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U.S. Signal Is Turning Green as Sharon Weighs a Blow Against Syria

June 21, 2002|GEOFFREY ARONSON | Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

While public attention in the United States and elsewhere is riveted to the latest maneuvers in the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something far more significant may be brewing on Israel's northern frontier. For the first time since then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, under a benevolent American eye, led Israel's star-crossed invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there are growing indications that a U.S. president has given Israel a green light to attack targets on Syrian soil if the on-again-off-again battle between Israel and Hezbollah intensifies.

A U.S. prohibition on Israel attacking Syria has been in effect for decades; it has helped to prevent a regional war. This restriction also, however, has emboldened Syrians confident that Washington would restrain the occasional Israeli impulse to "go to the source" of its problems with Lebanese groups, most notably Hezbollah, by attacking their patron, Syria.

A combination of circumstances appears to have put U.S. policy on a more aggressive course: the growing view of Syria as a junior member of the axis of evil and backer of Iraqi and Palestinian terrorism; the increasing identification of Israel's "Arab problems" in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere with problems encountered by the U.S.; the growing arsenal of Hezbollah weaponry supplied by Syria and Iran; and an Israeli government more likely than its predecessors to entertain a direct attack on Syria.

Prime Minister Sharon's government did, indeed, contemplate such a strike this year. According to Eyal Zisser, an Israeli analyst, hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah failed to trigger war in April not because of American opposition but because Sharon has learned that precipitous military action without a broad public consensus is a recipe for defeat.

Sharon has President Bush's goodwill in his pocket, and in his conversations in Washington this month he found himself in the unusual position of preaching the virtues of caution and patience to some in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

Sharon is confident that a confrontation with Hezbollah and Syria--under the inexperienced President Bashar Assad, who seems to be unable or unwilling to rein in proponents of a more militant line--is only a matter of time.

Does it make sense for the Bush administration to support such a policy?

Syria is an inviting target. It is on Washington's short list of countries that most egregiously support terror and field chemical weapons. Hitting Syria would be portrayed by Bush partisans as striking a blow against terror. It might also be condoned as the first campaign of the preemptive military action endorsed by Bush in his June 1 speech.

There are even some who argue that ending Syria's immunity from the long arm of the Israeli military would help Assad wrest control of his government from hard-liners who dominate the ruling Baath Party. Such an attack could give Assad just the kick he needs to embark upon a genuine rapprochement with Washington.

Escalation of this sort, however, is risky business. Sharon revels in such a throw of the dice, but the U.S. needs to remember that Sharon has proved to be more adept at getting into trouble--not only for Israel but also for the U.S.--than out of it.

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