Ready for Another Mideast War?


Sep 20, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on September 20, 2007.

On Sept. 6, Israeli aircraft bombed Syria and also seem to have violated Turkish airspace. So far, the Israeli government has offered no explanation. Does this mean we on the verge of another Middle East war, to accompany those underway, recently suspended, or in the offing in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza?

Is the United States trying to head off this latest conflict, or has it given Israel the green light?

Of course, Israel has a good case for bombing Syria. The Syrians are helping resupply Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon so that they might at some point begin lobbing rockets at Israel. But then Israel and Syria have never lacked for reasons to go to war. Israel, for example, has occupied a substantial chunk of Syrian territory since 1973. So the issue is not whether one or the other is justified in going to war, but rather what either can hope to gain from one.

On the face of it, neither country has anything to gain from war, since neither can possibly prevail. Syria is too weak reconquer its lost territory and Israel is too small to take and hold much more of Syria.

Both, however, have more subtle objectives in view. Israel wants to restore the prestige and deterrent credibility lost last year in its ill-conceived invasion of Lebanon. Syria wants to sustain pressure upon Israel via its Lebanese proxies with a view to boosting its stature in the region and ultimately ending the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.

The real issue is what Washington has to gain from another Middle East war. The Bush administration has acknowledged that Israel attacked Syria last week, but has not given any indication that the United States sought to prevent it, or discourage a repetition.

That Israel was considering such an attack has been widely known in official circles for several months, so Washington could have weighed in with Tel Aviv had it chosen to do so.

Unnamed American officials have been quoted suggesting that Syria has a nuclear weapons program. So does Israel, of course. That Syria could hide such an activity for any length of time does seem improbable.

The world had decades of notice regarding the Indian, Pakistani, Iranian and North Korean programs before they reached fruition. It would be quite surprising if Syria were anywhere close to acquiring and mastering the needed technologies. Maybe North Korea has gone into the business of selling ready-made bombs, but that too seems unlikely.

In any case, one would like to know more.

In the run up to last year's Israeli attack on Lebanon, which was sparked by Hezbollah's cross-border raid and capture of an Israeli army soldier, the White House is reported to have actually encouraged an invasion. It has also been widely reported that the Bush administration has discouraged any discussions between the Israeli and Syrian governments designed to address the issues at the heart of their conflict, most notably recovery of the Golan Heights.

Given this recent history, it is reasonable to ask what, if any, signal the Bush administration sent leading up to, or in reaction to, this latest attack.

The American people have been understandably focused on the war in Iraq over the past weeks.

It is important to recognize, however, that Iraq is only one of half a dozen civil and international conflicts that are underway, in tenuous suspension, or in prospect throughout that region.

A Middle East literally in flames from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean is by no means a distant or unrealistic prospect. So finding out exactly what the United States is doing to forestall a war between Israel and Syria would seem important.

James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state, directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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