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Dr Boaz Ganor Photo: Niv Calderon
Dr Boaz Ganor Photo: Niv Calderon

Possible scenarios for Syrian response

So what is really happening in Damascus following reported violation of airspace by Israeli aircraft? Dr Boaz Ganor details Syria's options

Roee Nahmias
Published: 09.10.07, 12:41 / Israel Opinion

A foreigner watching the Syrian newscast Sunday evening would never have guessed that the political echelon in the country was worried about something which took place several days earlier.


It was a seemingly regular newscast, which began with a detailed review of President Bashar Assad's daily activities, focusing on a tour of factories in the city of Tartous.


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'Israel tried to attack Syria – but failed' / Roee Nahmias
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But something is going on. On Saturday evening, Vice President Farouk al-Shara promised that Syria's response to Thursday's vague incident was forthcoming.


On Monday morning it was reported that Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem had left on an urgent visit to Ankara, carrying a personal message from President Assad to the Turkish leaders. Meanwhile, according to unconfirmed reports, Syria has begun calling up reserve forces.


Assuming that Israel did do something on Syrian soil, Assad may be facing a problem. Only recently he reiterated his promise that should there be no progress in the negotiations with Israel, the "resistance option" would be seriously considered, and that was not the first time the Syrian president conveyed that message. Now it is possible that that same message would force him to retaliate.


So what are Syria's options? Dr Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya, details them, from the simple to the most complicated one.


"The Syrians have a variety of possibilities to operate against Israel, from urging Hizbullah to heat up the northern border through one action or another, through another attempt to kidnap soldiers to high-trajectory fire directed at Israel."


Messengers: Palestinian groups in Damascus

"Secondly, they can activate the Palestinian organizations operating from Damascus and supported by them, headed by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, but also other organizations, such as George Habash's Popular Front and Ahmed Jibril's Democratic Front. They could particularly use the first two organizations in order to try and carry out terror attacks in the territories or inside Israel.


"The Syrians' third option is the escalation model used by Hizbullah in the past, following the assassination of their previous secretary-general, Abbas Musawi. I am talking about activities against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, like the terror attacks carried out in Buenos Aires against the Jewish community in the 1990s. They could do this either by activating activists who follow their orders, or by using Syrian intelligence sources according to plans carried out in the past."


According to Dr Ganor, the last option the Syrians are left with is to escalate the situation on a level of a state versus a state or an army versus an army – in other words, heating up the Golan Heights.


"The Syrians have recently used this threat against Israel, and have warned that if it fails to advance the negotiations channel, 'local organizations' may operate against it," Dr Ganor explains.


"In such a situation, we may see independent activities by some militia elements, but it will clearly be guided by the Syrians. In addition, groups among the pro-Syrian Druze on the Golan Heights may be used or pushed, not necessarily for terror activities, but for violent protests. The end of the scale in terms of options is a direct conflict of an army versus an army, but the likelihood for that is not high."


'Syrians are using right judgment'

Dr Ganor chooses not to predict what the Syrian response will be, but at the same time notes that the Syrian conduct so far testifies to the fact that they are seriously examining all the options.


"I believe the way the Syrians are handling the issue is right as far as they are concerned. I was critical of the Israeli government during the Second Lebanon War for taking an instinctive and immediate action, instead of doing what the Syrians are doing now: Declaring that they view this as an act of war and will respond what the time is right, and meanwhile choosing the best alternative.


"This is a right use of judgment, as well as a result of a surprise in light of the reality created, because had it been the move they are expecting, it is reasonable to assume that they would have had a ready response. This proves that Damascus is using judgment."


And yet, after all of Assad's declarations, doesn’t he find himself now in a position in which he must act as he promised?


"At the end of the day, collective memory is short. In a certain aspect, Assad did tie himself down, but if he decides to withdraw and not respond, he will be able to withdraw from this declaration, as past experience shows. In any event, the Syrians have decided to take the time to consider a possibility of responding, and they might definitely decide to respond."


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