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    Middle East
     Feb 9, 2010
Israeli case for war with Syria - and Lebanon
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The Middle East seemed to snowball into crisis last week, as war threats were fired back and forth between Syria and Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman triggered the conflict on Thursday by saying that if war were to break out, the Syrians would lose, prompting Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem to respond that Israeli cities would not be spared by Syria.

He described the Israelis as "thugs" and said that a new regional war would kill whatever chances there were of returning to the peace process. Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari made similar statements, saying that Israel would live to regret a war with Syria, while Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told his

  

troops to prepare for war with Damascus should peace efforts fail.

Trying to defuse the crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that war was not imminent. Speaking at his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that Israel desired peace "with all its neighbors", adding, "We did it with Egypt and Jordan, and we want to achieve similar agreements with the Palestinians and the Syrians. I hope that we are on the brink of renewing negotiations with the Palestinians, and we are open to renewing the process with the Syrians as well."

A quick read through Middle East history proves that when such talk flows back and forth through the mass media, the chances of a real war are actually very low. Countries in a permanent state of war do not inform one another before attacking, preferring to surprise their enemy during combat, rather than give them an early warning, as was the case during the October war of 1973.

If a Syrian-Israeli war is on nobody's agenda, why have war drums been beating for the past week?

One reason is that hardliners in the Netanyahu cabinet like Lieberman, who have no faith in the peace process, would like to see Israel go to war with a traditional enemy such as Syria. They blame Syria for many of Israel's misfortunes and its losses both in the Lebanon war of 2006 and the Gaza war of 2008-2009.

Lieberman, who has little say in matters of both peace and war, feels increasingly sidelined by Netanyahu and Barak, the two men who effectively handle Israel's foreign relations, although Lieberman remains officially foreign minister. All the same, Lieberman's hardline policies place Israel on a dangerous collision course with the entire Arab neighborhood. Wiser and more experienced Israeli statesmen, like President Shimon Peres and the prime minister, certainly do not want war with Syria, knowing how painful it would be to have Syrian missiles landing on Israeli cities.

They realize that such a war would enrage regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, isolating Israel in the international community. The Israeli state has still not recovered from the very bad publicity it got from the United Nations-mandated Goldstone Report, which accused the Israel Defense Forces - along with Hamas - of war crimes in Gaza in 2008. It is one thing to justify a war against non-state players like Hezbollah and Hamas, peddling an argument that can easily sell with the Israeli public, but completely different to do so with a powerful regional heavyweight like Syria.

Another reason the war rhetoric surfaced links directly to Lebanon. For months, the world has watched threats go back and forth between Israel and Hezbollah. Many believed that the war of 2006 was not over, given that none of Israel's declared objectives had been achieved. Israel promised to liberate two soldiers captured by Hezbollah and then exterminate the Lebanese group, which has been a thorn in Israel's side since 1982.

Not only did Israel fail in all of the above, but far from being weakened, Hezbollah emerged from 2006 stronger than before, both in terms of popularity on the Arab and Muslim street, and in terms of military might. It won all of its contested seats in the 2009 parliamentary elections and got all that it wanted in the cabinet of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, forming a strong representation with its ally, the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun.

Netanyahu, who is a strong advocate of war with Iran, cannot tolerate the existence of Hezbollah. Such a powerful player in the Middle East, so independent from US control and so dangerous to the state of Israel, is a nightmare for the Israeli public. By not winning in 2006, many Israelis believe that Israel lost the war with Hezbollah.

In 1973, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was forced to resign, not for losing a war against Syria and Egypt, but simply for not winning. The same applied to ex-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who failed to win the war either in Lebanon in 2006 or in Gaza in 2008. Netanyahu needs another round with Lebanon to right the wrongs done to the military under his predecessor. Not only would that empower him domestically and in the international community, it would also make him stronger in any peace talks forced on him by the United States.

Top officials in Israel have therefore been itching for a new war with Lebanon. They let off a trial balloon to see how Hezbollah would react to threats and received a very aggressive response from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who in thundering back-to-back speeches repeated earlier threats that he was willing to strike at "Haifa and beyond Haifa", referring to the northern Israeli port city.

Within Israel itself there is a widespread belief that there should be another war with Hezbollah soon. There are fears, however, that the time is not ripe, not knowing how Iran would react if such a conflict erupted, realizing as well that the US is not too enthusiastic about such an adventure, with its troops still grounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, to divert attention from the potentially explosive situation on the borders with Lebanon, top Israeli officials decided to fire empty threats at the Syrians - never really convinced, however, that they wanted or were capable of a new war with Damascus.

Having that said, nobody can rule out the possibility of another war with Lebanon, which many analysts are predicting might happen this summer. War with Syria, however, would be too dangerous for Israel and too costly for the entire Middle East.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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