Power Struggles Could Tip Israel and Syria Over
Tuesday, April 1, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak toured the Golan border with Syria. Like other visits he has made in recent months, the public was not informed that he was there to review a large-scale military exercise. This one deployed large armored units for repulsing a combined Syrian helicopter-borne command assault and cross-border tank drive, then turning the tables and storming through onto the Syrian side of Golan.
The exercise, in which an Israel armored division, with warplane and helicopter cover, took part, was staged in response to the advance ten days ago of three Syrian armored divisions from the center of the country to the country’s borders with Lebanon and Israel; this was followed last week by the posting of two Syrian armored brigades on the Beirut-Damascus highway cutting through from Lebanon to Syria.
As the Golan exercise drew to a close, Barak remarked that Israel was fully aware of the intensive activity across the border. He boasted that Israel had the strongest army in the Middle East and he would not advise anyone to put it to the test.
The defense minister clearly meant to deter Damascus and Hizballah from proceeding with their war plans. But his comment would have fallen flat two years after Israel’s defense forces failed to beat the Hizballah in the last Lebanon war.
Barely 12 hours after the Israeli defense minister had his say, he had his answer from Damascus. The first edition of the London-published al Quds al Arabi, quoted senior officials in Damascus as announcing the partial mobilization of reserves in readiness for an Israeli attack on Syria and Hizballah.
This item, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, carried two rejoinders for the Israeli minister:
Syria and Hizballah in military lockstep
One: Damascus has begun mobilizing units for lengthy stints, whereas hitherto they were called up merely to test how quickly they reported to their units, collected their weapons and reached the field, after which they were sent home.
Two: In the next war, should one erupt, the Syrian army and Lebanese Hizballah would fight together in both their countries. The two Syrian armored brigades deployed on the Beirut-Damascus highway therefore straddled both sides of the border. It complemented a series of military steps taken by Damascus in recent weeks.
- Syrian missile and artillery units were placed on the ready; the short-range rockets and artillery were positioned close to the Israeli border; the long range units were taken out of store and ranged in battle formation.
- One Syrian military convoy after another has been crossing into Lebanon loaded with assorted rockets, some of them long-range, and anti-air weapons, for Hizballah.
- Sophisticated Iranian electronic surveillance and listening devices have been posted on the Syrian Golan to picking up Israeli military activities and communications near the border and further afield in Galilee.
Israel cannot therefore relocate forces without Damascus’ knowledge. Its brigade, battalion and company commanders have been ordered to leave their cell phones out of briefings at command centers because the Iranian devices can to pick up and relay conversations. For operational calls, officers must stick to secure military lines.
- Syria’s capital, main cities and strategic sites are now protected by air defense missile and artillery units in battle array.
- All of Syria’s military units, even at the far ends of the country away from the Israeli and Lebanese borders are in emergency mode.
Syria and Israel have long mutual reckonings
Wednesday, April 2, three more Israeli steps raised temperatures: Its defense cabinet, called into unscheduled session, published two directives. One was to redistribute the bio-chemical warfare masks called in from the public some months ago, and the other, to stage a nationwide emergency exercise April l6-10, for testing the home front’s readiness for missile attack.
That night, Barak announced he had postponed his visit next week to Germany, because of the situation on Israel’s northern borders.
Deliberately or not, after long months of preparation, Jerusalem and Damascus had taken significant steps closer to the brink of war in a few short days.
Syria has a long reckoning with Israel, over and above its claim to the Golan which Israel has held since driving off the Syrian invasion in 1967. It ranges from the provocatively low passes Israeli fighter planes flew over President Bashar Assad’s palace in Damascus; through the killing of Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami operations officers; up to allegations that Israel was responsible for Imad Mughniyeh’s death – all in the Syrian capital.
On Sept. 6, 2007, moreover, Israeli raiders dismantled a plutonium reactor located in northern Syria which had been purchased from North Korea. The Syrian president and his armed forces were especially humiliated by the raiders dismantling and making off with the reactor’s components before blowing the site up.
Israel’s reckoning with Syria is no less provoking.
Syria’s capital, its army and its intelligence organs provide Iran with its forward positions in this part of the Middle East. Their strategic, military and economic bonds are constantly growing, with Moscow’s discreet support.
Russia for its part is building its own substantial military infrastructure in Syria. Both are within uncomfortable range of Israel’s borders and at least one is implacably hostile to the Jewish state.
Has strongman Asif Shawqat been purged?
They overlay an older menace: Damascus is home and logistic base to a flock of extremist Palestinian terrorist groups which pull violent strings in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They include the jihadist Hamas and Jihad Islami, and the various rejectionist Palestinian Fronts. Syria and Iran are godfathers and armorers of the Lebanese Hizballah.
As long as these radical elements glare menacingly at Israel from its northern borders there is no chance of progress on any peace track with the Palestinians and a war threat will be ever-present around the corner.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources stress that domestic considerations in Damascus and Jerusalem, both beset by struggles for power, must be added to the calculations of when and under what circumstances the tensions will blow up into hostilities.
In Damascus, our sources in the Syrian capital reveal the sudden disappearance this week of Assad’s brother-in-law Gen. Asif Shawqat, chief of military intelligence chief and reputed strongman of the regime.
Prior to that mystery, our sources report that his wife, Bushara, President Assad’s sister, left the country abruptly in mid-March and moved to a new address in West Europe.
The reason for her departure was said to be a quarrel between her husband and brother.
The rift in the tight Assad clan is reported to have been sparked by the president’s decision to strip Shawqat of his exceptional powers and transfer them to his trustee, Gen. Hafez Makhlouf.
That personal rivalries at the pinnacle of power in Damascus are fierce enough to transcend a grave national emergency is instructive. Some of our Gulf intelligence sources familiar with Damascene politics link the former Syrian strongman’s disappearance to the intelligence report the Syrian government is to release next week on its investigation into the death of the Hizballah leader, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus six weeks ago. Those sources believe that President Assad had arranged for Gen. Shawqat to carry the can for the embarrassing episode.
They recall the case of the late Syrian interior minister Gen. Ghazi Kenaan, who put a bullet in his brain in October 2005 when he discovered that Assad’s henchmen were trying to pin on him the responsibility for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February of that year.
Two power centers mark Israel government
The forthcoming Mughniyeh report is also pertinent to the power struggle between Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, head of the Kadima party, and defense minister Barak, leader of Labor, although there are no other parallel features with the Syrian infighting.
On April 2, Barak’s spokesmen accounted for the postponement of his trip to Berlin by his expectation that the release of the Mughniyeh report would stir up waves in Syria and in Hizballah and he needed to be on hand in case of trouble.
Ministers in the prime minister’s confidence and military officers close to chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, who has never won Barak’s trust, came forward at once and played down the war tensions between Syria and Israel. No one has an interest in going to war, said one minister.
The defense minister brushes off these jabs with ease.
A former prime minister himself, who also served as chief of staff, Barak takes advantage of his familiarity with military and security matters to upstage his boss and highlight the painful shortcomings Olmert displayed in the 2006 Lebanon war.
He treats the defense establishment as his own turf and rarely bothers to defer to the prime minister.
US officials who visited Israel in recent weeks complained they had to do business with at least two different Israeli leaders, the prime minister and defense minister, and very often came away with conflicting conclusions.
Olmert, for his part, is dependent on the Labor party for his government’s survival. If Barak and his party walked out, the Olmert government would fall and be forced to submit to a general election. This the prime minister cannot afford, given his abysmal popular ratings. So Barak holds this threat over his head.
With the disarray current in Damascus and Jerusalem, it would not be surprising if a conflict erupted as a result of a miscalculation by one or the other, earlier than the widely-predicted date of June or July 2008. On the other hand, the brouhaha might die down for the time being.