Bashar Assad
Photo: AFP
Ron Ben-Yishai

Where has the tension with Syria gone?

Suspicions remain, military preparations continue, but the level of tension has dropped. How did this happen and is it likely to change again?

Only last weekend, in off-the-record conversations, government ministers were still talking of "worrying, heightened tension in the North". On Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was the first to talk of "first signs of a reduction in tension with Syria".


Now, sources in the defense establishment are talking about a real calming of the situation. But are we really talking about a meaningful change on both sides of the border?


On the ground, nothing has changed. The Syrians have not altered their military positions on the Golan or around the Damascus area; and nor have they slowed down the pace of their military hardware acquisitions; Hizbullah is continuing to rearm, building up its stock of rockets and constructing new bunkers to the north and east of the Litani River; the IDF too has not really changed its program and pace of training exercises on the Golan, not even the number of troops training there.


But despite this, something has happened over the last two weeks that has caused a drop in tension.


This "something" is a new intelligence understanding formulated, at last, in both Damascus and Jerusalem. Both capitals have apparently come to the conclusion that the other side is not looking to launch a surprise attack this summer. Suspicions remain, but the alert level has been dropped a notch or two, although not at the cost of being unprepared for a military flare-up, which is still likely to occur in the not-too-distant future.


Syrian fears of a surprise Israeli attack stemmed mainly from Iranian incitement. Tehran invested heavily in attempting to persuade Bashar Assad that Israel "will try and wipe away the stigma of its defeat in Lebanon and restore its deterrence" via a painful military strike against the Syrian regime and Hizbullah.


Damascus also identified the stepped-up IDF training exercises on the Golan as a sign of what was to come. But now, it seems, the messages that have been passed between the two capitals through diplomatic channels have done the trick.


The public statements of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Barak have also filtered through to Assad and his advisors, and convinced them that the Israeli public would not accept "a war of choice" and that the IDF, as its commanders have stated, is training so as to overcome its deficiencies.


Tone in Damascus has changed

On top of this, one should add the many messages of deterrence sent to Syria and Hizbullah, via highly publicized security cabinet meetings or visits by Israel's senior leaders to the North. These messages led the Syrians to pause for thought and consider whether it was worth their while initiating a move that would supply Israel with an excuse and opportunity to launch a military strike that was likely to threaten their regime.


A similar process took place in Israel, a mirror image of what was occurring in Syria. The first red warning light about a Syrian attack followed Syrian President Assad's threats and war-like statements immediately after the Second Lebanon War. Then came the news item that the Syrian leader was in desperate need of an accomplishment, military or diplomatic, to remove the stain among his public opinion following Syria's expulsion from Lebanon.


Negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights was likely to provide this accomplishment, and if Israel was not prepared to open talks, then a military move, even a limited one, was liable to change its mind.


Damascus also needed an event to take the world's attention away from an investigation into Syria's responsibility for the murder of Rafik al-Hariri in Lebanon, and maybe even end the legal proceedings at the United Nations.


A third factor for Israeli concern was the fast-paced Syrian arms purchases, in terms of missiles and rockets of all types, that began after the Second Lebanon War, in conjunction with stepped-up military maneuvers and preparations to launch rockets and block an Israeli armored attack in the Golan.


All these issues led Israel to fear a surprise Syrian attack, which even if it ended with only a slight Syrian success at the cost of a heavy price, would allow Assad to achieve his strategic goal.


From the beginning of the year, Israel's military intelligence estimated that Syria was not looking to start a war this summer. Its army had still not deployed all the anti-tank and anti-plane missiles it has bought from Russia with Iranian help.


Moreover, the summer weather allows Israel's planes and tanks to operate in conditions of perfect vision and no concerns of getting bogged down in the mud, and so is not the time for a military clash.


But this estimate conflicted with Syria's war-like preparations and the militant statements coming out of Damascus, and so despite the military intelligence assessment, the decision-makers in Jerusalem were not calm.


In the past few weeks, the tone in Damascus has changed. In addition, Israel has come to the conclusion that the other side is not preparing for an immediate attack – the list of "warning signals" has been reduced and, for now, it does not seem as if we are talking about a Syrian attempt to lure Israel into a sense of false security.


The IDF therefore – like the Syrian army – is continuing with its plans, but the tension has dropped. It is reasonable to assume, however, that in a few months' time, in the winter, it will rise again.


פרסום ראשון: 08.30.07, 07:13
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