Since last summer’s war with Hezbollah, both Israel and Syria have been building up both offensive and defensive forces in the border area. This is the Golan Heights, a traditional part of Israel that was Syrian territory until the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel took hold (‘occupied’ is the common misnomer) of the Heights. Syria and Israel never signed peace treaties, and are technically still at war. Tensions tend to ebb and flow, but since 2006 these two countries have privately devoted military attention to their enemy, while publicly reassuring each other that they want no war.
In the past few months there has been an intense tank and anti-aircraft buildup on both sides of the border. War maneuvers have been held, by Israel and Syria, which has led both sides to engage in fairly ferocious threats. “If you dare attack us, you will face the repercussions.”
So to many peoples’ surprise, including my own, Israel either inadvertently or on purpose entered Syrian airspace. The problem is that neither side will truly discuss what happened. A Syrian source claims that Israeli planes entered Syria, were fired on by anti-aircraft bunkers, and in turn the jets dropped munitions and fuel tanks in order to make a hasty retreat. Nothing has come from the Israeli side, considering the government has leveled a media blackout on the issue. American sources have claimed that Israeli jets entered Syria and destroyed nuclear weapons or material from North Korea, and potentially even killing North Koreans in Syria who were working on Syrian nuclear installations. Again, the problem is that no one is talking forthright.
Even an Economist article* claims that “Syria's own muted response and failure to retaliate suggest that whatever happened, it was most embarrassing.” Whatever happened, Israel invaded Syrian territory, which Syria could quite easily have declared an act of war, and retaliated against Israel. Syria could have easily entered the U.N., given even cloudy proof of Israeli violations, and demanded either extreme sanctions in order to reclaim the Golan Heights (in light of Israeli ‘irresponsibility in the region’) or threatened a military retaliation for this violation.
Instead, only until recently were the Syrians able to muster an official response on the entire issue.* Vice President Farouk Shara said on Saturday that Syria doesn’t want war with Israel in “the distant or near future.” Instead, he says all these reports of Israeli air raids striking targets is simply part of a “psychological campaign” against Syria, aimed at rebuilding confidence in the Israeli army. Essentially, he is denying that anything happened at all besides a chance Israeli transgression of airspace.
Foolish! How foolish could he be, and how simple does he think his audience is? Think about this: somehow, the most highly respected fighter pilots in the world took some of the most advanced fighter jets in the world, and invaded deep enough within a grave enemy’s territory to incur anti-aircraft shelling, thus requiring a dumping of fuel in order to speed away. Does that really make sense? With this much on the line, with war only 1 mistake away, could you really think that Israel is stupid enough to accidentally invade Syrian airspace?
I’ll tell you with likelihood what really happened. This is the only good possibility, the only thing that makes sense considering the near silence from both sides on what really happened. The first thing to remember is that countries are much like businesses. They know that the longer they wait until after they make a mistake the more guilty they will look. If McDonald’s sells a poisoned hamburger, you can bet within a day they will release some type of conciliatory statement. Likewise, Israel learned its lesson on public relations in the past few years, and if an accident indeed happened, they would have publicly admonished the mistaken pilots.
Consequently, there really is one situation that I can imagine. Israel had intelligence that some type of weapon was in Syria, which was meant for Israel. This could be the nuclear material from North Korea, which NK promised to get rid of as per American demands. That possibility is bolstered by the one harsh international response to the supposed attack, coming from outside the Middle East – North Korea. Also, it is quite likely the target was missiles destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon, probably coming from Iran, as sold by Russia. No matter whose weapons they were, nuclear or traditional, the point is that Israel either destroyed them or now has solid proof of their existence. Both of these possibilities are shaming enough to keep Syria quiet in order to maintain its domestic and international image of strength. If the weapons were destroyed, declaring this would make Syria seem weak. If Israel only took photographs and pictures of the weapons, then it is damning enough for Syria in international legal terms to take away all bargaining power for regaining the Golan Heights. Just imagine: “Ok, yes, we did funnel weapons to Hezbollah, which would be targeted to kill civilians in northern Israel…but you guys are occupying our territory!”
So why then has Israel kept so quiet, especially if this mission was so successful? That's because, in my opinion, Israel isn't interested in the reprimand by the international community that would follow a report that she invaded a sovereign state in this tumultuous region, and then proceeded to even bomb something! No matter that the target was an illegal missile cache; it is an act of war during a time of international pressure for peace! Israel so far has gotten away scott-free with this ‘mission,’ even if it was just an aerial surveillance raid. She has no need to say anything. Syria is quiet, Hezbollah is quiet, only speculation is flying. Analogous would be a boy standing up to a bully: the boy is bullied every day for years, all for the bully’s self-esteem. One day the boy stands up to the bully, maybe even punches him in the nose, and the bully runs off. However, no one saw anything happen, so in a way both sides win. The bully can remain ‘tough,’ and the boy can avoid the inevitable trouble for striking someone, all while retaining his superiority over the bully. In a way, both sides retain something valuable. In the real world case, Israel retains its general security from Hezbollah missiles, and Syria retains its claims to the Golan Heights (if they were to claim the attack happened, it might get out what they had there, and the international community may have lost faith in the Syrian government and her claims).
This whole situation is one of the best things to have happened in years. The real potential for war has been adverted. The decision now, at least on Israel’s part, has to be one of reserved threat. In essence it must be made clear, in private to Syria, that whenever we see these weapons in Syria we will find a way to destroy them before they get to our enemies. But, this cannot be a general threat against Syria. It must be a threat against Syria funneling weapons, because otherwise Israel has no claims against Syria. Let’s say this: we will hold the Golan in return for not bombing you if you violate this agreement. Not in Syria’s interest…but neither is getting bombed.
Also, it could be one of the worst things to happen in years. Even if there was no attack whatsoever, as the most recent statements from Syria are saying, the whole thing stinks of aggression – truthfully on both sides. One side may be self-defense, namely that of Israel’s, but I wonder what would have happened if they had videos and photos and brought that before the U.N. Probably nothing, but it’s worth a shot.
And now Syria is very seriously claiming nothing happened. Typically what happens with Israel and her neighbors is that Israel sneezes and the Arab states claim Israeli belligerence. So why now are they, in a way, coming so strongly to Israel’s defense? That nothing happened at all. That Israel did nothing. Why not say, “Poor us, unite against Israel!”
It all just reeks of something not normal: something is being covered up.
*The Economist, Sep. 13th, 2007. “Mysterious Happenings”
*The Jerusalem Post, Sep. 29th, 2007. “Syria doesn’t want war with Israel”