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MIDDLE EAST: Looming regional war involving Syria, Israel and Lebanon -- or more hot air?

February 5, 2010 |  8:55 am

Syria-golan 

Israel and Syria have exchanged heated words in the last few days, leading many to wonder whether this new round of threats is leading up to a regional war, or is merely a bluffing contest to maintain the status quo that allows both governments to eschew domestic problems for the sake of state security.

"The Syrians cannot afford to go to war, and [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman hit on a major stress point for them," retired Lebanese general and military expert Elias Hanna told The Times. "This is critical for the Syrians, so maybe they are trying to tie themselves to Hezbollah and Iran in order to put obstacles for Israel to wage a war.”

But, he added, Israel cannot afford a three-front war against Hezbollah, Iran and Syria either.

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to back away from statements made by  the notoriously bellicose Lieberman, in which the foreign minister warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that he and his family would "lose the regime" if war were to break out between Israel and Syria.

Syrian lawmaker Mohammad Naji Ottari hit back, saying Syria would respond to any provocation, while Netanyahu tried to calm things down by reiterating Israel's willingness to negotiate directly with Syria.

The spat came a day after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem called on Israel to "stop launching threats" against Gaza, southern Lebanon, Iran and Syria.

"Undoubtedly if we suppose that this war will break out … then I say that war will be all-out, whether it hits south Lebanon or Syria," he was quoted saying by the Syrian Arab News Agency.

His comments have been interpreted by some to mean that Syria will intervene militarily should Israel launch a new war on south Lebanon. In the 2006 war between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah, Syria allegedly acted as a conduit for weapons to the group but did not interfere directly.

Rumors of Israeli military strikes against Iran and Hezbollah have gained currency after an informal deadline for nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic expired at the end of last year. Much ink has been spilled over whether Israel will hit Hezbollah before Iran, and if the Jewish state is willing to enter a multi-front war.

As-Safir and Al Akhbar, two Lebanese newspapers considered sympathetic to Hezbollah, ran editorials Friday questioning Israel's motives and military preparedness.

Samir Karam, writing in As-Safir (in Arabic), criticized Israeli military strategy for failing to evolve with the conflict, citing a report by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs on Israel's qualitative military edge.

"[The study's authors] want to make a fuss about ending the doctrine of qualitative military edge, while emphasizing that Israel still has this qualitative edge, despite developments that would destroy [this advantage]," Karam wrote. "What can Israel do to restore this qualitative edge, which [was damaged by] the resistance, not armies?"

In Al Akhbar (in Arabic), Saadallah Mazraani accused Israeli politicians of using political and military provocation to shift focus from reaching a two-state solution.

"Will Netanyahu and Lieberman's political escalation translate to military escalation?" he asked, and if so, will it be in Gaza, Lebanon, Iran or Syria?

"But there is a risk: despite the natural tendency of Israeli leaders toward war and aggression, despite the presence of an extremist group in a position of unprecedented power in Israel, despite the fact that this group is supported by influential powers in the American administration. ... Despite all this, despite the lure of official Arab complicity and Palestinian division ... the facts on the ground do not make the Israeli adventure easy. ... The war will not be limited, and the resistance will be wider and more effective."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Metal cutouts of soldiers are seen in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. Israel's foreign minister has harshly warned Syria against drawing the Jewish state into another war, saying its army would be defeated and its regime would collapse in a future conflict. Credit: Ariel Schalit / Associated Press
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