Syria's move

Assad is under competing pressures to either attack Israel or make peace

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An explosion ripped through a military base near Aleppo in northern Syria July 23, killing 15 Syrian soldiers and dozens of Iranian engineers. Summer temperatures of up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit caused an ammunition dump to "cook off," the Syrian government said.

   
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).
  

Since the explosion occurred at 4:30 in the morning, some were skeptical of the government's explanation.

Jane's Defence Weekly is reporting in its Sept. 29 issue that the blast occurred while the Syrians and Iranians were attempting to put a chemical warhead on a Scud C missile. Most of the injuries were caused by the dispersion of nerve and mustard gas.

Could it be that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad isn't as devoted to peace as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, seem to think he is?

The assassination Wednesday of Antoine Ghanem, an anti-Syrian member of the Lebanese parliament, suggests Mr. Assad thinks it's easier to get what he wants by force than by "dialogue." Mr. Ghanem is the fourth anti-Syrian member of parliament to be murdered since December 2005.

Syrian fingerprints in those murders, and in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, have been so obvious that even the United Nations has noticed. But Mr. Assad may be insufficiently bloodthirsty for some of his generals. They've reportedly told him he'll lose his job if he doesn't strike Israel soon. Since Mr. Assad is "president for life," more than his livelihood is at stake.

Hardliners led by Gen. Assaf Shawkat, chief of Syrian military intelligence (and Mr. Assad's brother-in-law) insist that the chinless ophthalmologist retaliate for an Israeli air strike Sept. 6 near the town of Tal al-Abyad on Syria's border with Turkey.

We don't know for sure what it was that Israel bombed because the people who do know are (mostly) keeping their mouths shut. But we can surmise it was something big, because it is uncharacteristic for these people to keep their mouths shut.

British and American newspapers have published stories, based on leaks from Israeli and American sources, indicating the target was nuclear material recently delivered to Syria by North Korea.

Israeli F-15s took out two targets, sources in the Pentagon told my friend Jack Wheeler, a conservative commentator. One contained nuclear weapons components shipped from North Korea; the other Zil Zal surface-to-surface missiles from Iran. Before the fighter-bombers attacked, Israeli commandos inserted by helicopter took out the radars for Syria's Russian-supplied air defense system.

The international response to the raid -- or, rather, the lack of it -- deepens the mystery. North Korea has protested, but Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have not.

The Israeli warplanes apparently entered Syria from Turkey. But Turkish authorities have issued only the mildest of complaints about this "violation" of their air space. The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida reported that the Turkish army provided the Israelis with information on the targets.

European governments usually are quick to condemn military action by Israel. Not this time. We haven't heard a peep from the usual suspects. Bernard Kouchner, France's new foreign minister, said the Israeli raid was "understandable" if the target were weapons destined for Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group supported by Iran and Syria. Even Syria's public complaints have been tepid, perhaps because of its unwillingness to disclose just what it was that Israel bombed.

But privately, Syrian generals are seething. And this puts Mr. Assad between a rock and a hard place. If he doesn't retaliate, he risks unemployment, or worse. But the ease with which Israel conducted the raid suggests that if Syria attacks Israel, Syria will get its clock cleaned.

Iran has made plans for a military coup if Mr. Assad vacillates about taking military action against Israel, Debka, the controversial Israeli private intelligence service, reported in August.

But the private intelligence service STRATFOR reported last week that the leadership of Hezbollah is taking seriously -- and is worried about -- the possibility that a peace treaty might be worked out between Israel and Syria.

"Will Mr. Assad be frightened out of the cocky aggressiveness that has caused him to sponsor or facilitate terrorism in Israel, Iraq and Lebanon?" asked The Washington Post in an editorial Thursday. "Or will he choose to escalate?"

The answer may depend on whether Mr. Assad is more afraid of the Israelis than he is of the Iranians and his own generals.



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