On the face of it, neither country has anything to gain from war, since neither can possibly prevail. Syria is too weak reconquer its lost territory and Israel is too small to take and hold much more of Syria.
Both, however, have more subtle objectives in view. Israel wants to restore the prestige and deterrent credibility lost last year in its ill-conceived invasion of Lebanon. Syria wants to sustain pressure upon Israel via its Lebanese proxies with a view to boosting its stature in the region and ultimately ending the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.
The real issue is what Washington has to gain from another Middle East war. The Bush administration has acknowledged that Israel attacked Syrian last week, but has not given any indication that the United States sought to prevent it, or discourage a repetition.
Finding out exactly what the United States is doing to forestall a war between Israel and Syria would seem important.
Israel’s decision to attack Syria on Sept. 6, bombing a suspected nuclear site set up in apparent collaboration with North Korea, came after Israel shared intelligence with President Bush this summer indicating that North Korean nuclear personnel were in Syria, U.S. government sources said.
The United States is believed to have provided Israel with some corroboration of the original intelligence before Israel proceeded with the raid, which hit the Syrian facility in the dead of night to minimize possible casualties, the sources said.
Unlike its destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, Israel made no announcement of the recent raid and imposed strict censorship on reporting by the Israeli media. Syria made only muted protests, and Arab leaders have remained silent. As a result, a daring and apparently successful attack to eliminate a potential nuclear threat has been shrouded in mystery.
“There is no question it was a major raid. It was an extremely important target,” said Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence officer at Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “It came at a time the Israelis were very concerned about war with Syria and wanted to dampen down the prospects of war. The decision was taken despite their concerns it could produce a war. That decision reflects how important this target was to Israeli military planners.”