Why Did Israel Attack Syria?
By Jonathan Cook
09/27/07 "ICH" -- -- Nazareth -- Israel's air strike on northern
Syria earlier this month should be understood in the context of
events unfolding since its assault last summer on neighboring
From the leaks so far, it seems that more than half a dozen
Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace to drop munitions on
a site close to the border with Turkey. We also know from the US
media that the raid occurred in close coordination with the
White House. But what was the purpose and significance of the
It is worth recalling that, in the wake of Israel's month-long
war against Lebanon a year ago, a prominent American
neoconservative, Meyrav Wurmser, wife of Vice-President Dick
Cheney's recently departed Middle East adviser, explained that
the war had dragged on because the White House delayed in
imposing a ceasefire. The neocons, she said, wanted to give
Israel the time and space to expand the attack to Damascus.
The reasoning was simple: before an attack on Iran could be
countenanced, Hizbullah in Lebanon had to be destroyed and Syria
at the very least cowed. The plan was to isolate Tehran on these
two other hostile fronts before going in for the kill.
But faced with constant rocket fire from Hizbullah last summer,
Israel's public and military nerves frayed at the first hurdle.
Instead Israel and the US were forced to settle for a Security
Council resolution rather than a decisive military victory.
The immediate fallout of the failed attack was an apparent
waning of neocon influence. The group's program of "creative
destruction" in the Middle East -- the encouragement of regional
civil war and the partition of large states that threaten Israel
-- was at risk of being shunted aside.
Instead the "pragmatists" in the Bush Administration, led by
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the new Defense
Secretary Robert Gates, demanded a change of tack. The standoff
reached a head in late 2006 when oilman James Baker and his Iraq
Study Group began lobbying for a gradual withdrawal from Iraq --
presumably only after a dictator, this one more reliable, had
again been installed in Baghdad. It looked as if the neocons'
day in the sun had finally passed.
Israel's leadership understood the gravity of the moment. In
January 2007 the Herzliya conference, an annual festival of
strategy-making, invited no less than 40 Washington
opinion-formers to join the usual throng of Israeli politicians,
generals, journalists and academics. For a week the Israeli and
American delegates spoke as one: Iran and its presumed proxy,
Hizbullah, were bent on the genocidal destruction of Israel.
Tehran's development of a nuclear program -- whether for
civilian use, as Iran argues, or for military use, as the US and
Israel claim -- had to be stopped at all costs.
While the White House turned uncharacteristically quiet all
spring and summer about what it planned to do next, rumors that
Israel was pondering a go-it-alone strike against Iran grew
noisier by the day. Ex-Mossad officers warned of an inevitable
third world war, Israeli military intelligence advised that Iran
was only months away from the point of no return on developing a
nuclear warhead, prominent leaks in sympathetic media revealed
bombing runs to Gibraltar, and Israel started upping the
pressure on several tens of thousands of Jews in Tehran to flee
their homes and come to Israel.
While Western analysts opined that an attack on Iran was growing
unlikely, Israel's neighbors watched nervously through the first
half of the year as the vague impression of a regional war came
ever more sharply into focus. In particular Syria, after
witnessing the whirlwind of savagery unleashed against Lebanon
last summer, feared it was next in line in the US-Israeli
campaign to break Tehran's network of regional alliances. It
deduced, probably correctly, that neither the US nor Israel
would dare attack Iran without first clobbering Hizbullah and
For some time Syria had been left in no doubt of the mood in
Washington. It failed to end its pariah status in the post-9/11
period, despite helping the CIA with intelligence on al-Qaeda
and secretly trying to make peace with Israel over the running
sore of the occupied Golan Heights. It was rebuffed at every
So as the clouds of war grew darker in the spring, Syria
responded as might be expected. It went to the arms market in
Moscow and bought up the displays of anti-aircraft missiles as
well as anti-tank weapons of the kind Hizbullah demonstrated
last summer were so effective at repelling Israel's planned
ground invasion of south Lebanon.
As the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld reluctantly
conceded earlier this year, US policy was forcing Damascus to
remain within Iran's uncomfortable embrace: "Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad finds himself more dependent on his Iranian
counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, than perhaps he would like."
Israel, never missing an opportunity to wilfully misrepresent
the behavior of an enemy, called the Syrian military build-up
proof of Damascus' appetite for war. Apparently fearful that
Syria might initiate a war by mistaking the signals from Israel
as evidence of aggressive intentions, the Israeli prime
minister, Ehud Olmert, urged Syria to avoid a "miscalculation".
The Israeli public spent the summer braced for a far more
dangerous repeat of last summer's war along the northern border.
It was at this point -- with tensions simmeringly hot -- that
Israel launched its strike, sending several fighter planes into
Syria on a lightning mission to hit a site near Dayr a-Zawr. As
Syria itself broke the news of the attack, Israeli generals were
shown on TV toasting in the Jewish new year but refusing to
Details have remained thin on the ground ever since: Israel
imposed a news blackout that has been strictly enforced by the
country's military censor. Instead it has been left to the
Western media to speculate on what occurred.
One point that none of the pundits and analysts have noted was
that, in attacking Syria, Israel committed a blatant act of
aggression against its northern neighbor of the kind denounced
as the "supreme international crime" by the Nuremberg war crimes
Also, no one pointed out the obvious double standard applied to
Israel's attack on Syria compared to the far less significant
violation of Israeli sovereignty by Hizbullah a year earlier,
when the Shia militia captured two Israel soldiers at a border
post and killed three more. Hizbullah's act was widely accepted
as justification for the bombardment and destruction of much of
Lebanon, even if a few sensitive souls agonized over whether
Israel's response was "disproportionate". Would these
commentators now approve of similar retaliation by Syria?
The question was doubtless considered unimportant because it was
clear from Western coverage that no one -- including the Israeli
leadership -- believed Syria was in a position to respond
militarily to Israel's attack. Olmert's fear of a Syrian
"miscalculation" evaporated the moment Israel did the maths for
So what did Israel hope to achieve with its aerial strike?
The stories emerging from the less gagged American media suggest
two scenarios. The first is that Israel targeted Iranian
supplies passing through Syria on their way to Hizbullah; the
second that Israel struck at a fledgling Syrian nuclear plant
where materials from North Korea were being offloaded, possibly
as part of a joint nuclear effort by Damascus and Tehran.
(Speculation that Israel was testing Syria's anti-aircraft
defences in preparation for an attack on Iran ignores the fact
that the Israeli air force would almost certainly choose a
flightpath through friendlier Jordanian airspace.)
How credible are these two scenarios?
The nuclear claims against Damascus were discounted so quickly
by experts of the region that Washington was soon downgrading
the accusation to claims that Syria was only hiding the material
on North Korea's behalf. But why would Syria, already hounded by
Israel and the US, provide such a readymade pretext for still
harsher treatment? Why, equally, would North Korea undermine its
hard-won disarmament deal with the US? And why, if Syria were
covertly engaging in nuclear mischief, did it alert the world to
the fact by revealing the Israeli air strike?
The other justification for the attack was at least based in a
more credible reality: Damascus, Hizbullah and Iran undoubtedly
do share some military resources. But their alliance should be
seen as the kind of defensive pact needed by vulnerable actors
in a Sunni-dominated region where the US wants unlimited control
of Gulf oil and supports only those repressive regimes that
cooperate on its terms. All three are keenly aware that it is
Israel's job to threaten and punish any regimes that fail to toe
Contrary to the impression being created in the West, genocidal
hatred of Israel and Jews, however often Ahmadinejad's speeches
are mistranslated, is not the engine of these countries'
Nonetheless, the political significance of the justifications
for the Israeli air strike is that both neatly tie together
various strands of an argument needed by the neocons and Israel
in making their case for an attack on Iran before Bush leaves
office in early 2009. Each scenario suggests a Shia "axis of
evil", coordinated by Iran, that is actively plotting Israel's
destruction. And each story offers the pretext for an attack on
Syria as a prelude to a pre-emptive strike against Tehran --
launched either by Washington or Tel Aviv -- to save Israel.
That these stories appear to have been planted in the American
media by neocon fanatics like John Bolton is warning enough --
as is the admission that the only evidence for Syrian
malfeasance is Israeli "intelligence", the basis of which cannot
be questioned as Israel is not officially admitting the attack.
It should hardly need pointing out that we are again in a hall
of mirrors, as we were during the period leading up to America's
invasion of Iraq and have been during its subsequent occupation.
Bush's "war on terror" was originally justified with the
convenient and manufactured links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, as
well as, of course, those WMDs that, it later turned out, had
been destroyed years earlier. But ever since Tehran has
invariably been the ultimate target of these improbable
There were the forged documents proving both that Iraq had
imported enriched uranium from Niger to manufacture nuclear
warheads and that it was sharing its nuclear know-how with Iran.
And as Iraq fell apart, neocon operatives like Michael Ledeen
lost no time in spreading rumors that the missing nuclear
arsenal could still be accounted for: Iranian agents had simply
smuggled it out of Iraq during the chaos of the US invasion.
Since then our media have proved that they have no less of an
appetite for such preposterous tales. If Iran's involvement in
stirring up its fellow Shia in Iraq against the US occupation is
at least possible, the same cannot be said of the regular White
House claims that Tehran is behind the Sunni-led insurgencies in
Iraq and Afghanistan. A few months ago the news media served up
"revelations" that Iran was secretly conspiring with al-Qaeda
and Iraq's Sunni militias to oust the US occupiers.
So what purpose does the constant innuendo against Tehran serve?
The latest accusations should be seen as an example of Israel
and the neocons "creating their own reality", as one Bush
adviser famously observed of the neocon philosophy of power. The
more that Hizbullah, Syria and Iran are menaced by Israel, the
more they are forced to huddle together and behave in ways to
protect themselves -- such as arming -- that can be portrayed as
a "genocidal" threat to Israel and world order.
Van Creveld once observed that Tehran would be "crazy" not to
develop nuclear weapons given the clear trajectory of Israeli
and US machinations to overthrow the regime. So equally Syria
cannot afford to jettison its alliance with Iran or its
involvement with Hizbullah. In the current reality, these
connections are the only power it has to deter an attack or
force the US and Israel to negotiate.
But they are also the evidence needed by Israel and the neocons
to convict Syria and Iran in the court of Washington opinion.
The attack on Syria is part of a clever hustle, one designed to
vanquish or bypass the doubters in the Bush Administration, both
by proving Syria's culpability and by provoking it to respond.
Condoleezza Rice, it emerged at the weekend, wants to invite
Syria to attend the regional peace conference that has been
called by President Bush for November. There can be no doubt
that such an act of détente is deeply opposed by both Israel and
the neocons. It reverses their strategy of implicating Damascus
in the "Shia arc of extremism" and of paving the way to an
attack on the real target: Iran.
Syria, meanwhile, is fighting back, as it has been for some
time, with the only means available: the diplomatic offensive.
For two years Bashar al-Assad has been offering a generous peace
deal to Israel on the Golan Heights that Tel Aviv has refused to
consider. This week, Syria made a further gesture towards peace
with an offer on another piece of territory occupied by Israel,
the Shebaa Farms. Under the plan, the Farms -- which the United
Nations now agrees belongs to Lebanon, but which Israel still
claims is Syrian and cannot be returned until there is a deal on
the Golan Heights -- would be transferred to UN custody until
the dispute over its sovereignty can be resolved.
Were either of Damascus' initiatives to be pursued, the region
might be looking forward to a period of relative calm and
security. Which is reason enough why Israel and the neocons are
so bitterly opposed. Instead they must establish a new reality
-- one in which the forces of "creative destruction" so beloved
of the neocons engulf yet more of the region. For the rest of
us, a simpler vocabulary suffices. What is being sold is
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth.
He is the author of the forthcoming "Blood and Religion: The
Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State" published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the
University of Michigan Press. His website is
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