WASHINGTON — As Jerusalem mobilizes reserves and Damascus puts its troops on the highest state of alert, the Bush administration is not taking overt steps to prevent Israel’s war with Hezbollah from spilling over into Syria.
Even as Israeli officials repeatedly accuse Damascus of supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, Jerusalem insists it has no intentions of attacking Syria. In turn, spokesmen for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are sending similar messages back in the other direction.
But both sides are suspicious of the other’s intentions and are concerned about an armed conflict being sparked unintentionally.
In the past, when tensions between Jerusalem and Damascus approached a boiling point, the United States intervened, typically by sending an envoy with chilling messages for leaders in both countries. This time, however, despite Israeli requests for American intervention, the Bush administration has not sent a senior official to Syria and shows no signs of upgrading its low-level contact with Damascus.
Assad has declared a willingness to hold comprehensive talks with Israel, and Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz reportedly has pressed his government to explore the Syrian option. But elements in the Bush administration are said to oppose any steps to relieve the pressure on Syria.
In recent internal discussions, according to one well-placed source who spoke on condition of anonymity, some administration officials went so far as to advocate that America encourage Israel to attack Syria in order to induce the fall of Assad’s regime. It was impossible to corroborate that information with other independent sources, but some Israeli media reports suggested that officials in the Bush administration have encouraged Jerusalem to consider strikes against Syria. Several hawkish pro-Israel scholars and pundits, including Michael Oren and Daniel Pipes, have written columns in favor of such an approach.
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Top Israeli and American officials have disagreed repeatedly over the appropriate policy toward Syria. Upset over Syria’s alleged support for anti-Israel terrorist groups and anti-American forces in Iraq, the Bush administration in the past several years has considered pushing for regime change in Damascus. Israel, on the other hand, continues to seek stability in Syria, viewing Assad as “the devil it knows” and objecting to the creation of a political void that could be filled by Islamists or by sheer chaos.
Some Israeli diplomats have been saying — both before the current crisis and in recent days — that the administration is making a mistake by not having a more nuanced policy toward Syria. Engagement with Syria, one Israeli diplomat said, does not necessarily have to lead to major rewards. America can pursue a modest, gradual process in which small carrots — or simply the holding back of sanctions — would be offered for small Syrian steps, the Israeli official said.
According to diplomatic sources in Israel and in Washington, in the past three weeks Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government has turned to the Bush administration to intervene with Syria, only to end up relying on other third parties because of the White House’s policy of isolating Damascus.
“We have had incidents before, when Israel and Syria, unintentionally, stumbled into confrontation,” said William Brown, former ambassador to Israel. Brown is now president of Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
“People in such situations can do screwball things,” Brown said. He noted that in the past small-scale attacks ended up ballooning into broader confrontations.
Last Tuesday night, Israel reportedly airlifted hundreds of soldiers by helicopters to attack Hezbollah bases in the Bekaa area, in northeast Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border. One poorly aimed bomb, Brown said, could spark an unintended confrontation that could be very difficult to contain.
The Israeli maneuvers came a day after Assad called on his army to maintain the highest level of alert. Speaking to troops while marking the annual “army day,” Assad vowed to “assist the brothers” who are fighting Israel’s occupation. “This is the time of the national patriotic resistance,” he said, adding that “the resistance continues as long as our land is occupied and our rights are denied.” On the day of the attacks, Israel’s vice premier, Shimon Peres, speaking in Washington, said that he “is not impressed by the Syrian threat.” Peres said that the Syrian military is weak and that its equipment is old. “I don’t think that Syria will go for war,” he flatly told reporters. He also taunted Assad by calling him “the son of a wise man,” a reference to a late Syrian leader, Hafez Assad.
Syria is hearing the reassuring messages from Israel but is paying more attention to the belligerent bravado of the past three weeks, said Moshe Maoz, a leading Israeli expert on Syria.
“The Syrian government is very suspicious. It does not believe Israel’s reassuring statements. The Syrians often suspect ‘Zionist conspiracies,’” he said.
According to Maoz, America’s insistence to isolate Syria and avoid any contact with Assad’s regime is not in Israel’s interest. “Israel needs an effective channel to Syria,” he said. “But in recent years, America has become more of a spoiler than an arbitrator in trying to improve relations between Israel and Syria.”
Like many other foreign policy experts, Maoz advocates harnessing the resolution of the current crisis to a broader resolution to Israel’s conflict with Syria and the Palestinians. “The Syrians are ready for peace negotiations with Israel. Maybe it’s time to try it,” Maoz said.
But sources close to the White House say that the Bush administration rejects the idea of “rewarding” Damascus by facilitating negotiations with Jerusalem over the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.
Barak Ben-Zur, a former senior officer in Israeli military intelligence and in Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, said that the Bush administration might be missing an opportunity by not taking advantage of Syria’s current sense of vulnerability to extract Syrian concessions. “America has various issues to settle with the Syrians. It can apply pressure or offer enticements to get the Syrians to cooperate both on issues such as Iraq and on the current crisis,” he said. “Why not try to manipulate them? Why not use this golden opportunity, when the Syrians feel threatened?”
According to Ben-Zur, “there certainly is a potential to work with now. Unfortunately, the Americans insist on having no direct dealing with Syria.”
Some pro-Israel commentators, however, are arguing for a military response to Syrian support for Hezbollah.
“Rather than travel down the road of predictable failure, something quite different needs to be tried,” Pipes wrote Tuesday in The New York Sun. “My suggestion? Shift attention to Syria from Lebanon, and put Damascus on notice that it is responsible for Hezbollah violence.”
Pipes proposed warning Damascus that Syrian targets would be bombed each time Israel was hit by Hezbollah. “Such targets,” he wrote, “could include the terrorist, military, and governmental infrastructures.”