In the line of fire

Published : Oct 19, 2007 00:00 IST

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September 16. - GALI TIBBON/POOL/AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on September 16. - GALI TIBBON/POOL/AFP

Israels aggression against Syria comes in the face of the Bush administrations supplanting of Syria in place of Iraq in the axis of evil.

Israeli Prime Minister

ISRAEL continues to remain tight-lipped about the mission its air force carried out inside Syrian airspace on September 6. The Israeli government has cleverly left it to the George W. Bush administration and the Western media to speculate about its motives. In fact, Israel has neither officially acknowledged nor denied that it carried out air strikes inside Syria.

However, the Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset, Likud Party Leader Binyamin Netanyahu, boasted to the Israeli media that such a strike had indeed taken place. Syria strongly condemned the act of aggression and lodged a complaint with the United Nations. The Syrian government has so far not given any details about the raid but has warned Israel that it will respond to the blatant aggression at an appropriate time.

Syrian Ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha said that Israel will not be permitted to do whatever it wants without paying a price.

The U.S. media have been circulating different stories about the motives behind the surprise attack, which came when both Tel Aviv and Damascus were pronouncing the need to maintain peace in the region. Despite the apparent lull, many observers of the region had been predicting that Israel would launch a new war.

Israel is yet to get over the humiliating military defeat it suffered in 2006 at the hands of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Israel, as well as the U.S., has been alleging that Syria and Iran continue to be the main sponsors of Hezbollah.

The West also accuses Syria of interfering in Lebanese politics and hatching assassination plots against pro-Western Lebanese leaders. Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Moallem, replying to a question from this correspondent during his visit to New Delhi in August, said that Syria was aware of Israels game plan and was ready to meet any eventuality.

From available indications, the Israeli jets retreated in a hurry following a quick Syrian response and were forced to dump their fuel tanks on Syrian and Turkish soil in order to gain speed. The target of the attack was said to be in northern Syria near the border with Turkey. Syria and Israel still remain technically in a state of war. Prominent Israeli commentators such as Uri Avnery have said that Israel has badly miscalculated by provoking Syria at this juncture.

In recent months there has been a lot of talk in the Israeli and Western media about tensions building up along the border between Israel and Syria. There have been reports about heavy troop build-up on both sides. Most Israeli commentators admit that the last thing Syria wants at this point is a full-scale war with Israel. Syria has been trying to establish contacts with Israel through the auspices of the Turkish and Swiss governments. Track two diplomacy between the two countries has been going on for quite some time.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had requested Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to use his good offices to help revive the stalled peace talks with Israel. Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member, has excellent relations with Tel Aviv.

A historic peace deal between Syria and Israel seemed close during the Bill Clinton presidency. But it was Israels reluctance to cede all the territories it had captured from Syria that undermined the deal at the eleventh hour.

Israeli tanks at

Even after the recent Israeli aggression, Syria has shown flexibility. Damascus has said that it is willing to let the U.N. take control over the Shaba Farms from Israel. The territory was annexed by Israel. A U.N. tribunal had ruled that the territory belongs to Syria.

Initially, the reports emanating from Tel Aviv about the raid, faithfully reproduced in U.S. newspapers, said that the Israeli air raids were meant to neutralise a nuclear weapons facility, in a place called Dayr az-Zawr, being built with North Korean help. When both the Syrian and North Korean governments termed these allegations preposterous, media reports started hinting that the target was a site that held technology and materials connected to North Koreas nuclear programme.

Syrian Cabinet Minister Bouthaina Shaaban described the speculation by the Western media as rubbish. She told a Syrian newspaper that all those stories were fabricated. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that it is not aware of any nuclear facility in Syria.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, in a signed article in The Wall Street Journal, suggested that Syria was sheltering technology and materials related to North Koreas nuclear programme. Bolton, who belongs to the neoconservative fringe of the Republican Party, has been advocating war with Iran and Syria for quite some time now. He also is a vocal critic of the Bush administrations softening stance on North Korea.

Joseph Cirincione, a leading U.S. expert on proliferation issues, told Financial Times of London that it was highly unlikely that the Israeli attack had anything to do with significant Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation. Going by the reaction of senior Bush administration officials, the Israeli incursion had the tacit support of the U.S. government. Reports in the U.S. media have said that Israel had shared intelligence with the U.S. earlier this year indicating the presence of North Korean nuclear scientists in Syria. Most U.S. experts have been highly sceptical of the quality of the intelligence.

In 1981, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak. Unlike Iraq, Syria never had nuclear ambitions. Damascus has been demanding a nuclear-free West Asia.

The Israeli air raid also fits in with the overall aim of Washington to isolate Iran from its two main allies in the region, Syria and Hezbollah. It was the Bush administration that goaded Israel into war against Lebanon. The rationale was the violation of Israeli territorial sovereignty by Hezbollah when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers along the border.

The U.S. wanted Israel to inflict a military defeat on Hezbollah. Israel tried its best to fulfil the assigned mission by ruthlessly bombing civilian areas, but finally gave up in the face of popular resistance. The Hezbollah only emerged stronger.

The Israeli government then came under intense pressure from Washington to open hostilities on a new front Syria. Syria was aware that it was on Washingtons hit list. The Bush administration has virtually supplanted Syria in place of Iraq in its so called axis of evil.

It has been blamed for the problems the U.S. is facing in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. Syria, however, had gone out of its way to help the U.S. in its fight against terror after September 11, 2001. Damascus had also offered Tel Aviv major concessions to facilitate a deal on the return of the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told the Israeli media that his government is favourably inclined to a negotiated settlement with Syria over the Golan Heights and the signing of a peace deal. But he has hinted that the Bush administration, with Iran on its radar, wants Israel to focus on destabilising Syria and give the U.S. a helping hand in isolating Iran in the region. The Israeli aggression may have also been meant to test the military preparedness of Syria.

Sections of the Israeli media now say that the strikes were against ordinary arms and ammunition, which were allegedly being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. An Israeli journalist who visited the town that allegedly came under attack reported that the Israeli jets flew low and let off sonic booms before departing. No bombs or ammunition was dropped.

Whatever be the truth, senior U.S. and Israeli officials are patting themselves on the back. The reason for their apparent glee is that there has been no widespread international condemnation of the raid. Israeli planes used Turkish air space to attack Syrian targets. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan described the incident as unacceptable. Russia, China and North Korea have issued strong statements condemning the Israeli attack.

The North Koreans think that the entire episode was planned to scuttle the progress made in the peace talks with the U.S. A North Korean foreign office spokesperson said the allegations about secret collaboration between their country and Syria is nothing but a clumsy plot hatched by dishonest forces who do not like to see any progress at the six-party talks and in the DPRK [Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea]-U.S. relations.

Washington and Tel Aviv will be particularly happy with the muted reaction from Arab governments. Though the Arab street is with Syria, the country at present finds itself at odds with the pro-Western governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram said that Syria was justifiably disappointed by the synchronised silence of the Arab world.

The Sunni-dominated governments in the region remain in awe of U.S. hegemony. They also subscribe to the view that a Shia arc of influence is emerging in the region. Syria is the only Arab ally of Iran. Observers of the region feel that a Shia-dominated Iraq will become a natural ally of Iran. The Saudi leadership is angry with Damascus for not supporting the pro-U.S. Sunni and Christian parties in Lebanon. The minority government in Lebanon is surviving mainly because of the backing of the Americans and the Saudis.

Washington and Tel Aviv seem to have concluded that a similar attack on Iran would not have created a flutter in the international community. Teheran has warned that any attack by Israel would prompt an immediate response and that its missiles would not hesitate to target Israeli nuclear sites.

Syria too has missiles with a range of more than 700 km; all Israeli cities are within their range. After a visit by former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani to Syria in May, the two countries decided to operationalise a defence pact they had signed in 2005. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran is committed to supplying its Shahab-3 missile systems to Syria. The Shahab is said to incorporate features of Russias Scud missiles and North Koreas Nodong missiles.

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