Despite Israeli-Syrian Tensions, War Not Likely

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Despite the recent heightening of tensions between Israel and Syria, it is not likely that the two countries will go to war soon, Israeli analysts said in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

The U.S. has been urging Israel and Syria to exercise restraint for the last 10 days since Israeli Air Force jets struck a Syrian radar station in Lebanon in retaliation for a cross-border Hizballah missile and mortar attack on an Israeli outpost, in which an Israeli soldier was seriously injured.

Israel holds Syria responsible for the actions of the Islamic militant organization, which operates in southern Lebanon with the permission and encouragement of Damascus, the main powerbroker in the country.

Hizballah has vowed to continue its attacks against Israel as long as Israel holds onto a small disputed border area, which Hizballah claims belongs to Lebanon. The United Nations backed Israel's stand that the territory was taken from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day war and therefore it does not need to be handed over to Lebanon.

Nevertheless, Israeli analysts said that the balance of power is so tilted in Israel's favor that Syrian President Bashar Assad would most likely not dare go to war with Israel at this time.

"The strategic balance is heavily tilted in favor of Israel," Reserve Brig.-Gen. Shlomo Brom said on Tuesday.

Militarily Israel is far more advanced than Syria, which has basically not been able to upgrade its army, air force or navy for the last 14 years due to the collapse of its patron the former Soviet Union, Brom told reporters at a briefing.

It lost the backing of superpower USSR, while Israel is still backed by the U.S., now the only superpower in the world. Economically, Syria is also a backward state, while Israel made giant leaps forward, he added.

Despite the strategic imbalance between the countries, there is "always the possibility of miscalculation" especially when there is an inexperienced and young leader like Assad in power, Brom said.

Most observers believed that the Western-educated, computer literate Bashar would be more moderate than his late father Hafez Assad, who died last year. But during the last few months the younger Assad has made highly controversial anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements including in front of Pope John Paul II.

Nonetheless, Tel Aviv University professor, Dr. Eyal Zisser also does not believe that Israel and Syria are headed for war.

"Everyone is trying to avoid [war]," Zisser said. It is not in anyone's interest to start a war, but there is no telling where it will lead when the sides start "playing with fire," he said in reference to the current tensions.

He noted that most analysts over the last 30 years failed to predict some of the most major developments in the region such as the current Palestinian uprising, the 1967 Six-day war, and the 1979 Iranian revolution.

According to Zisser, three developments over the last year have influenced Israeli-Syrian relations.

The first was the failure of the Israeli-Syrian-American effort to bring about an Israeli-Syrian peace deal. For the time being at least the gaps between Israel and Syria are unbridgeable, he said.

Israeli-Syrian talks ground to a halt over the Syrian demand that Israel relinquish the Golan Heights including a portion of the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Israel was willing to handover most of the land it captured as a result of the 1967 Six-Day war, but refused to hand over the shoreline to its primary freshwater source.

The sudden death of Hafez Assad last June and the ascent to power of his son Bashar also affected Israeli-Syrian ties, since the younger Assad has been busy consolidating his power within Syria.

Finally, the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon last May impacted the situation in a way that Israel had not foreseen.

The Arab world "got the wrong message," said Zisser. Because Israel pulled out without any agreement, the Arab world understood that under pressure Israel will give up and the Arabs can get what they want without giving peace, he said.

The Hizballah, which waged an 18-year guerrilla and terrorist war against Israel in southern Lebanon where Israel maintained a buffer zone and northern Israel, claimed victory at Israel's departure.

The Palestinians were encouraged by Hizballah to follow its example in its current struggle against Israel.