May 25, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 56

Escalation Games: Syria's Deterrence Policy - Part I: Brinksmanship

May 25, 2001
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 56

Following the killing of an Israeli soldier in a Hizbullah attack, Israel bombed a Syrian radar station in Lebanon (April 16, 2001). Syria refrained from immediate military retaliation, but tried, in a series of statements and leaks to the Arab press, to establish a policy of deterrence against Israel.

The Brinkmanship Policy

The first Syrian response to Israel's retaliation on Hizbullah's attack came during Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq Al-Shar's visit to Moscow. An official Syrian source, apparently Al-Shar' himself, declared that "Syria reserves the right to defend itself against any aggression."[1]

Later on in a telephone conversation between President Bush and President Assad, that was leaked to the Arabic press, Assad was vague: "The calls for restraint are no longer effective," said Assad to Bush, "we reserve the right to react in the way we see fit." [2]

In the next stage Damascus stated that in its estimation, Sharon is interested in an escalation, but "Syria will not give him that present."[3] President Assad repeated this statement several days later in an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais: "A military retaliation to the attack on the Syrian radar," Assad said, "would mean fulfilling Ariel Sharon's wish to push the region into war when he wishes... Syria has never supported war, and there are different ways to respond to the Israeli attack."[4]

The "Rules of the Game"

Syria's reaction was shaped in the weeks that followed. In a series of leaks to the press, Syria tried to establish a declared deterrence policy by forcasting its future reactions to another Israeli attack on Syrian targets in Lebanon.

The future Syrian reactions were leaked to the Arab press as prospective Syrian responses to three different scenarios. The leaks were given to journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, who is known to have close ties to Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq Al-Shar', and were published in an article in the London weekly Al-Wasat.[5]

According to Hamidi, "the Syrian leadership understands that Israel is militarily stronger than Syria." Therefore, the Syrians are interested in maintaining a "policy of brinkmanship" as much as they can, "without being dragged into an unnecessary confrontation, and without giving up Syria's right to respond to the Israeli bombing."

According to Hamidi, Damascus believe's that the Israeli bombing of the radar station was not a retaliation to Hizbullah's attack, as Israel claims, since Hizbullah had already made several attacks following the Israeli withdrawal, and Israel has only retaliated against Lebanese targets. Therefore, the Syrians believe Israel is trying "to change the [old] rules of the game" -- an expression that was repeated countless times in Hamidi's articles, as well as in subsequent Syrian statements.

According to these "rules", Israel retaliated in the past only against Lebanese targets [particularly "Hizbullah targets" in South Lebanon]. A few times, when the casualties were high, Israel retaliated by destroying the Lebanese infrastructure. Since the withdrawal from South Lebanon, and despite threats, Israel refrained from escalating its retaliation, fearing, apparently, the fate of the Israeli hostages held by Hizbullah, and trying to avoid the creation of a new front.

According to the Syrians, the attack on the Syrian radar was a turning point and an Israeli signal that Jerusalem wants to cancel these "old rules of the game" and to create a new equation, in which the Israeli response to all Hizbullah attacks will be retaliation against Syrian targets in Lebanon.

Possible Scenarios

In order to deter Israel from such a change, the Syrian leadership leaked its future responses to three possible scenarios, based on Israel's prospective reactions to Hizbullah's next attack:

Scenario A

Israel reacts to Hizbullah's next attack by bombing Lebanese targets. This is, of course, the Syrian's preferred option. This will mean that "the American pressure [on Israel] was effective, the game has returned to its old rules, and peace will remain an option. Sharon has gotten the message."

Scenario B

Israel reacts to Hizbullah's next attack by bombing Syrian targets in Lebanon [as it did on April 16]. This is the new equation that Syria believes, Israel is seeking to establish. This means that the "traditional rules" are no longer valid and that Syrian military positions will be bombed every time there is a Hizbullah attack on Israel. In this case, Syria warns, "it is likely that Hizbullah will attack in the heart of Israel, as President Lahoud promised."

Scenario C

In reaction to Hizbullah's next attack, Israel attacks Syrian targets in Syria. In this case, "the Syrians will have the right to launch missiles on Tel Aviv."

The Syrians leaked to Hamidi that on the eve of the last Arab summit in Amman, the Syrian military tested a missile whose range is 700 km. Hamidi says Syria does not fear Israel's nuclear weapons "because these are [only] for deterrence, and not for use on the battlefield."

It should be noted that the Syrians have not committed themselves to a military reaction, even in the case of an attack on targets in Syria. They only stated their "right to attack Tel Aviv."

"The Rules of the Game" Are Put to the Test

Syria needed another Hizbullah attack in order to accurately determine whether Israel had changed the rules of the game or left the old rules intact. This attack came on May 14, when the Hizbullah launched anti-tank missiles at an IDF border position. Israel had no casualties and chose not to retaliate. Two days later, when the Syrian president visited Egypt, Israeli Defense Minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer announced that he "sees Syria as responsible for everything that goes on in Lebanon."[6] The Syrian president cut short his two-day visit and hurried back to Damascus. The Syrians did not explain why the visit was cut off and claimed that President Assad and President Mubarak had agreed on all issues and that the visit had been completed. However, it seems that it was the Israeli Minister of Defense's threats that brought Assad back to Damascus.

Following Israel's restraint proceeding Hizbullah's missile attack of May 14, Syria hurriedly declared the revival of the "old rules of the game". Ibrahim Hamidi once again published the Syrian position, as it was leaked to him by Damascus. He wrote that Hizbullah's missile attack was a "Syrian test" of "how well Sharon understood Damascus' messages".[7]

Hamidi claimed that "it was not a coincidence that there were no Israeli casualties."[8] It is known that the main factor determining Israel's response to attacks against it, is the number of casualties it suffers. It seems, therefore, that the Syrians remained unsure about Israel's policy and need to clarify the Israeli policy by a series of "tests" that will gradually escalate.President Bashar Assad's sudden return to Damascus from his visit in Egypt is an additional testimony to the Syrian uncertainty about the Israeli policy.

Therefore, Syrian Foreign Minister, Faruq Al-Shar' once again presented the Syrian position regarding the "rules of the game" when he visited Lebanon: "If Israel tries to change the [old] rules of the game, as it has been claimed in a number of newspapers, then we are preparing the rules with which we want to play this game," he said, adding: "Israel cannot unilaterally determine the rules of the game."[9]

The US in Syria's Political Considerations

"Syria relies on American pressure on Sharon to keep him from changing the 'traditional rules of the game' in Lebanon", Hamidi explained.[10] The Syrian leadership bases this belief on the model of American pressure on Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, a few hours after the Israeli army entered it. Washington "prevented Sharon from crossing the red lines," and the Syrian leadership expects the Americans to do the same with Israel's retaliation policy.

The Syrian leadership sees Washington today as the "equalizing force for Israel's military superiority." This is because Washington fears American interests in the Middle East, might be damaged. Therefore, Syria's bargaining chips against Washington include the threat of harming American political interests in the region. A Syrian-Israeli confrontation, Damascus explains, will lead to a collapse of the peace agreements between Israel and its neighboring countries Jordan and Egypt; endangering the American interests in the Gulf and in the Middle East; and a defeat of the American efforts to place new sanctions on Iraq.

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), April 17, 2001

[2] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), April 20, 2001

[3] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), April 29, 2001

[4] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 3, 2001. It seems that one of these alternative responses is verbal escalation, because the day after this interview was published, the Syrian President launched an attack of anti-Semitic declarations, first at a press conference in Madrid with the Spanish Prime Minister: "Israel's racism is unprecedented in history, and is worse than that of the Nazis" (Al-Hayat, London-Beirut, May 4, 2001); and two days later at a press conference with the Pope, upon the latter's visit to Damascus: "They are trying to kill all of the principles of the monotheistic religions, with the same mentality as the betrayal of Jesus." (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, May 6, 2001).

[5] Al-Wasat (London), April 30, 2001.

[6] Al-Jazira TV (Qatar), May 16, 2001.

[7] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), May 17, 2001.

[8] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), May 17, 2001.

[9] Al-Sharq Al Awsat (London), May 19, 2001.

[10] Al-Wasat (London), April 30, 2001.

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