Tension With Syria Can Turn Into War in an Instant

A crisis has erupted suddenly between Israel and Syria at a time when the status quo seemed quite stable.

About three weeks ago the New York Times published a list of recommended tourist sites for 2010. Damascus came in seventh and the writer wondered whether the Syrian capital was the "new Marrakesh." Ancient buildings in the Syrian capital are turning into boutique hotels, trying to emulate the popular Moroccan city, he wrote. The Old Vine Hotel, a luxurious 17th-century, nine-bedroom boutique hotel, a two-minute walk from the Grand Mosque of the Umayyads, is offering a room for 140 euros a night. Cheaper than Eilat.

Damascus' appearance on the American tourist map and the imminent appointment of a U.S. ambassador there reflect a rapprochement between Bashar Assad's regime and the United States, after years of tension and distance. Assad has told The New Yorker that he has renewed intelligence-sharing efforts with the United States and Britain against terror. U.S. envoy George Mitchell relayed President Barack Obama's special request for intelligence assistance, and the Syrian leader consented. He was rewarded immediately with the announcement of the American ambassador's return.

All these signs show that Assad is forging closer ties with the United States without going "via Jerusalem" and without renouncing Syria's strategic alliance with Iran. He managed to stick to his guns without having to shake an Israeli hand or bend his positions on the peace process. On the contrary, Assad told The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh that the intelligence sharing would depend on the progress in the peace talks.

In recent months everything has appeared quiet on both sides of the Syria-Israel border. The two countries exchanged noncommittal messages about their desire for peace, and the status quo seemed as stable as ever. Israel does not want to withdraw from the Golan Heights and Syria does not want to risk war. The international community is concerned about the Palestinians while ignoring the Syrian track.

But suddenly a crisis has erupted. Syrian and Israeli officials exchanged declarations about war and cranked up the threats. The defense minister warned that if peace with Syria is not achieved, Israel will be embroiled in an unnecessary war. The Syrian foreign minister threatened to strike Israeli cities. His Israeli counterpart threatened to topple Assad's regime.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried, as usual, to appease both ministers and released a lukewarm response. "Israel wants peace without preconditions," he said to appease Ehud Barak, and "Israel will react resolutely and firmly to any threat," to appease Avigdor Lieberman.

The Six-Day War erupted after the chief of staff at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, threatened to harm the Syrian regime for supporting Fatah's sabotage acts. A covert direct threat by the MI chief to foreign military attaches apparently lit the spark that led to war.

Lieberman's statement sounded like a return of that dangerous escapade. It broke the defense establishment's strict rule not to annoy Assad or humiliate him.

The recent murder of a Hamas official in Dubai, which was attributed to Israel, the barrel bombs off Israel's southern beaches, the recent test launching of an Iranian missile and the mutual threats with Syria have undermined the past year's quiet. The defense establishment is warning of seasonal tension in the north ahead of the anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyeh.

These can be seen as routine developments in Israel's cold war with Iran and Syria - the arms race, covert activity and making allies. But experience in the Middle East shows that calm can turn into tension and tension can turn into war in an instant. So both sides' leaders must talk and act with extra caution.