The Syrian Riddle

Before being drawn into a war, all means to prevent it must be sought. And in any case, no military operation - not even a victory - can take the place of a political settlement.

Irrespective of how one interprets the facial expressions made by those in the know in response to Syrian claims (true or false) of Israel Air Force overflights of Syrian territory, the regional reality remains unchanged. The Syrian-Iranian alliance is still in place and may even have been strengthened; Damascus's interests in Lebanon remain unchanged; Syria's influence over rejectionist Palestinian groups continues; the Golan Heights is still an open wound. Any military operation against Syria that might be approved in the future would at best undermine the Syrians' military capabilities, and perhaps also delay the danger of immediate war in the North - if such a danger ever actually existed - a bit longer.

The Second Lebanon War should have taught us that the success of a military operation against an extremist Sunni-Shi'ite coalition is not measured in the number of rocket launchers destroyed by our skilled pilots or the number of enemy fighters killed. It turns out that this war, which failed in terms of both military performance at the front and the handling of the Home Front, produced a regional political achievement. Fear that Hezbollah's gains would strengthen the hold of Iran and the groups that benefit from its protection and funding led the Middle East's secular-pragmatist coalition to close ranks. The effort to promote its peace initiative is the Arab League's response to Iranian efforts to extend its influence over Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Syria is playing a double game. On one hand, it is dipping into Iran's arms caches, complementing what is lacking there with purchases from Russia, and sending its surpluses to Hezbollah. On the other hand, it voted in favor of the Arab League initiative, which offers Israel peace and normalized relations in return for occupied territory. Even as he unfurls a red carpet for the visiting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad is asking Turkey to convince Israel to talk with him about a peace process. On one hand, Syria expects Washington to mediate between Damascus and Jerusalem, and on the other hand, it has become the transit point for suicide bombers into Iraq.

An article that appeared in the official Syrian daily Tishrin suggests that even if Syria's behavior is contrary to the Arab consensus, it expects to benefit from this consensus. The paper's editor, Isam Dari, accused the Arab states of responding insufficiently to the alleged Israeli operation in Syria. "This silence," Dari wrote, "is proof that Syria is isolated, not only on the international level, but also in the Arab world." This should be noted in Jerusalem: As long as Syria is fighting for a place in the center of the Arab consensus, there is still a chance of extricating it from the extreme periphery and avoiding war between Israel and an Iranian front.

Therefore, from Israel's point of view, the most important question is what will happen to the Arab consensus in the coming months. Just as it did at the previous Arab League summit, held in Riyadh last March, the Arab consensus at the next summit, scheduled to be held in Damascus in March 2008, is expected to revolve around the Palestinian issue. The summit will take place following a peace conference at which an agreement of principles, which would chart a path for ending Israel's occupation of the territories on the basis of the principles of the Arab League initiative, is expected to be unveiled. If the conference has positive results, Syria will have to decide which side it is on. On the other hand, if this conference also fails and the territories go up in flames, this would create an optimal situation, from Syria's point of view, for a military confrontation.

According to Israeli intelligence analysts, Syrian patience will hold out until early 2009. Assad is counting on a Democratic White House lifting the embargo on Syria and convincing Israel to renew negotiations. By then, Syria will have completed its arms procurement program, and Iran may also have completed its nuclear program. On the other hand, Israel will not have completed development of the anti-missile technologies that the defense minister has been discussing. These same analysts believe that the Alawite regime in Damascus is not interested in becoming a pawn in an Iranian war for regional hegemony.

But either way, before being drawn into a war, all means to prevent it must be sought. And in any case, no military operation - not even a victory - can take the place of a political settlement.