In September last year, Israeli aircraft launched an unprovoked and entirely illegal air attack on a Syrian military installation, destroying what Syria said were unused buildings in the middle of the desert. In April, the US State Department published what it claimed were intelligence materials proving that the building was an illegal nuclear reactor, allegations which were rubbished by neutral observers. In between, in March, Imad Mughniyyah, a senior Hizbullah leader, had been assassinated by a bomb in Syria’s capital Damascus, an attack widely blamed on Israel, and which many in Israel were happy to claim credit for. Given these events, it is difficult to know just what to make of the recent announcement that Syria and Israel have agreed to open low-level talks in Istanbul aimed at a possible peace agreement sometime in the indeterminate future.
On the one hand, Israel may be genuinely hoping to reach a deal with Syria, in order to break it away from the Iran-Hizbullah axis, which Israel correctly regards as the main threat to its regional hegemony. This would certainly weaken Hizbullah’s position in Lebanon, which Israel regards as a major target since its failure to destroy the Islamic movement in its invasion ofLebanon (2006). In this case, the recent belligerence may well have been intended to soften Syria up; to demonstrate to Bashar al-Asad that his pragmatic alliance with two committed Islamic movements could become counter-productive, and that Israel and the US would be both willing and able to use force against him without fear of any serious consequences. Such an effort, if it is what Israel is planning, may well prove successful. Unlike Iran and Hizbullah, Syria’s opposition to Israel is entirely pragmatic, rather than being based on any principle or commitment. Syria’s main grievance is Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights since 1967. Israel is reported to have offered to return part of this territory to Syria on certain conditions, which include the establishment of a demilitarised zone in southern Syria to ensure that Israel cannot be threatened. The territorial issues are complex and connected also to water issues in the region, and it is unlikely that they can be resolved easily, but the fact that they might be discussed at all is seen as significant. How far such discussions will go remains to be seen, of course.
There is, however, another possible interpretation of developments, based on the same background, but including certain other factors. Foremost among these is that the Bush administration remains determined to claim some sort of success in the Middle East before leaving office. Syria has long been regarded in Washington as an easy target that can be attacked at any time; because the US has failed to achieve any effective action against Iran by attacking its nuclear programme, and having failed to destroy Hizbullah in 2006, Syria may be next on the list. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is also under serious political pressure domestically; Israeli politicians have a long record of trying to divert attention from domestic pressures by attacking either the Palestinians or their Arab neighbours. Although Israel has made major preparations for another war against Hizbullah this summer, Hizbullah’s recent political success inLebanon, establishing itself in government instead of being an opposition group, may be giving it second thoughts. All these factors suggest that Israel’s offer to talk with Syria could simply be designed to manufacture a pretext for military action against Syria in future, if Syria refuses to make the concessions that Israel demands and can be blamed somehow for the failure of the talks.
It may well be that the decision-makers in Tel Aviv are not yet sure themselves which of the two possible paths -- or any variation of them -- they will actually follow; their decision may be based on how the talks progress, what signals they get from other parties (particularly the US), and how things develop in Lebanon in the first months after the Doha agreement. But the Syrians must know that, given Israel’s record of war-mongering, they cannot afford to be complacent. Few would bet against Israel finding a pretext for going to war against one or another of its neighbours before this summer is done.