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July 15, 2006
Israel Issues Ultimatum To Syria

Perhaps sensing a leadership vacuum in Damascus based on the odd report yesterday that Bashar Assad did not participate in a Ba'ath Party leadership conference, Israel has issued an ultimatum to Syria demanding the return of its soldiers and the end to Hezbollah activity along the border. If Syria does not comply within 72 hours, an Arabic newspaper reported, Israel will launch a major attack against Syria:

The London-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Hayat reported Saturday that “Washington has information according to which Israel gave Damascus 72 hours to stop Hizbullah’s activity along the Lebanon-Israel border and bring about the release the two kidnapped IDF soldiers or it would launch an offensive with disastrous consequences.”

The report said “a senior Pentagon source warned that should the Arab world and international community fail in the efforts to convince Syria to pressure Hizbullah into releasing the soldiers and halt the current escalation Israel may attack targets in the country.”

Al-Hayat quoted the source as saying that “the US cannot rule out the possibility of an Israeli strike in Syria,” this despite the fact that the Bush administration has asked Israel to “refrain from any military activity that may result in civilian casualties."

Last night the Syrians declared their solidarity with Hezbollah and warned Israel that it would not allow Hezbollah to fail in the latest war. That statement of alliance has obviously prompted Israel to call their bluff, and the silence of Bashar Assad will now get more attention. It is more than passingly strange that a nation would openly ally itself with another nation or group engaged in war on another nation without that statement coming from the head of state. It is inconceivable that such a policy announcement would occur in a dictatorship without the dictator himself being involved.

The Ba'athists in Syria may have been serious, but it seems more likely that they wanted to bluff Israel and the global community with what appears to be a rather empty threat. The Syrian military could not match up against the Israelis when they controlled Lebanon, and without Saddam Hussein as a backstop, they don't have a prayer now. Unlike Hezbollah, they actually have territory to lose, and they no longer control the strategic Golan Heights.

Syria may believe that the mutual defense pact they have with Iran will cause enough nations to rein in Israel before the war escalates into a regional conflict. However, they may find their bluff insufficient. First, most of the West believes that this has already become a regional conflict, and that Syria and Iran have deep involvement in Hamas and Hezbollah. All Israel's ultimatum accomplishes is to add significant risk to Syria directly for their proxy war. Second, the Iranians will find it quite difficult to march to the aid of Syria with 135,000 American troops blocking their way, and the US Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Israel has decided to raise the stakes on Syria. Will Syria blink?

Addendum: We should point out that the Syrians and the Iranians have incredibly poor timing. Why did they bother to start this conflict now? The US has had months of tension over the status of our troops in Iraq. In a year or so, we would have significantly drawn down the force there, making coordination between Iran and Syria easier. Now the Syrians have placed themselves in a vise between the Israelis on one side, the Americans on another, with NATO ally Turkey sitting on top of them. I'd say that the Ba'athists in Damascus have the same military genius as the Ba'athists did in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power.

UPDATE: Israel denies the report (h/t: Michael van der Galien at TMV):

Responding to a report in a pan-Arab daily newspaper that Israel presented Damascus with an ultimatum, an Israel Defense Forces officer said Saturday that targeting Syria is currently not on Israel's agenda.

"We're not a gang that shoots in every direction," the officer said. "It won't be right to bring Syria into the campaign."

The IDF officer emphasized that the Golan Heights frontier has been quiet since 1974, a factor which Israeli views as a vital security asset. The officer said that the Syrian air force as well as additional units are on high alert, a fact which hasn't escaped Israel's attention.

Israel may wait for Syria to make the first move. They did so with Hezbollah and with Hamas, which has allowed them more diplomatic manuevering room.

UPDATE II: Does this save Hillary from doing a remake of "Billy, Don't Be A Hero"? The Anchoress thinks so. It all depends on the meaning of "cross", anyway.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 15, 2006 8:29 AM

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