Tuesday, October 07, 2003

The Guns of October?

I'm sure that by now all of you have heard about Israel's strike against the Islamic Jihad base near Damascus, as well as the sudden outbreak of Hezbollah violence on the Northern Border, which most everyone seems to think is an act of retaliation. Obviously, its too early to reach serious conclusions about what's about to happen, and I think something is about to happen, but a few preliminery impressions might be in order.

Firstly, Syria is not going to let this go without a military response. Basher Assad is too weak and too new on the job to let himself be seen as a weak-willed beaurocrat being pushed around by the Israelis. His government, already seriously unstable, may very well collapse under the weight of his various competing ministers, who are basically running the country already. The internal schisms within Syria's antiquated one-party government (it is the closest thing to Stalinism still existing this side of North Korea) may not be able to survive a serious military confrontation with Israel.

Of course, Syria's been playing with fire for years, supporting Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and a host of other groups, as well as facilitating Iranian financial and military support for them. Assad has showed himself astonishingly oblivious to the inevitable consequences of this kind of reckless brinksmanship (as his father often did before him), and seems to fancy himself a leader in the great Arab struggle against Israel and the Imperialist West, an attitude which, needless to say, has been a recipie for disaster in this part of the world. He nearly got in hot water with the United States after the Iraq War for his various belligerancies, and we may be seeing the beginning of a comuppance which everyone has seen coming except, apparently, him.

Secondly, we are seeing a major change in strategy on the part of the Sharon government. Sharon has, thus far, refrained from attacking terrorist bases outside of the territories. Unfortunately, the confrontation with Syria and its support of terror against Israel was bound to happen. There was only so long Israel could allow Syria's double game to go one before taking action. Sharon appears to be pursuing the same strategy as he did with the Palestinians in the first two years of the intifada, a patient push-pull leading to a widening of the political maneuvering room of the IDF. In simple terms: the first time the IDF entered Palestinian cities, there was an enormous political outcry, the second time the response was much more muted, now the IDF operates freely in Palestinian territory largely without comment from the international community and, most importantly, with the tacit consent of the United States. Sharon may be banking on the same phenomenon here. The next time he attacks Palestinian terror bases in Syria - and there will be a next time - the criticism will likely be far more muted, as the world's attention span is, after all, a short one. Sharon is also sending a very serious signal to the Arab neighbors. He is sending them the same message he sent back in the '50s, when he led the commando Unit 101 under David Ben-Gurion's command: we will not be moved, if you threaten us, the price exacted will be prohibitively high. I think he is in earnest and I think the strikes will continue.

The big question is: will this lead to a regional war? The only way that could happen, taking the slovenly state of Syria's military into consideration, is if Egypt abrogates its peace treaty with Israel and enters in a war with us. I think this possibility, if remote, is not entirely unthinkable. Previously a taboo subject, it has already begun to be spoken of in serious terms by the Egyptian intelligensia, and if, as I think is likely, fundamentalist movements in Egypt rise exponentially in political power and influence over the next decade, the threat becomes more and more real. However, the real threat is a reckless retaliatory attack by Syria on Israel soil. This would probably lead to a full-scale confrontation with the IDF, one that Assad simply cannot win given the present state of his forces. This could lead to major upheavels both in Syria and Egypt with a possible fundamentalist takeover in the latter (an event which is, I believe, ultimately inevitable anyways). It may be that regional war is an unavoidable event given present circumstances, but, at the moment, the question is in the hands of Bashar Assad. Ironically enough, the man least likely to make the right decision. Fate is rarely kind in the Middle East, lets hope this is one of the exceptions.


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