As the conflict with Hizbullah in Lebanon escalates by the day, the question of Syria's involvement in the conflict becomes increasingly more relevant.
"The atmosphere in Syria is in every way an atmosphere of war, or at least of the eve of war. Syrian television for the first time since the '80's has started broadcasting Syrian military marches and nationalistic songs. There is not difference between Syrian television broadcasts and Al-Manar broadcasts of the Hizbullah. The broadcasts are in preparation for war, as if Syria is involved in this war, or is going to be involved at any moment. The local newspapers and the television are conducting themselves as if they are preparing the Syrian public for war."
These comments were made by a senior Syrian journalist in a telephone interview from Damascus. It isn't easy these days of war that they don't have there, to convince a Syrian to accept an interview with the Israeli media, even when we're not there. One must remember that each side has his messages to transmit. And yet, the picture sketched by this senior journalist reveals the great concern in Damascus about the operations of Israel – and definitively paints a picture of preparedness for war. A conversation with an interviewee beyond the Golan.
Damascus rally in support of Hizbullah (Photo: AP)
In Israel there is talk that Syria and her army have considerably raised their alert since the start of fighting in Lebanon. Is this indeed the reality there?
"This, in my opinion, is the reality where you are. The Syrian army has identified intensive activity of the Israeli army on the Golan Heights. At first they identified lights on some of the bases at night in Syria. We have noticed a rehabilitation and revival of the Israeli military bases on the Golan on which no one has set foot for more than ten years. We see Israeli soldiers rehabilitating these bases and equipping them."
Paranthetically, it should be mentioned in this article that from the beginning of IDF operations in Lebanon, the level of preparedness on the Golan Heights has been raised noticeably along the border between Syria and Israel. The IDF estimated that the Hizbullah has an interest of bringing Syria into the confrontation, and that the organization would not be loathe to launching Katyushas at the Golan Heights. However, Israel has openly declared that Damascus is out of the game at this point and that there is no intention to confront Syria. With this, the IDF heightened its intelligence alertness along the border, including a larger-than-usual military presence meant to respond to any development in the region.
Beyond the pre-war atmosphere that you described, is there deployment for war or concrete steps of the government and army towards the possibility that Syria will become part of the war?
"I can't say if the army is taking practical steps to prepare for such an option, but what is certain is that Syria has consolidated once and for all the stance that the current situation, especially the occupation of the Golan, needs to stop. If there will be a solution to the current war in Lebanon, we must be part of this solution. And that means negotiation and returning the Golan to the Syrians. And if there won't be a solution, the stance is that we must prepare to liberate the Golan through different means – there aren't many other ways."
How does the Syrian government respond to the accusations of sources in the IDF and in Israel that Syria isn't only aiding the Iranians to transfer weapons to the Hizbullah, but is contributing herself to the arming of Hizbullah with Syrian rockets?
"All the senior and official representatives who have been asked to respond to these accusations have stridently denied them. The official stance, and this is the truth, is that the trucks passing through that the Israeli army is bombing, are trucks for humanitarian aid, carrying food, equipment, and donations that the Syrian people raised or aid from other countries that arrives through Syria. For instance, one of the convoys that was bombed was a convoy of ambulances from the Emirates in the Gulf that was designated for the Lebanese people."
The Syrian journalist also claims that the nature of the explosions testify to the fact that the trucks were not carrying rockets, ammunition, or explosives. "True, there was one time that the explosion was different than the regular ones. This happened when Israeli planes bombed trucks carrying car oil. Then the explosion was different. Syrian television was the first to photograph this explosion. Would they have photographed if Syria had something to hide?
Is Syria ready for a script in which it assists the US to stop the Hizbullah in exchange for a return of Syrian influence in Lebanon and cancellation of anti-Syrian sanctions?
"Whoever has followed the mood in the government and in the Syrian street after the completion of the withdrawal from Lebanon, understands that the emphasis today from the perspective of the government and the Syrian people is on the Golan and the need to return it to Syria – and less on Lebanon."
So, how do you explain that many in Israel and in the world see Syria as a key to solving the current conflict?
"That is because of the special relationship between Syria and the Hizbullah. These are excellent relations, but Syria today doesn't enjoy the same influence over them that they did in the past."
Hanging Nasrallah's picture in Syria (Photo: AP)
As an example of the great fondness of Syrians for the Hizbullah, the Syrian journalist brings the following story: "In Syria, it is customary in homes, businesses, and shops to hang pictures of the president's family. A picture of the late president Hafez Assad in the center, to the left a picture of the current president, Dr. Bashar, and to the right a picture of the slain son Bassal, the president's brother, whom the Syrian people loved very much.
"But today, especially since the outbreak of fighting, the phenomenon gaining momentum is to swap the picture of the beloved Bassal with a picture of Hassan Nasrallah. This is to express how much we in Syria love and appreciate what Nasrallah has done for the Arab nation. Not for a specific community, not for his country, but for the entire Arab nation."
In Israel there is talk that the current war is a war of the home front and of the patience of the simple people for a continuation of the war situation. We hope that the rest of the war, especially the crushing air strikes and the destruction they wreak, will bring about an uprising of the Lebanese public against Hizbullah that will compel them to stop firing.
"Whoever says that doesn't know Lebanon and her population and hasn't been following the political developments in the period before the war. The Hizbullah's Shiite community is the largest community in Lebanon. Many Sunnis also support Hizbullah. Also, Hizbullah enjoys broad support in the most important section of the Christian population, that which is represented by the general, Michel Aoun, who won the majority of the Christian votes in parliamentary elections."
"We see, for example, Walid Junblatt, who severely criticized the events of the first few days, is the one who today provides cover and aid for thousands of refugees in his area of Mount Lebanon. He does this not only out of humanitarian motives, but also to improve his image a little in Lebanon.
"Even Hariri's representatives and their supporters adopting a similar approach and are dealing with humanitarian aid in order to weaken the criticism they gave at first. At the current time, the social fabric in Lebanon is rallying more and more around support for Hizbullah, giving them the necessary strength to continue this fight."
Hanan Greenberg contributed to the report