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Syria's president, Bashar Assad, announced his determination to retrieve the Golan heights by force last summer (see Truth about Syria". Since then, there has been a flood of Syrian statements about war, reports of Syrian preparations and intelligence estimates. The latest ominous warning comes from an unnamed Syrian official, interviewed by World Net Daily:

...If Israel doesn't vacate the strategic Golan Heights before September, Syrian guerrillas will immediately launch "resistance operations" against the Golan's Jewish communities, a top official from Syrian President Bashar Assad's Baath party told WND.

The Baath official, who spoke on condition his name be withheld, said Damascus is preparing for anticipated Israeli retaliation following Syrian guerrilla attacks and for a larger war with the Jewish state in August or September. He said in the opening salvo of any conflict, Syria has the capabilities of firing "hundreds" of missiles at Tel Aviv.

"Syria passed repeated messages to the U.S. that we demand the return of the Golan either through negotiations or through war. If the Golan is not in our hands by August or September, we will be poised to launch resistance, including raids and attacks against Jewish positions (in the Golan Heights)," the Baath official said...

The Baath official said a new purported guerrilla group called the Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights has been training and is ready to attacks against Jewish communities in the Golan in August or September.

He said Syria is preparing for a war.

"More and more of our units have undergone intensive trainings starting at 6 a.m. and finishing late into the evening. If the need arises, we are ready for a war...

The idea is to blur the fact that it is Syria, and not the "Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights" who will be doing the fighting. Terrorist groups are not allowed by international law. Because they are considered non-governmental, they are somehow exempt from the usual international conventions concerning war crimes. A non-state cannot make war, and therefore murder of civilians by terrorists is not prosecutable as a war crime. But when a state announces that it is fostering such terrorists movements it is a different matter.

The "Committees" are apparently just Syrian soldiers in appropriate costumes. Their "guerrilla" attacks are mean to be bait for Israeli reprisals, which will be Syria's cue to bring on the long range missiles, while claiming they have no control over the guerrillas. Syria's war will be very thinly disguised state-promoted terrorism, it seems. The notion that they can get away with, and even get backing from their Russian allies for this charade, is unfortunately all too well founded in reality. The BBC and other media will call them "militants." Asked to comment, European governments, and particularly HM government, will state that the matter of Syrian government involvement in the attacks is not proven, it is just an allegation, it must be investigated. HM government will take it under advisement, no doubt.

Is Syria serious, or is Syria trying to pull a grand bluff? The Syrians probably are not too interested in getting back the Golan Heights, which they could get if they offered real peace in direct negotiations - up to the international borders. The goal of Syria seems to be to bluff the Israelis and Americans into agreeing to American mediated negotiations, giving Syria "legitimacy" and immunity for its meddling in Lebanon and Iraq as a "peace partner," and to trade an edifying fiction of peace negotiations with Israel in return for getting away with the murder of Rafiq Hariri.

By September we should know whether it is a bluff or not. I can't wait to find out. Nobody should be waiting to find out. The Israeli government and the United States government on the other hand, seem to have their minds, or what passes for minds, on other things. Maybe they are more interested in how the last Harry Potter book will end.

Israel's likeliest response would be long range bombing of so-called "strategic" targets in Syria. This is the same failed "strategic bombing" policy tried in the Lebanon war. Strategic bombing in World War II was of questionable significance, but at least, some vital industries were hit by the allies. However, bombing relatively unindustrialized countries, without a ground invasion, just doesn't work. They don't manufacture their own weapons or industrial equipment. They import most of the necessaries from abroad. After each war in which Israel wiped out Arab military capabilities, they were resupplied almost immediately by the USSR. There is no reason to expect that Russia is any different in this respect.

Syria, like Lebanon, and unlike World War II Germany, does not manufacture its own arms, and is not under blockade. Syria has no aircraft factories or ball-bearing factories or tank factories. There is nothing to bomb that would really slow down a war effort. Syria has fuel storage depots and electricity plants and roads, but these are used for civilian purposes too. Bombing a country like Syria only produces an international outcry about civilian casualties. There is no evidence that Israel has really learned this lesson of the Lebanon war, or that it has found a way to protect civilian population centers from rocket attacks.

Israeli doves insist Israel should be talking peace with Syria now, and they are right. Hawks insist that Israel needs to be preparing for a war with Syria, and they are right about that. The solution of the Israeli government and the US government is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, or so it seems. Americans are immersed in the Iraq mess, and Israelis are dealing with petty political squabbles, cutting the budget and Palestinian issues. No time for Syria.

Even if there is "only" a 20 percent chance of war, there is no reason for complacency. Smiling Defense Minister Ehud Barak gives Israelis a sense of confidence. Barak is Israel's most decorated soldier. He has the knowledge to do the right thing, one hopes, and he commands the respect needed to get it done. At least, unlike his predecessor, he knows how to use field glasses, but more than that will be needed to win the next war, or better yet, to avert it. He, and we, may be riding for a fall. Barak's smile may turn out to be a "What Me, Worry?" smile.

The United States doesn't want to 'engage' Syria. Thus, the solution of US mediated talks, which would probably yield nothing in any case, is blocked. On the other hand, the U.S. doesn't want to really confront Syria either, over its role in the insurgency in Iraq, its role in the "accidents" that keep happening to its opponents in Lebanon or its role in fomenting problems in the Palestinian authority, or its preparations for war with Israel.

Israel and the United States, and the UN, should be active in pursuing a solution to the problem, and if no solution is possible, then they ought to be making it clear to Syria that war is not an alternative. Israel should be actively offering and pursuing peace through direct negotiations, or through negotiations mediated by any agreeable third party. Otherwise, in the event of war, Israel may well find itself isolated, and the Israeli government will find it has lost the support of the people. If Syria really wants the Golan heights, and really wants peace, they will get it eventually one way or the other. Therefore, any war that would be fought over this issue would be a tragic waste. If Syria is just putting on a show to pressure the US and Israel, this too has to be determined. This is not the time for secret contacts that have deniability, because the whole point would be to show the world that Israel is willing to give up the Golan for peace, if that is what Syria really wants.

The United States and the European countries, rather than seeing Israeli-Syrian peace as an obstacle to attaining their own goals in Lebanon and Iraq, should be holding out the prospect of return of the Golan for real Syrian cooperation in Lebanon and in Iraq, making it clear that Syria can have peace if they want it. In other words, to borrow a phrase, they must provide Syria with a political horizon. Rather than trying the murderers of Rafiq Hariri, the goal of international policy in Lebanon must be to prevent further murders. Jailing a few Syrian war criminals will not save the situation, as the supply of such people is plentiful. Getting Syria out of Lebanon and neutralizing the Hezbollah before they take over that country is a much more important goal, especially because of persistent rumors that such a coup is just around the corner.

While offering peace, the international community must also make it clear that any Syrian attack on Israel, whether directly or through the ruse of "Liberation Committees," will be considered a violation of Chapter 7 of the UN charter, and will be met by international sanctions and force if necessary. All those who ordered indiscriminate attacks on civilians, whether through a regular army, or through soldiers play-acting as civilians, should be liable to prosecution as war criminals. The Syrians must be given this message ahead of their planned attacks.

Ami Isseroff

Original content is Copyright by the author 2007. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000402.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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Replies: 5 Comments

Dear left, but not anti-Zionist,
I truthfully do not understand the relevance of your comment. At the end of the day, IHL will not deter Syria from using guerrillas against Israel, and Israel will be condemned for defending itself against Syrian aggression, because after all, "officially" it was the guerrillas, and not the Syrians who attacked Israel. I am sure that Louise Arbour and her friends will be working over time issuing condemnations of Isael, and so will HRW and Amnesty. Poor Syrians! They will be bombed Israel, and yet they are pure as the driven snow.

Not that it is too relevant, but I wouldn't hold my breath until the UN prosecutes the murderers of Hariri.

International law cannot be part of the solution, as long as it is manipulated in a cynical way. How many dead Sudanese will it take before you understand that something is radically wrong?

Left, but not an astronaut.

Ami Isseroff, Monday, July 16th

Thanks for your reply Ami.

I agree with much of what you've written. IHL is only going to be as effective as powers allow it to be and only just, if interpreted and applied as fairly and as objectively as possible. And of course, as a human enterprise, these conditions are goals to strive for and not conditions that are easily, let alone consistently met.

But I would argue and I hope you would agree that despite its shortcomings in application and the gray areas it contains that are difficult to adjudicate, IHL is more a part of the solution than a part of the problem, in that it presents a well considered articulation of values that most of us here on earth want to see duly considered and respected in times of belligerent conflict and crisis. I don't think the world would be better off without IHL.

While it's certainly true that sub and non-state terrorist proxy groups can both hide behind a state power and provide a cover of deniability for a state power, I'm not certain that IHL has no say in the matter. The UN is still pressing forward with the investigation of the Rafik Harriri assassination and that case is one where it seems very likely that the state power vested in the hands of Bashar Assad used proxies to provide a cover of deniability for a murder which the state ordered. We shall see.

Finally, because issues regarding belligerent sub and non-state actors are scattered throughout the vast corpus of IHL, it is as difficult for me to demonstrate that IHL allows for the prosecution of sub and non state belligerents as war criminals as I suspect it would be for you to demonstrate that IHL only allows for the prosecution of sub and non-state belligerent acts as crimes against humanity.

Furthermore, I'm not sure as to what the exact differences are between being charged under IHL as a war criminal and being charged with crimes against humanity.

Dash Ami

left, but not antizionist, Monday, July 16th

Dear Left but not anti-Zionist,
You did not leave contact inforamtion, and therefore I am not sure if you will read this reply.

1- As far as I know, actions against civilians are generally considered "Crimes against humanity" rather than war crimes when they are done by non-government groups, except perhaps in specific instances. Perhaps you will be so good as to point out what specific clauses you are referring to, and then we can understand your POV better.

However, this is a trivial aspect of the problem.

I once read an amazing article by Noam Chomsky concerning international law, and professing great faith in it. It seems to be misplaced. International law outlawed war in 1928 (Kellog-Briand). We have hardly had any problems since then.

If everything worked as well as MSF tells us, then Osama Bin Laden would not be running around loose, and the killers of Rafiq Hariri would have been behind bars as well.

Unfortunately it is not the case. Most of the order in the world is still kept by mutual deterrence of states, and not by courts of international law and international policemen. And when the law is applied, it is not applied evently and fairly. China, which has maintained a brutal illegal occupation of Tibet since 1949 and is committing genocide there, has never been condemned for it and has suffered no ill consquences.

The problem is this - a state is a visible and vulnerable entity. If a state hits at you, you can hit back. States know this, so they think twice or three times before acting. At the very least, they may incurr sanctions, at worst, they may find themselves on the wrong end of cruise missiles, as happened to the late Mr. Saddam Hussein.

A terrorist group on the other hand is not so visible. If you catch a terrorist, he is yesterday's news, but if he can get protection from a state, you will never catch him. The state hides behind the terrorist, and at the same time, the terrorist is hidden by the state.

In the event of a guerrilla attack such as is described in this article, and such as is contemplated by Mr. Assad, Israel would have to respond by hostilities against Syria. As they did in Lebanon, certain people will yell "disproportionate response." The Syrians will say "We didn't do it, it was the terrorists" just as they insist that they didn't kill Hariri, or any of the other people who have since blown up in Lebanon. It will probably not be possible to even find the actual perpetrators of the attacks.

Ami Isseroff

Ami Isseroff, Sunday, July 15th

Sorry the first paragraph of my comment above was supposed to be italicized. I now see your comments don't allow HTML tags, so imagine opening quotation marks before the word Terrorist and closing quotation marks after the word crime.

I also would direct your attention to this interview with Francoise Bouchet-Saulnier, Legal counsel for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Paris and author of the "Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law", Littlefield Publishers (2002), with respect to the culpability of non state belligerents in International Humanitarian Law:


left, but not antizionist, Saturday, July 14th

Terrorist groups are not allowed by international law. Because they are considered non-governmental, they are somehow exempt from the usual international conventions concerning war crimes. A non-state cannot make war, and therefore murder of civilians by terrorists is not prosecutable as a war crime.

Where in IHL is it stated that murder of civilians by non state belligerents cannot be prosecuted as a war crime?

left, but not antizionist, Saturday, July 14th

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