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by Jalal Ghazi

Mystery Surrounds Israeli Airstrike on Syria

(PNS) -- Israel's mysterious airstrike in northern Syria on Sept. 6 generated different reactions in Arab and Western media. American and British media viewed the raid as a proxy war by Israel against Iran, with an alleged Syrian nuclear-related facility supplied by North Korea as the target. Arab media, by contrast, saw it as an Israeli political maneuver aimed at influencing the outcomes of President Bush's much-heralded regional peace summit in November.

The key factor Arab media spotlighted that the Western media has largely ignored is this: the Israeli raid took place 12 hours after Arab foreign ministers reached agreement at an Arab League conference in Cairo to invite Syria to the peace conference.

This timing was no coincidence. Syria had worried that Saudi Arabia and Egypt would succumb to U.S. and Israeli pressure to lock Damascus out of the conference. Israeli's raid was a clear slap in the face of Syrian sovereignty making its participation all but impossible if it wanted to maintain its defiant image on the Arab street.

Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari reiterated this theme in an interview with Al Jazeera. "Israel's goal behind attacking Syria's to undermine the ongoing international efforts aimed at activating the peace process and giving Syria its legitimate role."

Ja'afari also underscored the timing. "The Israeli attack came less than 12 hours after Arab foreign ministers...issued a clear statement in support of holding a comprehensive peace conference in the fall...The Arab countries have made it clear that no legitimate peace conference can take place without Syria and Lebanon."

Dr. Hassan Abu Taleb, from the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al Arabiya Television the raid aimed to strengthen Israel's negotiation position vis a vis Syria: "I do not think that Israel wants war." Instead, he argued, "Israel is trying to send political and psychological messages to the Israeli public as well as the Syrian leadership that Israel still has strong military deterrence capabilities despite the humiliation of its army in the war in Lebanon last summer."

Iasraeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's seemingly contradictory statements give credence to the Arab media analysis that the raid aimed to influence Syria and its policies, not serve as a prelude to a wider war. A day after the raid, he praised "the security services and Israeli defense forces to demonstrating unusual courage." A week later, he assured group of Russian reporters, "We are willing to make peace with Syria unconditionally and without demands. I have a lot of respect for the Syrian leader and Syrian policy."

Western media failed to decode the Israeli message because it was fixated on a prelude to war mindset. Citing an unnamed U.S. official, AP's Sam Ghattas reported that the target of the raid was "Iranian-made weapons stored in northeastern Syria and destined for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon."

The New York Times' Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti cited anonymous U.S. and Israeli officials to the effect that "The Sept. 6 attack...struck what Israeli intelligence believes was a nuclear-related facility that North Korea was helping to equip."

The London-based Observer's Foreign Affairs editor Peter Beaumont wrote that the raid could be seen "as a dry run...using the same heavily modified long-range aircraft, produced specifically from the U.S. with Iran's nuclear sites in mind." The message was clear that Iran was the real target, he concluded: "If Syria's ally Iran comes close to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the world fails to prevent it...then Israel will stop it on its own."

Why would Syria trump even Iran in Israel's strategic thinking? Arab analysts suggest three answers, each based on the fact that Syria alone could derail Israel's hopes to use the November confcrence to normalize relations with several Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, without having to make onerous concessions to either the Palestinian Authority or Syria.

Were Syria to be allowed to participate, it might well persuade Arab states that Hamas should also be included on the grounds that it was democratically elected. Both Israel and the U.S. vehemently oppose Hamas' participation.

Moreover, Syria might persuade Arab countries not to normalize their relations with Israel until it withdraws from the Golan Heights.

Finally, if Syria were to participate, this would undermine Arab and Western pressure on Damascus to end its strategic alliance with Iran.

By focusing only on the drums of war, American and British media failed to grasp the significance of Israel's more nuanced efforts to keep Syria out of the November peace conference.

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Albion Monitor   September 21, 2007   (

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