Agitated activity focusing on Damascus sent the Middle East war barometer shooting up this week. The last steps were taken on Thursday, June 20, when Israel declared a partial emergency call-up of reserves and announced a new deployment on its Golan frontier with Syria of a large concentration of tanks, infantry, self-propelled artillery, missiles and helicopter units.
Officially, this military movement was termed a military exercise, one that had not been announced in advance. The concentration is to remain at its new location for an unspecified period.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military analysts note that this latest move indicates the Israeli defense forces command sufficient manpower to cope simultaneously with incursions of Palestinian terrorist strongholds in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, maintaining two armored brigades in Jordan alongside US Special Forces units, while at the same time detaching substantial strength for the Syrian border.
Diplomatic movement preceded the military step. Wednesday, June 19, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak rushed over to Damascus to see Syrian leader Bashar Assad. He stopped over in Amman for talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
“What is Assad up to?” a half-despairing Mubarak asked Abdullah, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Amman. “We Egyptians and Saudis are doing everything in our power to distance the United States from Israel, but Assad is undoing our work and bring them back together.”
Abdullah, who has long given up on pan-Arab relationships, did not reply. In consultations with his advisers before Mubarak’s arrival, the monarch grumbled: “For years, the Egyptians told us all that Arafat is safely under their thumb and serves their interests in the Israel and Arab arenas, and so must be protected. Where has their blind support for Arafat got them and all of us now?”
Abdullah was equally unsympathetic to Mubarak’s boast of a joint Egyptian-Saudi ploy to drive a wedge between the United States and Israel. The king does not trust Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, crown prince Abdullah, and is certain his Saudi namesake would never endorse Mubarak’s perception of Saudi-Egyptian cooperation on the Palestinian issue.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Beirut, Mubarak’s welcome in Damascus was even chillier than the one he received in Amman. Assad stuck to his guns on Syria’s military cooperation understandings with Iraq, Iran and Hizballah. When warned that he was heading for a regional war and an Israeli hammering for Syria and its military, the Syrian president said loftily that war and the current situation in the Middle East were all the same to him. He said the Syrian and Israeli armies, as well as the Hizballah in Lebanon, are already in confrontation mode and only waiting for the signal to go into action.
“Middle East hostilities have been in progress for several months,” Assad told Mubarak, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, US Special Forces’ undercover operations in northern Iraq and the mysterious explosions occurring in Syrian munitions factories and military industrial facilities in March and April.
Seeing the futility of his attempts to talk Assad round, Mubarak returned to Cairo without a word to the traveling press. People aboard Mubarak’s plane said he was in a particularly foul mood.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Jerusalem, Israel gave up on the young Syrian president’s belligerent attitude long before Mubarak’s visit to Damascus. Instead, its political and military policies in the region have been shaped to meet the Syrian ruler’s insistence that the region is already at war. The timeline estimated in Jerusalem for a generalized flare-up may be as soon as July, barring unforeseen events, such an eruption in the Gulf region involving Iraqi forces.
The war scenario presaged by the most recent Syrian-Hizballah conduct goes like this:
The Lebanese Shiite group launches a terror attack against an Israeli outpost on the Lebanon border, or effects a massive infiltration of fighting units into Israel, capturing a kibbutz or moshav (collective and cooperative farms) close to the frontier.
Israel retaliates against Syrian military targets.
Syria and Hizballah quickly hit back at Israeli targets, leveling the strategic playing field by firing missile batteries, thousands of which are piled up in southern and central Lebanon, in the Baalbek and Bekaa regions, and in western Syria.
In early April, Israel was on the verge of attacking Syria, after finding out from different sources that Syrian military intelligence had laid on logistical and operational support for radical Palestinian terrorist groups to conduct terrorist strikes in Israel. At the eleventh hour, prime minister Ariel Sharon backed off and asked for American diplomatic intercession.
US secretary of state Colin Powell, who was touring the Middle East, hurried over to Damascus to hand Assad Israel’s warning. Some of the tension leaked out of the crisis – but only for about ten days. Now, Israel is not asking for America’s good services. Both Sharon and US President George W. Bush view Assad as a lost cause.
In Sharon’s talks with Bush in the White House earlier this month, the Syrian issue did come up, but only in the form of a hypothetical question. Would Saddam Hussein come to Assad’s aid in line with their mutual defense pacts in the event of a powerful Israeli military strike against Syria? If so, a localized conflict could quickly spin into a regional war. Bush and Sharon also postulated a second Iraqi response to an Israeli strike against Syria, namely an Iraqi assault on Jordan.
Much of the conversation revolved around a possible Israeli-Syrian clash breaking out in mid-July. It would involve the Hizballah and the Palestinians and act as the fulcrum for the US military move against Iraq.