Israel Update for September 2007

David Dolan
David Dolan

Tensions between Israel and Syria escalated sharply during September after the Assad regime in Damascus accused Israel of penetrating Syrian airspace early in the month to carry out an attack upon an unnamed target. As details subsequently leaked out in foreign media reports about the apparent Israeli Air Force strike-including the jarring information that North Korean-supplied nuclear material and/or structures were targeted -Syrian officials warned several times that they would respond to the daring action, possibly with military power. This sparked a full Israeli armed forces alert. Later reports spoke of a chemical weapons accident in Syria this past July that killed both Syrian and Iranian personnel, which analysts said was also an ominous development for the future.

While informal negotiations continued between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the run-up to an American-sponsored peace conference scheduled for Washington DC in November, tensions soared between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which the Israeli government officially declared "an enemy entity" late in the month.

With far reaching implications for the coming months, the declaration followed a Palestinian Kassam rocket attack upon an Israeli army base which produced the largest number of Israeli casualties of any such strike until now. The government decision opens the way for further punitive actions against the Gaza Strip if the rocket attacks continue.

Israeli Face-Off With Syria

As I write, Israeli military censorship still forbids the publication of full or firsthand details of the internationally reportedly Israeli air, and possibly also ground forces operation aimed at an unnamed target somewhere in the eastern Syrian Desert before dawn on September 6. However multiple foreign media reports, which sometimes reveal details of sensitive IDF actions banned inside of the country, have painted a fairly comprehensive picture of just exactly what occurred in the remote Syrian Desert, reportedly near the town of Dayr-az-Zawr.

That some sort of strategic military operation took place was later inadvertently confirmed by Israeli Knesset opposition leader and Likud party head Binyamin Netanyahu, who revealed that he had "supported the action" carried out under orders and direction of his longtime political rivals, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "I was party to this matter, I must say, from the first minute, and I gave it my full backing, but it is still too early to discuss this subject," he told Israeli state television on Sept 19.

The former premier's comment drew fierce criticism from the Prime Minister's office and other government leaders, who feared the apparent admission by a senior Israeli politician that some sort of major action against Syria had indeed been carried out might encourage the humiliated Assad regime to respond in a military manner.

However Olmert's cronies were not complaining over the fact that the widely reported operation had boosted the Israeli leader's popularity ratings in all opinion polls. Still Netanyahu remained far ahead when people were asked who they would vote for if elections were held today, with Barak just behind him.

Syrian Options

Initial reports of some sort of Israeli military action came from state-controlled media outlets in Damascus some 12 hours after the reported operation took place. They simply claimed that Syrian anti-aircraft missiles (probably Russian-supplied) had been fired overnight at Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets that had "provocatively penetrated" Syrian air space. The reports did not detail where the action took place, or whether any Israeli aircraft had been struck by Syrian missiles. They added that ejected fuel tanks from the "invading" warplanes had landed on both Syrian and Turkish territory, indicating that the alleged action had occurred in the north of the country near the shared border with Turkey, a Muslim NATO member loosely allied with Israel.

However, later that same day, the official Syrian government spokesman-interviewed on the popular Al Jazeera Arabic news satellite network-hinted at something beyond a mere air penetration by calling the action an "attack" against Syria. Information Minister Moshen Bilal said that "Syria retains the right to determine the quality, type and nature of our response to the Israeli attack." He added significant fuel to the growing fire by charging that Israel "cannot survive without aggression, treachery and military messages."

Just one day after new Israeli President Shimon Peres announced on September 17 that the threat of a Syrian military response had passed; a senior cabinet minister in Damascus boisterously restated the threat of pending retaliation. Minister of Expatriates Butheina Shaban, one of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's closest advisors, said Syria would "respond to the aggressive Israeli attack at the time and place of our choosing." She also maintained that most of the foreign media reports about the incident were "fictitious and full of lies." Analysts said she was probably referring to American and British media reports that elite Israeli ground forces had participated in the seemingly elaborate and successful operation.

Israeli military analysts spelled out several ways that the Syrian regime could "respond" to the reported Israeli operation. The least damaging would be further diplomatic action designed to formally condemn Israel for the action. The Syrians immediately turned to the United Nations for a formal condemnation of the Israeli infiltration, but found a virtual wall of silence on the issue-strongly indicating they would not succeed in securing yet another UN resolution rebuking the world's only majority Jewish country.

Among military options possibly open to Damascus is a pinpoint strike designed to kill or kidnap Israeli soldiers stationed on the disputed Golan Heights. This might include a limited land incursion meant to capture some frontline territory, or a fuller ground invasion. Equally worrisome is the possibility that Syria might order its surrogate Hizbullah militia force in Lebanon to launch hundreds of missiles once again at Israeli civilian targets, or that Syria will do so itself. Such military options obviously carry the danger of further escalation into a full-scale conflict, which could in turn ignite a larger regional war involving Iran, the Palestinians and possibly other actors.