I’ve written several times about the possibility of war between Israel and Syria (see “Syria prepares — for what?“, “Peace between Israel and Syria?“). Recently there have been more threatening noises from Syria, regarding the Golan Heights. Here is one interpretation:
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. — Ami Isseroff, ZioNation (entire article recommended)
There is no question that one of Syria’s primary goals is to reassert influence over Lebanon and to avoid having the murders of Hariri and other anti-Syrian figures pinned on them.
And as Barry Rubin pointed out, an actual peace treaty with Israel is not a price that Syria wants to pay for the Golan; Assad needs the conflict with Israel for internal reasons:
It is commonplace to say that Syria wants back the Golan Heights. But one need merely ask the simple question: what happens if Syria gets it back? If Syria’s regime made peace with Israel it has no excuse for having a big military, a dictatorship, and a terrible economy. The day after the deal the Syrian people will start demanding change. The regime knows that. — Interview with Barry Rubin by Michael J. Totten
But there is also no question that Assad wants the Golan. Nor is there any doubt that the true Great Satan of the Middle East, Ahmadinejad’s Iran, wants the Golan in Syrian hands, for its strategic value in any conflict on Israel’s northern border.
As if it’s not difficult enough, it’s not sufficient to try to determine Syria’s intentions in this case — one must also look at Syria’s major patron, Iran. And Iranian intentions towards Israel, as expressed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are anything but benign. On June 3 of this year, the Iranian news agency Mehr quoted him as saying,
“The arrogant superpowers and the Zionist regime invested all their efforts during the 33-day war, but after 60 years, their pride has been trampled and the countdown to the destruction of this regime has been started by Hizbullah fighters”…
Ahmadinejad added that “with the help of all the Lebanese and Palestinian fighters, we will witness the destruction of this regime in the near future… Anyone who works for God and believes in the power of the people will prevail.” — YNet
Although the threat posed by a nuclear Iran often overshadows more conventional ones, it seems to me that the Iranian plan is to eliminate Israel by means of a conventional conflict prosecuted by its clients Hezbollah, Syria, and Hamas. The Syrian medium and long-range missile arsenal, which includes chemical and possibly biological weapons is certainly dangerous, if it is sufficiently hardened (or hidden) to prevent Israel from destroying it in a preemptive strike.
There is one more element in the equation, which can’t be ignored. That is the major arms supplier and patron of patrons, Russia. Russia and the US seem to by vying for control of the region (shades of 1967!) and a US-aligned and nuclear Israel is the main obstacle in its way. So Russia may encourage Iranian and Syrian ambitions.
Israel’s formidable retaliatory capability should be a deterrent to Syria, at least at this point. And it’s not clear if Iran’s conventionally-armed missile arsenal is a serious threat today.
My opinion is that Iran is not pushing for the final confrontation in the very near future. Ahmadinejad has learned from previous Israeli/Arab conflicts, and will not jump too soon. The strategy seems to be to weaken Israel and push back her borders in a piecemeal fashion until they believe that success is guaranteed.
Therefore, what I expect is continued pressure from the Palestinians in the south, Hezbollah along the Lebanese border, and Syria on the Golan. Since it is highly unlikely that Assad will be willing to conclude an actual peace agreement with Israel, I interpret the current threat as a real threat of limited war — at least, a war that one hopes will stay limited.