Syria–with the backing of Iran–is feeling rather full of itself at this juncture in the Lebanon War. And for obvious reasons. As the “hand-maiden” between Hizballah and its Iranian patrons, Damascus has been able to bring death and destruction to its hated enemy–at no cost to Syria.
Speaking with reporters during a visit to Lebanon, the Syrian foreign minister rejected a plan brokered by the U.S. and France that would implement a cease-fire, as a first step in a wider peace deal. According to the Syrian official, Walid Moallem, the proposed deal “only represents the Israeli point of view.” He also underscored Syria’s support for Hizballah, saying that “he hoped to be a soldier in the resistance.” Careful readers will note that Mr. Moallem (so far) hasn’t visited a Hizballah recruiting station, so his “support” will apparently be restricted to diplomatic channels.
Moallem also stated that Syria’s armed forces are prepared for a “wider regional war,” a claim that should bring laughter from any serious observer of armed forces in the Middle East. So far, Damascus’s military activity has been purely defensive in nature, with many units dispersing outside of garrison to avoid possible Israeli air attacks. To date, there has been no detected mobilization within the Syrian ground forces, and no indications of offensive activity by air force units, either. In other words, Moallem’s claims are little more than bluster, typical of what we’ve come to expect from Damascus during almost any crisis that threatens to envelop Syria.
In fact, one Middle Eastern wag once suggested that “Syria was always prepared to fight to the last Egyptian,” a reference to the alliance that Damascus relied on in four major wars against Israel. Egypt’s large army created a second front for the Israelis, forcing them to divide their combat power. When Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David accords in 1979, Damascus lost its most reliable ally, and watched the IDF concentrate more of its forces toward Syria. The often-cited Bekka Valley campaign (1982) was the first major conflict that pitted Israel squarely against Syria, and resulted in an over-whelming victory by the IAF.
A quarter-century later, Syria’s military readiness has hardly improved, and neither has the strategy of the Assad government. The Baathists in Damascus have found a new proxy, and are quite willing to fight until the last Hizballah terrorist dies in Lebanon. Fortunately for the Syrians, Hizballah fighters are more than willing to die for the cause, so Damascus is prepared to keep the fight going–as long as there’s no price to pay.
Memo to P.M. Olmert: assuring Syria that it won’t be attacked is the wrong strategy. Damascus views such assurances as signs of weakness, making it more eager to keep Hizballah in the battle. Israel should make it clear that it holds Syria responsible for supplying and supporting Hizballah, with the very real threat of military action if Damascus continues such policies. Even with an ongoing conflict in Lebanon, Israel still has more than enough military power to deal with Syria as well–and that message needs to be communicated to Bashir Assad, in no uncertain terms.
P.S.–The U.S. could help in this matter by concentrating one of our Iraq-based brigades on the Syrian border.