Wednesday, April 09, 2008


"No one of these things, by itself, is of very great interest. And taken together they do not provide the means for a clear forecast. Nevertheless, a series of rather ordinary events, taken together, can constitute something significant. Tensions in the Middle East are moving well beyond the normal point, and given everything that is happening, events are moving to a point where someone is likely to take military action. Whether Hezbollah will carry out a retaliatory strike or Israel a pre-emptive strike in Lebanon, or whether the Israelis’ real target is Iran, tensions systematically have been ratcheted up to the point where we, in our simple way, are beginning to wonder whether something has to give.

All together, these events are fairly extraordinary. Ignoring all rhetoric — and the Israelis have gone out of their way to say that they are not looking for a fight — it would seem that each side, but particularly the Americans and Israelis, have gone out of their way to signal that they are expecting conflict. The Syrians have also signaled that they expect conflict, and Hezbollah always claims there is about to be conflict.

What is missing is this: who will fight whom, and why, and why now. The simple explanation is that Israel wants a second round with Hezbollah. But while that might be true, it doesn’t explain everything else that has happened. Most important, it doesn’t explain the simultaneous revelations about the bombing of Syria. It also doesn’t explain the U.S. naval deployment. Is the United States about to get involved in a war with Hezbollah, a war that the Israelis should handle themselves? Are the Israelis going to topple Syrian President Bashar al Assad — and then wind up with a Sunni government, or worse, an Israeli occupation of Syria? None of that makes a lot of sense".

George Friedman, "A Mystery in the Middle East", 9 April, in

"Two important headlines appeared in the official Syrian press last Thursday. A day after the big scare that engulfed the Israeli media, which reported on the possibility of war with Syria, the calling up of armored divisions and the movement of large military units that could not be explained, Bashar Assad had different worries: He issued an important decree on the supervision of construction irregularities in Syria.

Another report dealt with the great success of the Arab League summit in Damascus. Editorials in Syria discussed peace between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the need for an Arab embargo on Israel, which is not willing to adopt the Arab peace initiative. War between Syria and Israel? An Israeli attack on Syria? Readiness for a conflagration this summer? Not a word.

In Israel, on the other hand, there was fear and trepidation. Once more the magic word is whispered: miscalculation. In other words, if Assad doesn't comprehend Israel's moves, or Israel fails to understand Assad's moves, or Hezbollah does not understand Israel's intent, suddenly a shot is fired, a shell, a counteraction, and suddenly, with no intention, there is a regional war. So the generals and political advisers are rushing to calm things down, rushed messages are issued to and from Damascus: Everything to make it clear that there is no - definitely no - room for worries. Maybe it will be a different war, but not one of miscalculation. Not this time.

The question isn't whether Syria is sufficiently strong to embark on a war with Israel, or whether Israel is prepared to respond, because Syria had gone to wars with Israel when it seemed it was not ready for them. And Israel, too, went to war a year and a half ago when it was not prepared. Israel's deterrent force also is not enough, because if Syria had really moved divisions to the border, that would have signaled that Israel's deterrent strength does not have an effect on it.

The point is the ease with which the mercury rises in the war thermometer between the two countries; even worse is the absence of a real mechanism for preventing such a miscalculation. The reason for this lies in the Israeli paradox that stems from a serious absence of common sense. It argues that as long as Syria is very weak it poses no threat, so there is no need to make peace with it. But if Syria is really a threat and is planning war, what is the meaning of the panic that miscalculation may lead to war? The other side of that paradox states that only when Syria is powerful and threatening is it worthwhile to make peace....

The result is that Israel is seeking an appropriate tactical return for peace with Syria. Peace in and of itself is simply not "worth it." Peace with an Arab state that also affects Hezbollah, controls events in Lebanon, has close ties with Iran and close allies like Turkey, is party to the Arab initiative and will announce in advance any military maneuver it plans to carry out, and would invite Israeli observers - peace with such a state is considered by Israel as an empty peace.

Israel first wants a strategic change in the Middle East - that Iran breaks ties with Syria, that the Hamas leadership is evicted from Damascus, and that Hassan Nasrallah converts to Judaism. Only then will it "grant" Syria peace. Peace with Syria according to Israel needs to be a not-very-significant by-product, instead of the means by which strategic change is brought about".

Zvi Bar'el, "Ready for everything except peace,"

As students of European diplomacy in the 19th century know quite well, the 'war-in-sight' crisis, was a diplomatic event which occurred in 1875. In which a perceived threat of war by Germany on France, mistakenly lead to a real diplomatic crisis. Which was (understandably enough) soon smoothed over by Bismark. In the case of the Near East at the moment, the question is whether prognosises such as made by Dr. Friedman in his weekly column, in the American online journal, have any degree of validity. Is there a danger of war between Syria and Israel? Or alternatively is there a danger of a rematch between Tel Aviv and Hezbollah? On both counts, I foresee, little likelihood of any real armed conflict occurring. The reasons for which are purely internal to all three parties: der primat der Innenpolitik. The primacy of internal politics. In the case of Israel: the government of Omert is weak, and growing weaker by the day. It lacks the legitimacy to go to war, especially considering the fiasco of the Lebanon War of 2006. It is in essence a government just waiting to be kicked out. And, it also lacks the energy and the determination (genius and dynamism if you like) exhibited by Israeli leaders thirty, forty or fifty years ago, to take any perceived threats by the throat and throttle them. The Israel which was capable of doing that, is dead, completely passed away.

In the case of Damascus, the above circumstances are equally if not more strongly present: the Assad regime is completely incapable of taking any bold steps which might have the end result of a defeat on the battlefield, and, thus quite soon leading to the toppling of the regime from within by the Islamic opposition. One of the reasons, no doubt that Tel Aviv has never exhibited any enthusiasm about the American policy of 'overthrow' vis-`a-vis Damascus, that our neo-conservative ideologues in the USA are so fond of. As the widely acclaimed American academic and Syrian-watcher, Joshua Landis has noted, the current priority of the regime is Damascus is survival: pur et simple. Everything else is secondary. Of course, if the opportunity were to present itself, for Syria to regain the Golan Heights, gratis, of course Assad would jump at the chance. But, unfortunately, there is scant signs that Tel Aviv is interested in so assisting Assad in that way. At least not yet. The upshot here is that the situation is the same as in Tel Aviv: peace, if not at any price, than pax plus ultra. And, most definitely not bellum plus ultra.

The only party which might have a rationale to go to war, or to at least play a jeu which might have the end result of an armed conflict occurring is Hezbollah. The conflict between Hezbollah and its allies, and, the pro-Western, pro-Saudi, 14th of March Coalition government grinds on. Now it has run for almost fifteen months. With no sign of an early termination. With a deadlock between the two sides, and, with Hezbollah's laurels that it earned in the war of 2006, now tarnished by these domestic quarrels within Lebanon proper, it could be argued that Hezbollah might, just might, seek to again earn the political triumph that it earned in both Lebanon proper and in the wider Arab world by again staging a conflict with Israel. Especially if the regime of Mullah's in Persia were to agree to provide support for such a venture. The only problem with this analysis, is that with the NATO force south of the Litani River, it would be highly difficult for Hezbollah to restage its opening moves of 2006 again. At the very least, Hezbollah would have to stage attacks on the European-NATO forces and kick them out, prior to staging any attacks on Israel proper. So far, remarkably so in fact, Hezbollah has left the peace keeping forces in the South of Lebanon completely alone. Unless that were to change, I cannot see any likelihood of Hezbollah wanting to re-start any conflict with Tel Aviv anytime soon.

In short, it is my considered judgment that the overall situation is not yet, I repeat yet, properly prepared for a military conflict between these three powers. None of them, have in reality embarked on any of the opening actions or moves which would make the possibilities of military action plausible or likely. Until that does occur, I suggest that unlike say in 1875, the current, mini-'kreig-in-sight' crisis is a non-crisis and a non-event. Which considering everything else going on in the Near East is a very good thing indeed.


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