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Prof. Eyal Zisser: 'Danger Of Israel- Syrian War Is Still There Despite Calming Statements By Israeli Syrian Leaders'

'Both Armies Have Been Preparing For Potential War Which Could Be Triggered By Minor Incident Or Mistake'

'I Don't Believe New American Grand Design To Form An Arab Coalition Against Nuclear Iran Will Be Any More Successful Than Previous Middle Moves'

Syrian President Assad and Iranian President Ahmadinejad

This week both Israeli and Syrian leaders have been trying to calm recent tension on the Israeli controlled Golan Heights that were captured in the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. The IDF and the Syrian army have been training on the Golan against the backdrop of some belligerent statements by Syrian President Bashar Assad that he would retrieve the area one way or another. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the north declaring that Israel had no intention on attacking Syria. Syrian Vice- President Farouk Ashara also said Damascus was not about to go to war. However, Israeli expert Professor Eyal Zisser told IsraCast that despite the calming declarations, a minor incident or mistake could trigger an Israeli - Syrian war.

'The danger of a miscalculation of an Israeli Syrian war is still there' - that's the assessment of Professor Eyal Zisser. Syrian Vice-President Farouk Ashara has said that Damascus did not want war but President Bashar Assad has also declared that Syria is not ready to accept the status quo and Israel's control of the Golan Heights which were captured in the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. The Tel Aviv University expert warned that the Israeli and Syrian armies were preparing for a potential war and the danger of a minor incident or a mistake triggering a war must be taken seriously.

Question: Can it be said that Syria has adopted a more belligerent approach toward Israel after Israel was perceived as not decisively winning the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah last summer?

Zisser: 'There is no doubt this is the case. Syrian Vice- President Ashara may have tried to calm things down this week and Damascus may be reconsidering the outcome of what happened in that conflict. But it's possible that Bashar Assad now thinks: ' Israel is not as strong as we thought and that Syria can challenge Israel'.

Question: In the past, wasn't Syrian more interested in preserving its domination of Lebanon than in retrieving the Golan?

Zisser: 'Damascus is now facing a harsh reality after being expelled from Lebanon- both its economy and foreign policy have hit a dead end . The trend in Damascus may be that Bashar Assad needs to make a dramatic move -perhaps that dramatic move could be to retrieve the Golan Heights'.

Question: But in light of Syria's isolation and predicament that you've just described why is Assad so determined to strengthen his alliance with Iranian President Ahmadinejad who is viewed as a threat to the Arab regimes?

Zisser: 'Maybe Assad has no other options.Assad could consider following the example of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's decision to break with the Soviet Union and turn to the U.S. back in the seventies. However, although Assad seeks a dialogue with Washington he is not ready to give anything in return when it comes to Lebanon and Iraq. No one is ready to accept Assad's approach so the Syrian leader has no alternative but to turn to Iran.

Question: But how could Assad expect to gain U.S. support for an Israeli- Syrian peace process if he permits Arab insurgents to infiltrate from Syria into Iraq where they kill and wound American soldiers?

Zisser: 'President Bashar Assad has made some terrible mistakes in reading the Middle East situation. He has tried to show that he is not the puppet of the Bush administration and that the Americans will eventually be forced to speak with him. Assad is also hoping for a different American approach after a new administration takes office in Washington. However, Syria is paying a terrible price economically '.

Question: But when it comes to launching an attack on Israel, is the Syrian High command not concerned that it could lead to the toppling of the minority Alewite regime that rules Syria?

Zisser: 'Decision - making in Arab dictatorships is in the hands of one man - the president. This was so with Bashar's father Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. After the Second Lebanon War maybe the Syrians think they can manage against Israel. Not that Syria can defeat Israel but maybe that Israel cannot defeat Syria like it couldn't defeat Hezbollah which was not nearly as strong as the Syrian army '.

Question: But are we not witnessing a new American grand design in the Middle East aimed at forming a coalition with Arab states to confront the greater threat of a nuclear armed Iran and therefore the Israeli - Syrian confrontation is merely a side - show compared to the main event?

Zisser: 'The U.S. has not done so well in the Middle East since George Bush took office. We have witnessed the results in Iraq, its failed attempt to introduce Palestinian democracy and who knows what will happen in Lebanon? Now we're seeing a new American policy but who knows what will happen in the future? I don't think this grand design will be any more successful than those in the past '.

Question: How do the Syrians view the new American $30 billion arms aid to Israel over the next ten years and the $20 billion in weapons to its Arab enemies?

Prof. Eyal Zisser

Professor Eyal Zisser is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, both at Tel Aviv University. Prof. Zisser wrote extensively on the history and the modern politics of Syria and Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Zisser: 'The Syrians are not happy about it but it's not a dramatic change. The U.S. has been giving Israel over $2 billion in military aid to Israel. As I said the Syrians are hoping that a new U.S. administration will adopt a new approach.

Question: Have Prime Minister Olmert's hands been tied when it comes to negotiating with Syria if the U.S. is opposed to such a move?

Zisser: 'Yes that's an accurate description - President Bush is against Israeli- Syrian negotiations. Moreover, I believe Olmert is also reluctant due to Israeli domestic needs'.

Question: In light of your analysis, is the Middle East is headed for a twilight zone in the coming weeks and months?

Zisser: 'Yes, not only in the coming weeks or months but for at least a year '.

David Essing

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