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Talk of war, talk of peace

Israel and Syria Mysterious happenings Sep 13th 2007
From The Economist print edition “I CAN'T remember a time when our interests and theirs converged like this,” says a former Israeli defence man.
For several days after Syria complained that Israeli aircraft had penetrated its airspace, neither country wanted to talk about what had happened. The unaccustomed silence was broken first by Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, who apparently complained to European diplomats that Israel had bombed targets in Syria; and then by unnamed American sources, who confirmed to CNN and the New York Times that Israel had carried out air strikes.

What Israel bombed and why is still unclear. The American reports suggest that it was weapons destined for Hizbullah, the Iran-backed Islamist Shia movement that dominates southern Lebanon, but these have been passing through Syria for years. One theory is that it was suspected nuclear material from North Korea (apart from Iran, North Korea was the only country to leap indignantly to Syria's defence); another, that Israel was trying out flight paths for a possible war with Syria or attack on Iran, or testing out new Syrian air defences that were reportedly recently supplied by Russia.

Syria's own muted response and failure to retaliate suggest that whatever happened, it was most embarrassing. Certainly, Israeli air force officers are said to be jubilant about the mission's success, though officials have stayed tight-lipped, and those Israeli journalists who hint that they know what happened aren't telling.

Whatever the target, it must have been something special for Israel to launch an attack now, at a time when both countries have been building up their forces for a possible war while trying to reassure each other publicly that they do not want one. Indeed, having the leaks come from America rather than Israel may have been an attempt to avoid further escalation. That attempt may be working: despite unconfirmed reports that Syria was calling up its reserves, no firm promise of military retaliation has come. And the raid will certainly have given Syria pause.

Though both countries have been building up their defences since Israel's war with Hizbullah last summer, Syria has for a while been calling for new peace talks over the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war. A number of prominent Israelis echoed that call this year, after a former Israeli diplomat and an expatriate Syrian-American revealed that they had had a series of meetings to talk peace. Proponents of talking to Syria argue that doing so would encourage it to reduce its involvement in Lebanon, loosen its ties with Iran and stop letting insurgents cross its border into Iraq.

Sceptics, who predominate in the Israeli and American governments, argue that Syria merely wants peace talks with Israel as a way to ease the pressure on it, and should show it is serious about relinquishing its influence in Lebanon first. The latest raid may have weakened Syria's hand. If Israel can slow Hizbullah's arms supply or foil Syrian air defences, then, so the theory goes, it dents Syria's ability to use either its influence in Lebanon or the threat of a war with Israel as bargaining chips.
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