War Is Talk of Syria, Israel
By BENNY AVNI, STAFF REPORTER OF THE SUN
April 3, 2008

President al-Assad heads the closing of the two-day Arab summit on March 30, 2008 in Damascus, Syria.

Although some Israeli politicians are advocating negotiations with President al-Assad of Syria, the Israeli army deputy chief of staff said yesterday that retaliation against any nation that launches a war against Israel, the “strongest country in the region,” would be “painful.”

Syria has called up its reserve units and deployed them near the Israeli border after bellicose remarks by Israeli officials spurred concerns in Damascus, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper reported yesterday. Al-Quds al-Arabi did not specify which Israeli comments raised the alarm. The newspaper reported that Syria deployed its units to the Bekaa Valley, an area it said Israel would be most likely to attack.

On the face of it, Syria may have enough of a pretext to launch a military offensive this spring. Although Israeli officials have never provided confirmation, a number of press outlets have reported that Israel bombed a nascent Syrian nuclear facility in September. And next weekend Syria reportedly will release an official report on the assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah’s operational commander, Imad Mughniyeh, which is likely to hold Israel responsible.

However, yesterday’s Al-Quds report said Hezbollah, which is funded by Iran and Syria, would not retaliate over the killing of Mugniyeh, to avoid giving Israel a pretext for war. Syria and its chief ally, Iran, are not angling for a war, either, according to analysts. And with Israelis preparing for their country’s 60th-anniversary celebrations in May, the public and the government are largely averse to war, as well.

Syria’s war maneuvers may have been sparked by a push by some Israeli pundits and politicians to renew diplomatic negotiations with the Assad government, some analysts say.

“War would be bad for the Syrians and bad for the Iranians,” a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Jonathan Dahoah Halevi, said. An unsuccessful military campaign could lead to a revolt by Syrian army generals, and Syria’s Sunni majority could go on to topple Mr. Assad’s Alawi sect, which means that Iran would lose its most reliable Arab ally, Mr. Dahoah Halevi said. Syria may be dangling the war option merely “to show Israelis what would be the painful alternative to peace talks,” he said.

The report in Al-Quds “is totally false,” a member of the Syrian parliament’s National Security Committee, Retired Colonel Ahmad Munir Muhammad was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post. “Syria is not concentrating forces and is not summoning its reserves,” he said.

Mr. Assad’s “message is clear: We are for a just and comprehensive peace and for the implementation of the United Nations resolutions.” But Colonel Muhammad added that there are signs that Israel and America are preparing for war against Syria to “divert attention” from Iraq and from Israel’s internal problems.

“I don’t see any reason for unusual tension in the north, and I don’t think that either side, be it this one or that, is interested in a military conflict,” the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, Major General Dan Harel, told reporters in Jerusalem yesterday. Still, he added, “Anyone who tries to harm Israel must remember that it is the strongest country in the region, and retaliation will be powerful and painful.”

“I haven’t read Al-Quds al-Arabi in the last two days, so I have no idea what you are talking about,” Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai joked in an interview with Israel Radio. Nevertheless, he said Israel would begin distributing protective gear against chemical and biological attacks to its citizens “as soon as possible,” rather that in early 2009, as originally planned.

According to several recent press reports, Syria and Iran have transferred chemical- and biological-tipped warheads to Hezbollah, which some claim possesses more missiles now than it did before the 2006 Lebanon war. The organization is “growing more powerful,” Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, told reporters Tuesday during a visit to northern Israel, adding he would not “recommend” for anyone to “test us.”


Original article: NY Sun
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