observers of the Syrian-Israeli front. There has been much speculation about
an outbreak of hostilities between Damascus and Israel since June. Both
countries had been mobilizing troops, raising the prospects of war, until
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak came out one week before the military
operation saying his country was going to withdraw its troops from the Golan
border. Israel captured the Golan Heights in 1967 in the Six Day War and, since
then, the countries have been in bitter dispute.
War was not an option, the Israeli minister seemed to be saying. He added that
mobilization raised the risk of an "accidental incident" between both armies,
something that Israel wanted to avoid. For their part, the Syrians have
been saying that their strategic choice is peace - not war - with Israel,
reminding the world on every possible occasion that they had engaged in the
peace process, under US auspices, for 15 years.
If both countries want peace, as the official version implies, then what
exactly happened on September 6? One theory says Israel wanted to test Syrian
defenses, especially after reports that Damascus had received new ballistic
missiles from Russia. The objectives of the intrusion would be to "feel the
waters" before Israel actually engaged in war with the Syrians. This was
seconded by Israeli counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor, who said his country
was "collecting intelligence on long-range missiles" deployed by Syria in the
A second theory - less credible - claims that Israel wanted to see whether its
warplanes could reach Iran without being spotted by Syrian radar. This was in
preparation for an upcoming war that Israel expects between the US and
A third theory claims that Israel was searching for military training bases for
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. A fourth claims that the operation was
nothing more than a provocation aimed at showing the Syrians that the Israel
Defense Forces (IDF) were on alert and had "recovered" from their summer war
with Hezbollah last year. The Israelis wanted to see how Syria would respond.
Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Shara, on a state visit to Rome, told the
Italian daily La Repubblica, "All I can say is that the military and political
echelon is looking into a series of responses as we speak. Results are
When asked what kind of retaliation was expected from the Syrians, he replied:
"I cannot reveal details." The journalist then spoke about an appeal from
Israeli President Shimon Peres to Syria, to which Shara responded: "Excuse me
for smiling. The talks about peace are a disguise for blatant aggression.
Israel's responses in light of the aircraft infiltration are amazing, with
[Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert saying he knows nothing about it."
Other swift responses came from Syria's main allies, Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The Turks even summoned Israel's ambassador to Ankara and protested the Israeli
aggression. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki contacted his Syrian
counterpart Walid al-Mouallem, expressing his country's willingness to stand by
Damascus. The Russians said the violation was "unacceptable" and condemned it,
while the Turks said they were "worried".
The United States, surprisingly, had no comment on the entire ordeal. What
makes the crisis all the more troubling is the Israeli silence. Neither cabinet
ministers nor IDF sources, or even the Prime Minister's Office, have commented
on the intrusion. They have neither confirmed nor denied it, although in the
past Israel trumpets when it performs such an operation, either in Syria or
Lebanon. The last time its warplanes ripped through Syrian skies was in June
Before that, they had hit the Syrian village of Ain al-Saheb, near Damascus, in
October 2003. According to the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat, whose Syria
correspondent Ibrahim al-Hamidi is a well-informed source on his country's
foreign policy, Syria believes that the operation was a "diplomatic and
military experiment" to test how Syria would react. The paper adds that Syria's
warning to retaliate as it sees fit was "serious, deterring and
The Syrians are aware that Olmert is in a difficult position, imposed on him by
the less-than-satisfying results of the Israeli war on Lebanon in July-August
2006. In that war - unlike any other in Israel's history since 1948 - none of
the Jewish state's objectives was met. They said they were invading Lebanon to
rescue two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah. Today, more than one year
later, the two soldiers remain in Hezbollah captivity. Israel said it would
crush the Lebanese military group, but Hezbollah remains alive and kicking and,
according both to its own reports and to those of Western observers, has
managed to rearm itself, with an arsenal that is larger than the one it
possessed at the start of the war in July 2006.
Olmert understands all of these difficult realities, and so does the Israeli
public, which holds him and his team accountable for the ill-fated Lebanon
adventure. With such a defeat on his record, the Israeli prime minister cannot
possible talk peace with the Syrians - or anyone else. He needs to obtain his
war medals to "right the