Friday, February 5, 2010

Syria and Israel's War of Words

The decisions and statements made in international relations have far more to do with personality than perhaps the discipline of political science is willing to admit. This week's spat between Israel and Syria is a classic example.

At the Herziliya conference this week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that in the absence of a peace agreement with Syria, "all out war" would result. He meant this as a reason to pursue peace.

But Walid Muallem, Syrian Foreign Minister, interpreted this as a threat, saying that any Syrian response to an Israeli attack would include attacks on Israeli cities.

True to himself, Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman accused Muallem of "crossing a red line" and warned that "Assad should know that if he attacks, he will not only lose the war. Neither he nor his family will remain in power." In an ironic twist, when MKs and the media called him out on these comments, Lieberman bemoaned the "reactionary" nature of the Israeli left.

Despite all this raucous, it's really hard to find any way that these threats could escalate to an all out war, and this kind of posturing happens literally daily in the Middle East. The key is that every party is talking about their second strike capabilities rather than their first strike capabilities. Both Israel and Syria are afraid of being attacked, and neither is about to go after the other. Syria is highly likely to lose a war against Israel, and Israel would suffer from a war with Syria largely because of Hizballah.

What would be beneficial to relieve tensions is increased contact and dialogue. Syria is widely considered a lynchpin in Iranian hegemony in the region. Any attempt to draw it away and align it with Arab or even Western powers would be a blow to the Iranian government and would bolster prospects for greater long-term stability in the Middle East. De-isolation should not be considered a privilege for Syria, but rather a strategic Israeli means for weakening the Iranian threat.

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