Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 16, 1986, Page 1


The Syrian Connection

By Robert G. Hazo

Recent stirrings in the media about an increase in tension between Israel and Syria bring to mind the fact that a Syrian-Israeli war has been predicted by Middle East observers since the signing of the Camp David treaty. The reasoning was straightforward. Camp David, rather than starting a widening peace process, would result in nothing more than the neutralization of Egypt's deterrent role in checking Israeli adventurism. Ergo, it was only a matter of time before Israel would attempt to remove the only remaining Arab obstacle to its expansionist plans for the Golan, Southern Lebanon, and, of course, the West Bank and Gaza.

The scenario was set back somewhat by the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In that conflict there was substantial military contact between Israeli and Syrian forces, although not enough to qualify as a full-scale war. Syrian SAMs in Lebanon were destroyed and a large number of Syrian planes were shot down. On the ground, however, it was Syrian resistance during and following the invasion, Palestinian resistance during the siege of Beirut, and Lebanese Shia resistance during the latter stages of the occupation that helped make the Israeli incursion such a colossal failure. Although Israelis cite American intervention, it was, in fact, Syrian resistance, coupled with Israel's lack of realism in planning to install an unpopular minority puppet government in order to bring Lebanon under Israeli influence, that led to Israel's defeat.

After the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut, Syria played a pivotal role in supporting and orchestrating opposition to both the Gemayel government and the remaining Israeli presence in Lebanon. Much to the dismay and surprise of the Israelis, Syria emerged stronger, politically and militarily, from the whole Lebanese episode. It again became the dominant power in Lebanon and strengthened its armed forces by increasing them and by supplying them with more and better Soviet armaments. As a result, Israel now faces a much more formidable foe than in 1982.

Pushing for Parity With Israel

Syria's public position with regard to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict generally is clear. The government of President Assad is willing to engage in negotiations about the Golan Heights and even about Southern Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the context of an international conference. Until such a conference is convened, its aim is strategic parity with Israel.

There is some evidence to suggest that Syria has come some way toward the goal of parity. Syria now has some 500,000 men under arms. A large number are rigorously-trained quality troops. It has more than 4,000 tanks and a quantity of heavy artillery. It has built fortifications between the Golan and Damascus as well as defensive positions on the Lebanese and Jordanian fronts should the Israelis choose to attack Syria through those countries. Even though Israeli military personnel on active duty have increased from about 80,000 after 1973 to between 150,000 and 200,000 today, launching an Israeli ground attack would require mobilization of reserves, thus giving the Syrians additional notice. It should also be kept in mind that both sides have accurate surface-to-surface missiles capable of hitting each other's cities.

The real question about Syrian readiness concerns the air, where much or perhaps all of the battle is likely to be fought. Israeli interest in an attack now may result from Israeli knowledge of what Syria has accomplished or is about to achieve in air defense and air war, or from its ignorance about what Syria can actually do. In either case, the argument for action rests on the perception that, whatever the state of Syrian air and air defense capability, it can only improve with time.

Setting the stage for a possible Israeli attack is not difficult. The Syrians have been digging trenches for possible artillery and tank deployment for some months. These emplacements are many miles from Israel's border, well outside Israel's "security zone" in Lebanon, are clearly designed as defenses against a possible attack and remain empty. Israel, nonetheless, is suddenly making much of the "threat" such preparations pose, and has moved 50 tanks across the border into Lebanon. There is public admission of an intense debate within Israeli military and political circles about whether or not Israeli action is warranted.

In one of a series of confusing U.S. official statements, Secretary Shultz announced a "big Syrian buildup" and added ominously that if investigations pointed to Syrian involvement in terrorist incidents, "we will do something about it." Prime Minister Peres, meanwhile, denies that there is any plan to attack Syria.

Since, in attacking Libya, the U.S. seemingly has adopted the Israeli policy of military retaliation as a response to terrorism, media speculation has centered on Syria and Iran as possible future targets. Deputy Secretary of State Whitehead said "there is no reason to doubt Syrian and Libyan" complicity in both the West Berlin disco bombing and the attempt to smuggle a bomb aboard an El Al airliner in London. He admitted, however, that much of the evidence was supplied by the Israelis. As a clarification, White House spokesman Larry Speakes added the next day that the U.S. based its statement on the words of others and does not yet have "conclusive evidence" of Syrian complicity.

Though Israel would probably not ask for American military help in an attack on Syria, by making a case for Syrian sponsorship of terrorism against Americans, it is ensuring the support it would need should it decide to strike. Additional reports from Britain of possible Syrian complicity in the attempted bombing of the El A] jet, from West Germany regarding the disco bombing, and from Italy about the Rome airport attack still have not moved the Administration to make an unqualified accusation of Syria. Instead, there are statements about needing an "airtight case." As Barry Dunsmore of ABC News explained, "Whatever the evidence is for Syria being behind terrorist actions, there are very good strategic reasons" for not making an official allegation. As one State Department official put it: "Once we do, the pressure on us to take tough action will be very strong, and Syria is a much more difficult problem for us politically and militarily than Libya."

Presumably the Reagan Administration is reluctant to take direct military action against Syria because of the Russian factor, and possibly also because it thinks President Assad may still be helpful in gaining the release of the five American hostages still missing in Lebanon. The U.S., however, has shown very little sign of being equally reluctant to see Israel take such action. And one may be sure that should a war occur, America will end up providing logistical support and paying the costs, just as it ended up paying for the war in Lebanon.

Israel's Policy of Permanent Superiority

Since Israel assumes permanent hostility on the part of all those around it, it has concentrated on keeping the war-making capacity of any combination of Arab countries well below its own. That is a permanent policy whose most spectacular display was the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor over 1,000 miles from Israel and years away from any capacity to produce nuclear energy. In 1967, for example, Israel did not attack because it was threatened but because President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt handed it an opportunity to launch a war it had been preparing for years. Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister now and Chief of Staff then, has since noted "I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into the Sinai May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it." Nevertheless, Nasser's move, based upon false reports that Israel was about to attack Syria, provided the perfect excuse for Israel to launch its devastating attack.

Veteran observers of the Middle East are very much aware of Israel's policy of permanent superiority. When former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Neumann was asked how strategic parity by Syria might affect Middle East peace prospects, he observed that the question was academic since Israel would never allow Syria to achieve parity.

One may be sure that the Israelis are aware that the strategic balance could change decisively should there be an Iraqi-Syrian rapprochement or a revolution in Egypt. Accordingly, the argument is surely being made that if Israel is to strike, it should strike while Syria is isolated.

Israel's domestic political situation underlines the strategic case for an Israeli attack. Ever since Peres assumed power as the head of a fragile coalition government, he has been looking for an occasion to score some sort of triumph so that he could dissolve the government, call for new elections and emerge as the head of a new Labor government supported by a large plurality, if not a majority of Israelis. The attack on the PLO headquarters in Tunisia did not quite turn the trick. The skyjacking of the jet flying from Tripoli to Damascus did not result in the capture of any major Syrian or Palestinian figure because of a failure in Israeli intelligence. Because of Israel's economic plight and of the situation he inherited in Lebanon, Peres has not had many other opportunities. And he only has a few months before he must hand over power to Shamir, the head of the Likud. There is, therefore, a political logic to an attack on Syria, as well as serious risk of a political backlash should the attack not result in a smashing victory with few losses.

Syria's Soviet Shield

There is, therefore, little doubt that an Israeli attack on Syria is now more than a contingency plan. The unknowns behind the hesitation derive from the presence of thousands of Russians and new Soviet weapons in Syria. Having installed a SAM defense network alleged to be of the same quality as that deployed by the Soviet Union against NATO, Soviet personnel are either instructing Syrians or perhaps operating much of it themselves. How effective will it be? There are similar unknowns about whether Syrian pilots, aircraft and missiles have improved to the point where the Syrian air force can make a good showing against the Israeli air force.

There are other more ominous unknowns. What kind of pledge does Syria have from the Soviet Union in the event of an attack? What, in fact, will the new Russian leadership do if there is both an air and ground attack on Syria itself as opposed to the kind of conflict that occurred on Lebanese soil in 1982? Should the Soviets intervene in the event of an attack, what will the United States do?

A great deal is at stake. Should the Israelis strike successfully, it may be justified by them in terms of the U.S. action against Libya, just as the South African government has cited the U.S. action as precedent for punitive raids into neighboring countries. The policy of bashing guerrilla movements or governments deemed unfriendly could then become a much more popular one. Nicaragua, already targeted by the Reagan Administration, might find itself on the receiving end of an American aerial assault in support of the contras. Russian interest in the outcome of an Israeli-Syrian war in its own backyard, already assumed to be substantial, would increase considerably if such a war would have important repercussions in other regional conflicts. Russian interest is reinforced when one reflects that a major Syrian defeat would reflect even more seriously on the quality of Russian arms than the outcome of the conflict in 1982. It is not inconceivable that Russian interest in the outcome is so great that the Soviets may actually encourage Assad to pre-empt an Israeli strike by launching a massive ground thrust aimed only at recapturing Syrian Golan territory presently occupied by Israel, and setting the stage for a cease-fire in place.

The questions remain. Right now a lot points to their being answered before the end of the summer. 

Robert G. Hazo is Chairman of the Middle East Policy Association and Senior Public Policy consultant of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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