Recently, the Americans decided to come up with an additional list of wayward states that pose a risk to the United States only slightly less than does the "axis of evil" - Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
In a aggressive and no-holds-barred recent lecture, John Bolton, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, put Syria, Libya and Cuba on the new list. Speaking about these three, he said: "Beyond the axis of evil, there are other rogue states intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction - especially biological weapons. Given our vulnerability to attack from biological agents, as evidenced in the anthrax releases, it is important to carefully assess and respond to potential proliferators."
These words would be warmly welcomed in Israel. The administration had decided to add to its list of threats two Middle Eastern states that Israel has been warning about for some time. Nevertheless, some analysis might shed light on the real problem that Israel faces along its northern border.
The inclusion of Syria on a list of states threatening the U.S. is surprising, especially since September 11, 2001, high-ranking U.S. officials have often praised Syria for its contributions to the war against international terrorism.
Perhaps the reason for this inclusion is intelligence assessments that indicate the inherent dangers Syria's support for Hezbollah. The real target therefore would be the Shi'ite organization itself, not necessarily Syria.
Although he devoted a significant portion of his remarks to Syria's efforts to get weapons of mass destruction, Bolton did not reveal any new information. He did say Syria has a stock of sarin nerve gas, and is engaged in research and development of the nerve gas VX. He added that Syria "is able to produce small amounts of biological warfare agents."
However, Israel has had this information for over a decade. The danger posed by Syria does not necessarily lie in any weapons it is developing, but rather in its patronage of a terrorist organization. Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, represents this view, arguing that a country which supports Hezbollah presents a threat to the United States, even more so than Iraq.
He says that Hezbollah, which caused the deaths of 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983, "presents a serious danger to the national interests of the United States." Graham therefore determines that, "we have to tell the Syrians we expect them to close the Hezbollah camps in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley within a defined period of time, and if they don't, we reserve the right to close them ourselves." Among other things, Graham based his assessment on FBI reports that Hezbollah is capable of attacking targets within the United States.
Whether it is the administration's intention to signal Syria that unless it alters its policy of support for Hezbollah, it will be the next in line after Iraq, or whether the Americans are genuinely concerned about Syria arming itself with chemical and biological weapons, it is evident that developments to which the Americans refer have already altered the strategic balance on Israel's northern border.
The combination of Syrian ballistic missiles with chemical warheads (plus a potential for biological warheads in the future) and thousands of Katyushas and other rockets in Hezbollah's hands, has created a new balance of terror in the north and significantly curtailed the Israeli military's freedom of movement. Israel does not have any answer to Syria's capability, and even less to Hezbollah's, of hitting targets deep inside Israeli territory.
Giving Hezbollah rockets with a range of tens of kilometers hands it a capability of hitting any target north of Netanya. This is the significance of what has been happening in Lebanon in the past two years. Israel must now weigh with extreme gravity every action taken by its air force in Lebanon.
Dropping bombs on Lebanese targets would provide Hezbollah with what it would call legitimate grounds for firing rockets against the Israeli home front. In such a case, the only available military response left to Israel would to occupy most of Lebanon's territory. The end result is that Israel is threatened by a terrorist group which equipped with weaponry that usually only sovereign states possess.
Israel's strategic problem is less bothersome to the Americans than their fear of what Hezbollah could do to their chances of planning a successful attack on Iraq - and here Israeli and American interests dovetail.
The Americans are afraid of Hezbollah exploiting an attack on Iraq to launch Katyushas and rockets against Israel - leading to a massive new Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which could destroy support by Arab states for the war on Iraq. To forestall this, the administration is already beginning to exert pressure on Syria.
If the Americans succeed and the Syrians abandon their patronage of Hezbollah, this would further indicate the far-ranging implications of a war in Iraq for the entire region. If the U.S. then went on to dispose of the Shi'ite organization itself, Israel would achieve the greatest profits from this.
This provide another good reason for extreme caution in using the IDF in the territories, and against deciding - for example - against reoccupying the Gaza Strip. Ariel Sharon himself could cause the greatest damage to Israel should his local maneuvers interfere with the American administration on its highway to Iraq.
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