09/19/2007 06:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Israeli Strike Aimed to Break the Syrian-Iranian Alliance

The media blackout imposed by Israel - about its violation of Syrian airspace last week in an attack whose objectives, messages and consequences remain obscure - has been suspicious. It's clear that Israel violated Syrian sovereignty. The strange part is the timid Syrian response to what the government in Damascus called "a clear violation of its airspace and an aggression" against Syrian territory. There have been several versions of what happened. One is that American, and not Israeli, planes entered Syrian airspace via Turkey. Sources in the American administration told the media that Israeli aircraft had struck an area in northeastern Syria, perhaps hitting "Syrian nuclear facilities" sold by North Korea to Damascus and Tehran. Israeli sources told the media about the bombing of a joint Syrian-Iranian rocket base in northern Syria, funded by Iran, which was successfully destroyed. There has been another group of leaks about what happened, and these versions have spoken of the targeting of weapons warehouses that the Israeli government believes Iran has sent to Hizbullah in Lebanon, via Syria, and destroying weapons shipments headed for Hizbullah, in order to rearm the party and enhance its arsenal. Some stressed that there had been a warning by Israel to Syria regarding Hizbullah, while others have spoken of messages meant to split Syria from Iran, through military intimidation, after a policy of enticements and rewards has not led to a dismantling of the Damascus-Tehran alliance.

These analyses and assumptions do not remove the doubts about the Israeli silence and what lies behind Syria's hesitation to lodge a meaningful protest with the Security Council or respond to a violation of Syrian sovereignty with more than just hiding behind the event. If the government of Ehud Olmert was flirting with Damascus by shrouding the operation in obscurity and official silence, hoping that it would understand the message, a violation of sovereignty is not something that falls in this category. However, if the motives were politically justified, then Israel should stop covering up and explain what happened, instead of proceeding ahead in this de facto partnership in this strange and suspicious relationship.

The Israeli operation won't recover the prime minister's lost popularity, or the prestige of the Israeli army, as long as it remains secret. If the target was the infrastructure of the network of Iranian weapons transiting to Hizbullah, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, then Israel would find some sympathy for its action, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner noted when he said, "If true, as it is believed now, that (Israel) hit a weapons shipment being transported via Syria to Hizbullah, we can understand the motives." In addition, disclosing this kind of operation, if it really destroyed warehouses of Iranian weapons headed for Hizbullah, would embarrass Damascus and Tehran, exposing them and robbing them of the ammunition of self-defense, as the matter involves the Security Council. Even more, such a revelation might lead to gathering enough evidence to impose sanctions on Iran and Syria for violating a resolution that was adopted by the Security Council under Chapter Seven of its charter, which forbids countries from smuggling weapons to anyone in Lebanon. Perhaps Syria's failure to request the convening of the Security Council to discuss the aggression is due to considerations having to do with repercussions such as this. It's also possible that Damascus' timidity in beating the drum in the Security Council is based on advice it has received from its allies, such as Russia, who might be implicated if the story of North Korea and Iran's nuclear aspiration via Syria is confirmed.

Through its sources, Damascus denies all of this and limits its version to the Israeli violation of its airspace and the aircraft's dropping "some ammunition and empty fuel tanks in uninhabited areas." The Syrian leadership, in taking the decision to soften its tone and lodge a light protest, might have decided that it would like to avoid playing up the matter, because it doesn't want to respond in a way that would escalate the matter, because it is keen to be conciliatory in Syrian-Israeli relations, or because it was surprised by Israel's destruction of its rocket capacities.

In exaggerating its delight over the operation, via a blackout on the incident, Israel has revealed its accumulated complexes and the obvious mystery regarding the type of relationship that it wants with the Syrian government. Olmert might be afraid of his shadow, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak comes to his position with a complex of rage and failure toward Israel. Both of them, as well as the majority on the Israeli scene and in the ranks of the Israeli lobby in the US, believes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime constitute the safety valve guaranteeing that Syria won't turn into an arena for Islamic extremism; it also guarantees that "nationalist" Arabs won't arrive in office, insisting on opening the Syrian-Israeli military front, which is in practical terms "put to sleep" by a Syrian-Israeli understanding. There isn't much difference between Israelis and American Jews about the relationship with the Syrian regime. However, there is a split when the issue involves evaluating the Syrian-Iranian relationship. Some believe both to be made of the same stuff, and that there is no room at all for a division in the two countries' strategic relationship. There are those who insist that there must be a means, whether political, military or diplomatic, or one of intimidation, or a warning, that leads to breaking the contract between Tehran and Damascus.

The majority believes that merely informing Damascus of the Israeli decision to protect the regime, guard it and prevent it from being toppled is enough to strip it away from Iran. However, others warn of the visceral strategic relationship that the Syrian government has taken on for itself, through the Arab equation, and note that Damascus is now working against this formula and the Arab interest, linking itself with Iran for strategic and existential objectives. Therefore, the two countries will not be split, no matter how much Israel desires this, threatens, or is conciliatory, in one way or another. Perhaps the Israeli strike was an attempt to break the Syrian-Iranian relationship itself, in its most important and basic dimension, through Hizbullah, after it became clear that the option of enticement did not prevent the flow of Iranian weapons and rockets to Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Perhaps Israel - and with it the United States - wanted to deprive the Syrian government of its bargaining chips, which Damascus believes it can use to conclude deals. These chips include the weapons and rockets coming from Russia and Iran. The Syrian leadership does not hide or deny that it is enhancing its military capabilities to give the impression that it can inflict damage. President Bashar al-Assad, according to those familiar with this thinking, has concluded that he needs these bargaining chips to improve his negotiating position.

al-Assad wants to be taken into consideration, especially by the US administration and the US President George W Bush, and by the Israeli government and its prime minister, Ehud Olmert. According to those close to him, al-Assad wants to be taken seriously. It pleases him to see his picture in every part of the country, even though it embarrasses him. Being pleased with himself, perhaps due to a bit of vanity, has become a part of the personality of the Syrian president, compared to the beginning of his rule, when he appeared shy and timid. Thus, he is a bit excessive in displaying his self-confidence.

David Lesch, an American expert on the Syrian president, who has conducted a number of interviews and spent considerable time in his presence to prepare books about him and explain Syria's position in the US, recently spoke at a seminar to a number of individuals well-versed in foreign policy. The event was sponsored by the Century Foundation in New York, under the title "The Syria-United States-Israel Triangle and Prospects for Middle East Peace." According to the rules of the seminar, only part of the event was permitted to be made public.

Lesch, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, described al-Assad in 2004, when he met him for the first time, as "perplexed," unaware of why Syrian-American relations were in the state they were in. In 2005, al-Assad had "resigned" to his conclusion that the US administration wanted to get rid of him. In 2006, the Syrian president had become "cocky and angry" in describing Syrian-America relations, saying: "I do not need anything from the US, I do not want anything from the US, I am very popular." After the Israel-Hizbullah war in Lebanon last year, he had the same level of confidence. During May and June, he was relaxed and confident," convinced that time would prove him to be correct regarding developments in Iraq and Lebanon. In the estimation of Lesch, al-Assad felt that he was "secure in power, had brought stability to Syria, and that people were extremely grateful to him for keeping the country together" to fend off the pressure of the US and the United Nations.

Lesch saw al-Assad speaking in the language of "strategic assets" and that Iran had given him "strategic depth," especially in Lebanon via Hizbullah. The professor believed al-Assad to be "feeling good about himself," and that the White House had lost a true opportunity to cultivate Bashar al-Assad early on." The only way to move forward now, he believed, lay in the US giving up its "arrogance" in believing that dialogue with al-Assad would give him legitimacy.

Lesch's message is that Assad no longer wants "back channels" for dialogue, and is insisting on an open dialogue; therefore, one of his top priorities is for the US to send its ambassador back to Damascus. The important part of Lesch's remarks at the seminar, in front of leading foreign policy thinkers, was that Assad is going to stay for the foreseeable future and that the Syrian opposition is dispersed and fragmented. The Bush administration should listen to him and others when they say: Bashar Assad is going to be with us for a long time.

The only thing that might disturb Assad's tranquility is the international tribunal to try those involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and his fellow companions, as well as other political assassinations, which the investigation has shown to be linked to the Hariri killing. Lesch acknowledged this when cornered, after getting a free pass when he used the term "clumsy behavior" to describe the actions of Assad and the Syrian regime in Lebanon.

Revealing another interesting aspect of the Syrian president's thinking, Lesch related an incident from May, before the Security Council adopted Resolution 1757, which set up the international tribunal under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, after the failed attempts to block the move by Syria through its allies in Lebanon. Lesch said that he was sitting with Assad in Damascus and asked him about the tribunal. Assad replied: The Russians will not let it happen. The surprise came when Russia abstained during the vote instead of using a veto to prevent the establishment of the tribunal. Their abstention allowed the body to be created. Assad was behaving like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, misreading the positions in the Security Council, and miscalculating the developments and course of the resolutions that helped end his career.

Lesch said that the Syrians want to appear as if they're not worried about the tribunal, but added that there is an awareness, at the bottom of their hearts, that the tribunal has taken on a life of its own. Lesch believes that the Syrian wager is on America's need for the Syrian regime in Iraq, and that the Israeli wager is on the Syrian regime. The military establishment in Israel believes that it is better with the "blunderer" they know than the unpredictable successor.

Thus, the confusing military strike was not the knockout punch to Syrian-Israeli relations, but it does represent an important turning-point, that should not be taken lightly. Such a turning-point means there should be intensive study and monitoring of the development in the tripartite relationship between the US, Syria and Israel. Talk about a peace conference, and Syria's participation or non-participation, is merely a distraction in the considerations of these three actors. Since Damascus discounts the US Secretary of State to the extend that it removes her from the equation, its focus on Iraq is aimed at surpassing Rice since its concentration on the Syrian-Israeli relationship leads to a de facto containment for any actor within the US administration who might want to drift away from the conciliatory relationship, as understood by Damascus.

The transitional policies in Israel have a life and pace of their own, just like the air strikes, or the international tribunal. One should be cautious about exaggerating one's comfort level and self-confidence and self-admiration at a time of predicaments and entanglements. One should be wary about silly and secret joy over the artificial "prestige" of an Israeli operation that lacked the courage to reveal the supposed achievements involved.