This has been a banner week for Syrian diplomacy. First, together with their big Iranian brothers, the Syrians were given a place at the table alongside US officials at the conference on Iraqi security in Baghdad last weekend.
At the same time as their underlings exchanged recriminations with the US, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Muhammad Najjar merged the Syrian and Iranian militaries at a summit in Damascus. On Sunday Najjar explained the deal to reporters saying, "We consider the capability of the Syrian defensive forces as our own and believe that expansion of defensive ties would … help deal with the threats of the enemies." Najjar added that Iran "offers all of its defense capabilities to Syria." The meeting was capped off on Monday when Najjar signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation with his Syrian counterpart Hassan Turkmeni.
Tuesday, US Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees Ellen Sauerbrey became the first senior US official to visit Syria since Damascus engineered former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in February 2005.
Following closely on Sauerbrey's heels was the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Like Sauerbrey, Solana was the first senior EU official to set foot in the Syrian capital since Hariri was murdered. Unlike Sauerbrey, who came and left without making a sound, Solana used the occasion to drop a diplomatic bomb.
Standing next to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem Wednesday, Solana announced, "We would like to work as much as possible to see your country Syria recuperate the territory taken in 1967."
Israel should be very concerned by Solana's statement. Seventeen years ago, an American diplomat made a similar statement to another Arab dictator. It was swiftly followed by war.
On July 25, 1990 then US ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie held a fateful meeting with Saddam Hussein. It occurred against the backdrop of a massive Iraqi military build-up along the Kuwaiti border. Glaspie received a cagey and defensive reply from Saddam when she asked the meaning of the deployment. According to the protocol of the meeting which she sent that day to Washington, Glaspie told Saddam that the US took no position on intra-Arab disputes.
At the time, and since, the common view has been that Saddam interpreted Glaspie's statement as American acquiescence to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait which took place eight days later.
Solana's statement that Europe supports the reassertion of Syrian control over the Golan Heights came in the midst of a massive Syrian deployment of offensive weapons systems close to its border with Israel. Early this week, Israeli military commanders revealed that since last September, Syria has deployed between 1,000 and 3,000 missiles and rockets close to that border.
This revelation followed the apparent murder of Russian journalist Ivan Safronov. Safronov, who fell to his death from his fifth floor apartment window in Moscow on March 2, told his editors at the Kommersant newspaper just before his death that he was working on a story exposing Russian sales of advanced Iskander missiles to Syria and jetfighters to Iran.
This week, Michael Maples, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, announced that "Syria has a program to develop select biological agents." Maples explained, "Syria's biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting limited biological agent development." He added that Syria is seeking to install biological and chemical warheads on its missile arsenal.
Indeed, according to opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, over the past year Syria has increased its military outlays by a factor of ten.
Syria is using the smokescreen of near weekly protestations of interest in negotiating with Israel to divert attention away from its clear preparations for war. Rather than see these statements for the psychological warfare antics they are, Israeli leftists have pounced on them. Led by Haaretz newspaper, the Israeli Left is exerting massive pressure on the rudderless Olmert-Livni-Peretz government to force it to open negotiations with Damascus – negotiations that would lead to Israel's surrender of the Golan Heights in exchange for a piece of paper from Iran's Arab colony.
Due to the government's general incompetence, it is unable to formulate a coherent policy towards Syria. The Left's calls for surrender talks consequently dominate the public debate on Syria. This in turn has paralyzed the state bodies responsible for taking measures to prepare the IDF and the public for the prospect of war.
The IDF's public assessment of the Syrian threat is evidence of the confusion. Last month, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin addressed the Syrian threat at the government's intelligence assessment meeting. Yadlin said, "The chances of a full-scale war initiated by Syria are low, but the chances of Syria reacting militarily against Israeli military moves are high."
Yadlin's statement was presented to the public as good news. But it was not good news. Syria will not initiate a full-scale war against Israel because it would lose a full-scale war. Syria's comparative advantage against the IDF is found in the area of low-intensity warfare. And as Yadlin noted, there is every reason to expect that it is this sort of warfare that Syria is preparing to initiate.
Over the past several years, Syria has built up massive artillery, missile and rocket arsenals capable of causing extensive damage to the IDF and to Israeli communities in the Golan Heights and the Galilee. So too, Syria fields a highly trained commando corps capable of exacting physical losses and tactical setbacks to the IDF.
Syria has two good reasons to go to war against Israel. Since 1973, every Arab state and terrorist organization that has gone to war against Israel has benefited from their aggression. Syria no doubt expects for the pattern to continue. In all likelihood, if Syria is able to fight Israel to a stalemate as Hizbullah did last summer, the Israeli Left, the EU and the US can be expected to increase their pressure for an Israeli surrender of the Golan Heights.
Moreover, a war with Israel would shore up Assad's dwindling support at home. Sherko Abbas, a Kurdish-Syrian exile living in the US, heads the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria. He explains that due to Syria's economic weakness and the Assad government's profligate corruption, the regime is widely despised by its Syrian subjects. According to Abbas, the organized domestic opposition to the regime crosses ethnic lines and includes Kurds, Druse, Alawites, and even members of Assad's family clan.
Three years ago, regime-sponsored Sunni thugs attacked Kurdish soccer fans in Dayz az Zawr, a Kurdish city along the border with Iraq. The attack led to three days of Kurdish anti-regime riots. Rioters destroyed regime monuments and burned government offices. Brutally quelled, the riots left 85 Kurds dead, hundreds wounded and thousands imprisoned.
Numbering between 2.5-3 million, Kurds make up some 15 percent of the Syrian population. On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Kurds flocked to cemeteries to publicly commemorate the anniversary of the riots. As Abbas sees it, the fact that the Kurds were unafraid to publicly commemorate their uprising is proof of the regime's weakness.
Most Israeli politicians claim that were the regime to be overthrown, it would be replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The specter of an Islamist government arising in Syria is seen as sufficient reason for the Israeli government to do nothing to destabilize the Assad regime despite its strategic partnership with Iran.
Abbas disputes this view. He claims that the Muslim Broth
erhood is a spent force in Syria. "If the Brotherhood were capable of replacing the regime, it would have overthrown it when there was a chance in 2004," he argues.
To offset his regime's unpopularity, over the past few years Assad has imported more than 100,000 "immigrants" from Iran. These new Persian-speaking Syrians are keen to influence their adopted society. To this end, they have built new Shi'ite mosques throughout the country and are paying Syrians to convert to Shi'ite Islam.
According to Abbas, the regime has settled its new loyalists in Damascus, Latakiya, Homs and Aleppo. All these areas – in close proximity to Lebanon and Israel – are of strategic importance to the regime.
By the same token, repeated press reports from Syria over the past year indicate that Assad replaced his Syrian security detail with a new presidential protection force comprised of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hizbullah.
With Syria clearly on war footing, there are several moves Israel must make right now. Militarily, Israel must prepare for war. The IDF should be pre-positioning equipment in the Golan Heights, training its reserves and regular forces for war, and updating its doctrine for fighting in the Golan Heights. So too, municipal authorities should be readying their bomb shelters for another war and preparing contingencies to evacuate civilians from the North.
If Syria does initiate hostilities, the IDF's goal must be to destroy the Syrian military and avoid a stalemate at all costs.
Diplomatically, Israel must work to cancel the diplomatic gains that Syria made this week. The goal must be to return Syria to the international isolation it has been relegated to since it engineered Hariri's murder.
Israel must also identify and assist forces in Syria working to undermine and topple the regime. Last week the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee invited Syria's US-based agent Ibrahim Suleiman, who held contacts with the far-left former director-general of the Foreign Ministry Alon Liel, to address its members. That invitation should be rescinded. Rather than Suleiman, the Knesset should invite regime opponents to speak to its members.
Working with the Kurdish opposition, the US-based Center for Democracy in the Middle East operates a satellite television station that runs limited broadcasts into Syria in Kurdish, Arabic and Persian. The station educates its viewers about the regime's corruption, suppression of human rights and democracy. It calls for peaceful coexistence with Israel and the rest of Syria's neighbors. Israel should be helping to fund, expand and run these broadcasts.
For its part, the regime itself announced this week that it is planning to launch a satellite television station that will advance the Syrian-Iranian line to the Arab world. Imagine how refreshing it would be for audiences to have the opportunity to watch something other than jihad on television.
In all its dealings with Syria, Israel must understand that today Syria is a clear enemy whose interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the Jewish state. As a result, in all arenas and at all times, Israel should be working to weaken and destabilize the regime. There is much it can do to advance this purpose.
Unfortunately, until the current government is replaced, it is hard to imagine how this can happen.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.