The Bush administration has discreetly asked Ankara and Jerusalem to close their eyes to the Syrian military concentrations encircling Lebanon from the north and the east.
The Turks were told they would find it worth their while to support the American gambit with Syria for the following reasons, laid out here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
1. It would give further impetus to deepening Turkish-Syrian relations. Ankara would be assigned a key role in drawing Damascus out of Tehran’s orbit by offering Syria substitutes for its political and military bonds with Iran.
2. In the wake of the Georgian conflict last August, Russia has developed plans to base its navy in Syrian ports. Washington seeks to entrust Turkey with preventing Syria’s regression to its Cold War status off Russian satellite.
3. If the American move in Lebanon takes off, Washington guarantees to back the resumption of the shelved indirect Israel-Syrian peace talks, with Ankara in the coveted driving seat as broker.
4. Given Syria’s large Kurdish minority and Turkey’s difficulties with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), instead of attacking the problem alone, they could get together and work as partners for a comprehensive regional solution of the Kurdish problem.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Ankara sources, Turkish prime minister Tayyep Recif Erdogan not only bought the American proposition but has gone ahead to make it happen.
Drawing a parallel between Turkey’s campaign against PKK bases in northern Iraq and Syria’s proposed war against alleged radical Islamic militias in northern Lebanon, Erdogan has sent a team of Turkish military advisers to Damascus to instruct the Syrian army in counter-terror combat tactics.
Washington to Israel: Syria will cut Hizballah down
Washington prepared a second set of four arguments to persuade Jerusalem to turn a blind eye to Syrian military concentrations on Lebanon’s doorstep and not treat them as a threat:
First, Iran and Hizballah are losing ground in Lebanon for the first time since the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war as a result of Damascus’ promised reorientation.
Second, the deal with Washington offers the chance of cutting Hizballah off from its sources of weapons provided Syrian troops go into action as promised.
Third, Hizballah may be disarmed some time in the future as the end-result of the process.
Fourth, the background would be in place for the next US president to actively sponsor Israel-Syrian peace talks.
The Bush administration’s Syrian strategy was put before caretaker prime minister Ehud Olmert, his designated successor, foreign minister Tzipi Livni, defense minister Ehud Barak and ID Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi.
They asked IDF strategic planners and intelligence chiefs for an evaluation of the security pros and cons of the new Syrian buildup on Lebanon’s borders.
They received a blanket negative response on several grounds:
Assad’s credibility for keeping promises is nil. To this day, he has not closed his border against the outflow of anti-US combatants and arms to Iraq. Why would he change his spots in relation to Hizballah?
Military, intelligence counter-arguments fall on deaf ears
The deployment of Syria’s 4th and 12th Divisions on Lebanon’s northern and eastern borders (See map attached to second article in this issue), with freshly-dug trenches, could easily be turned against Israel.
Israeli intelligence experts reminded the ministers and army chief that, only six months ago, Syria advanced its 10th Armored Division along Lebanon’s southern border to fortified positions between the Massena border post and Mt. Hermon, planting the force opposite Israel’s border defenses.
Above all, the intelligence officials stressed, Syrian troops are not keeping to their own side of the border as Washington claims; they have set up positions inside Lebanese territory. The Israeli ministers were reminded, in case they had forgotten, that in July, Syrian intelligence established state of the art radar stations on Lebanon’s tallest peaks, Jebel Saninne and Mt. Barukh, whence they have command of all Israel’s air space, most of Lebanon and a large stretch of the eastern Mediterranean.
Syria, the Israeli military and intelligence experts said, was being helped to climb into the role of dominant military power in Lebanon and beyond.
They went on to warn Israel’s policy-makers and strategists that should Hizballah provoke another war, such as the cross-border kidnap of Israeli soldiers which triggered the 2006 conflict, Israel’s ability to fight back inside Lebanese territory – and if need be Syria itself – would be heavily circumscribed by the Syrian military buildup around Lebanese borders.
Olmert, Livni and Barak all refused to heed these admonitions. They preferred to let Syria get away with establishing new military facts on the ground and following Washington’s lead. They are all close to the Bush administration and each is using the Syrian factor for his or hers respective ends.
Israeli politicians vie over Syrian track
For prime minister Olmert, stepping down in mid-term in disgrace over corruption charges and mismanaging the 2006 Lebanon War, US patronage of the resumed indirect peace track he initiated with Syria through Ankara may allow him to retire with a positive legacy from his brief and unhappy tenure and vindicate him against the charge that he contributed to Assad’s international acceptance.
For foreign minister Livni, the Syrian track is an asset in her negotiations as Kadima leader to head a new government. She only differs with Olmert on one point: She would use a successful conclusion partnered by the US in her early days as premier as her own coup rather than crediting her predecessor.
That of course would depend on her success in building a coalition, for which the current odds are no better than 40 percent in her favor.
Her failure would lead to a snap election early next year.
Defense minister Ehud Barak had his eye fixed on the same prize.
As head of the Labor party, he demanded the role of solo lead negotiator with Syria as one of his conditions for rejoining a cabinet under Livni. She stalled. Her acceptance would have reduced her to a cipher in her own government and elevated him to strongman, especially since the talks with the Palestinians are stuck in a blind alley.
Without Labor, Livni has no government, whereas the unpopular Barak is reluctant to face the voter. The two politicians therefore compromised on a dual lead in negotiations with Syria and, if they restart, with the Palestinians too.