Piecing Together What’s Just Happened between Israel and Syria

imgSomething must be going down – the entire Israeli political and military leadership has managed to maintain over 24 hours of disciplined media silence.

Here’s what we think we know so far: there was an Israeli air presence in Syria during the early hours of Thursday morning that was engaged (unsuccessfully) by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.  Approximately twelve hours later, official Syrian sources announced that Syrian airspace had been violated, and that Syria was considering the nature of its response.

Syrian ministers described the incident as an Israeli provocation that was indicative of Israel’s disinterest in pursuing a peace option.  For good measure, they added that Syria would respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing.  Today, the Arab League issued its own condemnation of this “unacceptable maneuver,” Egyptian and other Arab sources echoed this sentiment.  Even Turkey  felt compelled to clarify that Israel had not used its airspace in conducting this mission.  The US has not officially commented.  And in Israel – zip, on record at least.  The media is rife with speculation, and the military censor is working overtime and can anticipate a very restless Sabbath.  The Syria story dominates the news in Israel, and there are increasingly heavy hints by journalists and analysts that this was not a routine event.

On Thursday, the very public Israeli official effort to broadcast business as usual seemed to have an intentional air of the unreal about it: the IDF top brass convened its annual Jewish New Year toast at military headquarters, all smiles and calm, in the full gaze of the TV cameras; while Ehud Olmert spoke to a large gathering of the Kadima Party faithful.  Olmert’s appearance was timed to coincide (as these events often are) with the primetime evening news, but the only headline was what the Prime Minister did not say, namely, anything about Syria.  Most of the effort in the intervening period of time has been invested in attempts to de-escalate the sense of uncertainty.  The Jewish holidays, and the tourism they bring, are around the corner.  The situation with Syria was supposed to be calm after troop exercises were moved from the Golan to the South just last week, and attention was due to be focused on convening a peace summit in November.  Overnight, talk again turned to war speculation, intentional or miscalculated.  Ma’ariv‘s headline today screamed, “On the Verge of an Explosion,” with their lead commentator, Ben Caspit, noting that “too many people from within the defense establishment are involved in personal bets about whether there will be a war with Syria.  Almost all of them are betting that there will be.”  Never to miss an opportunity, neocon cheerleader, Dore Gold, had his  Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs put out a three-pager on Syria detailing just how evil the evil Syrian evilness is.

The incident itself remains shrouded in mystery, and the media’s lips have been sealed.  As Israel Channel 2’s military correspondent said this evening, when asked by the anchor what information can he could share with us, the answer was “very little.”  While making sure to tell a story that implied there was lots to know.

So what might actually have happened?

Here are four scenarios.

(1) This was a pretty regular Israeli reconnaissance mission that entered Syrian airspace, and there’s nothing dramatically new in that.  Under this scenario, it is actually the Syrians who decided to make an issue of this by opening fire and then going public with the story.  Most of all, what Syria cannot bear is to be ignored.  Given the recent de-escalation with Israel, and the likely exclusion of Syria from November’s peace summit, Damascus was sending a signal – “Factor us in.”  The Syrians may also have wanted to show off their newly acquired military hardware.

(2) That Israel wanted to create a minor and manageable provocation, specifically, to test both Syria’s new toys and the overall nature of Syria’s response.  There has been huge speculation in Israel, throughout the summer, regarding Syrian rearmament and possible military intentions.  This might have been a way of dipping one’s toe in the water of Syrian potential bellicosity.  The Israeli website, DEBKA (part sensationalist, part propagandist, part psych-ops plaything) has suggested today that Israel was checking the threat posed by the new Russian-supplied Pantsyr Missile Systems that both Syria and Iran have taken possession of:

Western intelligence circles maintain that it is vital for the US and Israel to establish the location and gauge the effectiveness of Pantsyr-S1E air defenses in Syrian and Iranian hands, as well as discovering how many each received… Western intelligence circles stress that information on Russian missile consignments to Syria or Iran is vital to any US calculation of whether to attack Iran over its nuclear program… Syria took delivery in mid-August of 10 batteries… the Pantsyr-S1E had failed in its mission to bring down trespassing aircraft.

This would neatly dovetail the renewed push in the American media this week for confrontation with Iran – that included a Washington Post editorial discrediting IAEA chief elBaradei, a new ADL stop Iran campaign and general neocon push.  I am not suggesting that the American Enterprise Institute has a hotline to the Israeli Air Force Chief.

But Neither scenario (1) nor (2) really help explain the pattern of commentary that is coming out of Israel at least.  Ofer Shelah, one of Israel’s smartest analysts, writing in Ma’ariv had this to say,

What we have here is something far deeper and something that touches on the fundamental position of both sides… It is clear that both sides see it in this light… neither Barak nor Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would approve an operation that could be intercepted by the Syrians, unless it was for a goal that they deemed to be very important… It is a story that stretches back a long way, over many consultations, decisions that are made and then reexamined all the time.  All of the decision-making and intelligence services have been party to it.

Yediot Ahranot military and intelligence analyst, Alex Fishman, talked of the unlikelihood of an operation that would be

high risk just for the sake of some tactical step, to improve our situation tomorrow morning.  This kind of action is only justified for an important goal, i.e., one that will be beneficial even in many more years.

Of course this might all be hype and Israeli media hysteria and military cover-up, but, if this incident is of a different order of magnitude, how about scenario’s (3) and (4).

(3) This was an irregular and highly unusual Israeli reconnaissance mission that had a degree of urgency, and was based on new intelligence.  Given Syria’s missile air-defense capabilities Israeli planes don’t just wonder into Syrian airspace on a whim, this is not Lebanon. There is often speculation that Syria is not only arming itself with advanced Russian weaponry, but that it is also pursuing a non-conventional weapons program.  Today, Josh Landis has a fascinating post on his well-respected Syria Comment blog entitled “Is Israel Looking for Korean Weapons in Syria?”.  Landis reminds us that less than a week ago, John Bolton was  writing in the Wall Street Journal against the current diplomatic efforts with North Korea, and raised the claim that Syria may be providing “safe havens for North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, or may have already participated with or benefited from it.”

Other sources suggest that the US has new intelligence linking Syria with North Korea and that this information is known to Israel.  Such intelligence might also explain the degree of Israeli hysteria throughout the summer regarding the likelihood of a military clash with Syria, precisely because action against Syria was being planned.  Again, I am not suggesting that John Bolton is on Instant Messenger with IAF flight command.

(4) There is an additional scenario, this one more in line with the tone of the Israeli commentary, and even more far-reaching.  It is hinted at by several key Israeli commentators, all remember operating under the watchful eye of the IDF military  censor.  Alex Fishman, again, in Yediot, “Why did they fly there?  It is unlikely that someone suddenly decided that he felt like photographing northern Syria… at night.”  Amos Harel in Haaretz is even more explicit: “Damascus is not saying what the IDF plane allegedly attacked.”  Other TV commentators have hinted at Israeli satisfaction with the results of the mission.  The suggestion seems to be that  an actual military operation has been conducted in Syrian territory, perhaps against a possible or suspected or claimed non-conventional weapons production facility.

According to scenarios (3) and (4), Syria would be downplaying the story in order to cover for its own embarrassment regarding a suspected weapons program, and perhaps also at having taken a military hit without being able to effectively respond.  This might also explain the Syrian comment that it would respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing.  According to Ehud Ya’ari on Israel Channel 2, Israel also passed messages to the Syrians that there could be no small wars, or grabs Hezbollah-style, and that any, even partial, Syrian attack would be repelled with the IDF’s full force.

Maybe none of these scenarios is correct, and many questions certainly remain unanswered.  A key one would be, “Why now?”  Perhaps there was a perception that, given where the political cycle is in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s room for maneuver is now at its most limited, that Hamas is already pinned down in Gaza and does not want to encourage an Israeli invasion, and that the intensity of the  international diplomatic spotlight on the region would help prevent an escalation towards war.  Israel has carried out missions over Syria before without events spiraling towards conflict.  In 2003 Israel bombed a PFLP GC base in Syria, and in 2006 IAF warplanes buzzed the holiday residence of President Bashar Assad, sending a unequivocal message that he should reign in Hezbollah.

The Israeli military might simply be spinning in order to cover up for an unplanned incident that many in Israel would believe is reckless and irresponsible in the current climate.  In fact, those who write as if they are in the know suggest that the proof of any intelligence better be damn good.  Fishman, in Yediot Ahranot, says that “we can only hope that we can rely on the people who decided on it (the mission).”  He goes as far as to suspect that the Israeli leadership might try to conceal “uncalculated risks and adventurism.”  In Ma’ariv, Ben Caspit pointedly comments that “we have changed roles with the Syrians.  Israel is the side looking for trouble and Syria is holding itself back.”

And Amos Harel’s warning in Haaretz:

It is to be hoped that the story will end without war. But it is important to remember that Israeli intelligence does not always understand the behavior of the Syrian leader. Assad is not an Israeli and does not think like one. His reactions could be very different than what Israel expects or sees as reasonable.

And there are two other ways of explaining all this – one rather possible, and the other a bit of mischief on my part: the first is that it was all simply a mistake, and both sides are now, perhaps in a co-ordinated fashion, trying to calm things while saving face. An Israeli pilot took a wrong turn over the Med, and, whoops …. an incident needs to be covered up and explained in terms of the highest national interests. Back-channels, diplomats who used to know each other, third parties, friendly businessman get busy working the phones, you agree to say ‘x’, we’ll say ‘y’ and this can all be forgotten.

Or was this an exercise whereby both Israeli’s and Syrians were creating a mini-crisis so that the US would find itself engaged on the Israel-Syria track and stop blocking it? Provoke Washington into changing course. Of course, I think this is an unreal scenario, but it highlights a very real problem. The leadership in both Damascus and Jerusalem seems to believe there is a value in engaging on this track, but the US is stubbornly opposed, or at least determined to stay out, and this has become a crucial obstacle. If the US is not at this particular table, there is no table. And that approach only increases the likelihood of a planned or mistaken escalation, it makes movement on the Lebanese and the Iraqi front more difficult, and also will likely undermine the supposed peace effort that the US is now itself promoting.

TCF has just released two reports on US-Israel-Syria relations, by a leading American expert (David Lesch) and Israel’s foremost authority on the subject (Moshe Ma’oz) – both advocate serious diplomatic re-engagement, and those in-depth reports can be downloaded here.