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Syrian Airspace

Only time will tell whether the alleged Israeli air attack on Syria two weeks ago was reckless bravado, a cynical blow to peace or a bold strike that makes the Middle East and all of us a bit safer. From the available evidence, though, the smart money is on bold and safer.

It’s true that nobody knows exactly what happened, other than those who were there. The Israelis aren’t talking. The Syrians aren’t talking sense. Smart pundits all around the world have their own pet theories: that Israel sent in a squadron of warplanes to test Syrian air defenses; that it was scouting out air routes to Iran for a possible attack on Tehran’s nuclear installations; that it was bombing a shipment of Iranian arms bound overland for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Each theory has its fatal flaws, though. Israel has better air routes to Iran, and Iran has better ways of shipping arms to Lebanon.

The theory that’s begun emerging as the favorite is the one coming from official-sounding sources in Washington: that the target was a secret nuclear installation. This wouldn’t be the first time that Washington officials have talked about secret Middle Eastern nuclear installations, and their track record isn’t good. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong this time.

Syria, of course, flatly denies that there were any nuclear plants in the northern desert where the Israeli jets allegedly struck. Similar denials come from North Korea, which supposedly gave Syria the nuclear gear — in violation of its promises to destroy its nuclear material, not give it away. The Syrians insist the Israeli planes dropped tons of munitions over empty desert before being chased off by Syrian ground defenses. In effect, Syria accuses Israel of attacking its territory in an unprovoked aerial bombardment.

Curiously, though, Syria’s official protests are wildly out of proportion to its accusations. In a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council, Damascus accused Israel of “violating Syrian airspace.” That’s a strange understatement for a country that believes it was under bombardment.

Curiouser still, the Syrians did not follow up their complaint with a demand for an emergency Security Council meeting to condemn Israel’s actions. They’ve never hesitated to convene the council before, even with far less alleged provocation. This time, it seems, they weren’t in a hurry to have the international community scrutinize the desert sands to see what the Israelis actually hit. The target may or may not have been nuclear, but it whatever it was, Syria wants to hide it from the world.

Even more telling was the reaction from the rest of the Arab world: a giant yawn. The League of Arab States issued a tepid statement protesting Israel’s “unacceptable maneuvers” — as though the raid were an aerial stunt show that drifted too close to the beach. The individual Arab states didn’t even go that far. A few tut-tutting editorials, a column or two in Al Jazeera, and that was it.

The fact is that Syria said it had come under direct Israeli military attack, and nobody cared. No one came to its defense except Iran and North Korea — not the best company for a country that’s desperate to escape pariah status.

Even the Chinese joined the yawn; they canceled a scheduled negotiating session over North Korea’s nuclear project, in apparent protest of Pyongyang’s reputed role in Syria.

Why did the Arab world turn its back on Syria? Because, as we have reported before, the mainstream leaders of the Sunni Arab world — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, the Gulf emirates — are tired of the global conflict raging around them.

It’s bad for business. They’re afraid of Iran, with its delusions of Shi’ite revolution and the popular unrest it stirs up. They want to create a new regional front that isolates Iran, and to do that they want to lower the flames between Israel and the Palestinians. They’re angry with Syria for its support of Palestinian terrorism, for its mischief-making in Lebanon and for its alliance with Iran. If Israel manages to humiliate Syria and reduce its strategic capabilities, that’s fine with the neighbors.

Israel accomplished three important things with its raid on Syria this month. First, it showed the Syrians that it can get to them anytime, anywhere. It showed that its vaunted ability to mount lightning raids far from home is undiminished, notwithstanding its bungled war in Lebanon last year.

More to the point, it showed the Syrians that renewed hostilities are not an alternative to peace talks, because they will gain nothing. It’s no accident that Israel chose this week, on the heels of the raid, to restate its willingness to talk peace with Damascus and express “respect” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nor is it coincidence that Syria’s foreign minister ended his condemnation of the Israeli raid with a reiteration of Syria’s desire to make peace with Israel.

Second, Israel reminded the Iranians that it can send its jets anywhere, drop bombs and get home. Third, and most important, it showed Iran and the world that if it does act against a clear and present danger, the Muslim world will not erupt.

The old days of pan-Arab unity and utter Israeli isolation are gone. Iran’s supposed trump card — that an attack on its nuclear facilities will touch off a global tsunami of Muslim rage — turns out to be so much hot air.

By all the available evidence, the world owes Israel a debt of gratitude this month. But statements of thanks are unnecessary. The silence says it all.


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