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An alliance of the outcasts? Iran, Iraq and Syria

January 24, 2001



So the Israelis are going to elect war-criminal tough-guy General Ariel Sharon to be Prime Minister. This after the most top-heavy military-intelligence government in peacetime history for Israel -- that of General Ehud Barak.

And the Americans of course, well they have been warning powerful Arab and Muslim States in the region to give way and hold back for quite some time now. Syria has most recently been warned by the Americans that they "are playing with fire". Iran has been sanctioned and repeatedly warned not to develope weapons of mass destruction -- this after the U.S.-instigaged eight-year Gulf War. Iraq was attacked first by Israeli in 1981, then quite literally pulverized by an American-Israeli lead coalition, including the main Arab "client-states" who are in the American orbit. And then, one shouldn't overlook the growing regional U.S.-Israeli-Turkish alliance that has developed in recent year and substantially altered the military balance in the region.

Well now the Arabs and the Muslims have been doing some warnings as well. The Iranians have warned Israel both publicly and privately not to attack Syria or to face "astounding" new means of response. Barak himself publicly warned his own people that regional tensions might bring down the peace treaties both with Jordan and Egypt. Now Iraqi is flexing its remaining muscles in coordinated efforts with the Syrians, and the Syrian military has been on the highest state of alert for some days now.

It may all be bluff and bluster...maybe on everyone's part. But if past history is a guide, this is the way wars brew in the Middle East...and sometimes come to a boil.

The following from Israel's best-known military affairs writer, Ze'ev Schiff, today:

By Ze'ev Schiff Ha'aretz Military Editor

{Ha'aretz 24 January 2001}: A large concentration of Iraqi troops was recently deployed on the Syrian border under an agreement between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Saddam moved the troops into position after consulting Assad and securing his permission.

Assad apparently seized this as an opportunity to warn Israel that if it enacts its threat to attack Syria as a response to a strike by Hezbollah, then Israel would have to face a much larger-scale threat of Syrian forces backed-up by Iraqis.

The United States warned Damascus it was playing with fire and the Middle East could take a dangerous turn for the worse. The Iraqis have concentrated troops on the Syrian border twice in the past few weeks. The first time, the Iraqi force was four to five divisions. A short while later the troops were withdrawn deep into Iraqi territory and Baghdad said it was an exercise. A similar maneuver took place a short time afterward with a smaller force.


By Ze'ev Schiff

[Ha'aretz 24 January 2001]
The most important development in inter-Arab military affairs of direct relevance to Israel emerged only recently. Iraq concentrated troops on its border with Syria - and the maneuver was agreed and coordinated between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Syria's Bashar Assad. The Americans who discovered this warned Damascus it was playing with fire and the entire region could take a dangerous turn for the worse. The Iraqis have concentrated troops on the Syrian border twice in the past few weeks. The first time, the Iraqi force was four to five divisions. A short while later the troops were withdrawn deep into Iraqi territory and Baghdad explained it all as an exercise. It is not known if the movement included any surface-to-surface missiles - military intelligence suggests Iraq still has several dozen.

However, the concentration of Iraqi troops in this way should be seen rather as a strategic signal, preparing the ground for possible Iraqi military involvement. If the Iraqis resume this policy of concentrating forces on their border with Syria - or Jordan - that would further indicate their intentions.

It was the same tactic Egypt used when it tried to "accustom" Israel to seeing Egyptian troops move in the direction of the Suez Canal on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ariel Sharon did the same when he was defense minister - he transferred troops from the Negev to the border with Lebanon, and then returned them, on the eve of the 1982 Lebanon invasion.

Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad have different reasons for agreeing to move Iraqi forces to their frontier. For Saddam Hussein, the Al Aqsa Intifada offers a wonderful opportunity to re-emerge as the champion of the Palestinians against Israel. He is the only Arab leader prepared to flex some muscle while making menacing gestures toward Israel. Other Arab leaders stress the need to avoid developments that plunge the Middle East into war. Saddam repeatedly threatens the very survival of Israel.

To avoid having his Arab neighbors misinterpret his intentions, he announced the movement of Iraqi troops well in advance, and the coordination of the redeployment with Damascus.

The Palestinians would of course welcome Iraq's intervention. Many of them believe Saddam is justified in claiming he defeated the United States and its coalition in the Gulf War. (Naturally, the "heroic warriors" make no mention of Iraq's heavy casualties or the extensive damage it sustained.)

To this day, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has never apologized for supporting the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. More than any other leader, Saddam is lionized by Palestinians and posters bearing his photograph appear at every one of their demonstrations.

A concentration of Iraqi troops near the Syrian or Jordanian border would be a balm for Palestinians. When they threaten a regional "earthquake" they actually are alluding to an intervention by Saddam Hussein in coordination with Hezbollah setting Israel's northern border on fire.

From Assad's perspective, his consent to a concentration of Iraqi forces adjacent to his country's border has served other purposes. It was Assad's way of presenting a threat of his own to counter the Israeli threat to Syria. Recently some key figures in Israel have begun to declare openly that if Hezbollah heats up the Lebanon-Israel border again, or if northern Israeli communities come under fire, Israel will - as Prime Minister Ehud Barak has warned - come up with a very tough response.

According to one school of thought, that should take the form of Israeli strikes against Lebanon and its infrastructure. Others, however, think a major Israeli response should be directed first against Syria - or against Lebanon and Syria simultaneously.

Talk of such tough action comes not only from the top brass of the IDF, but from some political leaders.

Granted, neither the government nor the IDF are interested in a military confrontation. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that if such a showdown did materialize, Israel is not thinking in terms of massive responses.

Assad's consent to the concentration of Iraqi troops on the Iraqi-Syrian border could be interpreted as a Syrian signal to Israel. In effect, Assad is saying to Israel: "If you are contemplating launching any strikes against Syria, you should realize you will be getting more than you bargained for. If you strike Syria, the war that develops will go beyond a military confrontation between Syria and Israel."

In the event of a major clash between Israel and Syria, the military involvement on behalf of Syria would be extensive, even if relations between Damascus and Baghdad are presently far from idyllic.

During the Yom Kippur War, Iraq sent two divisions to the Golan Heights, and the possibility of active Iraqi involvement should be taken into account in any Israeli projections of a flareup in the Middle East. A massive clash along Israel's northern frontier could go far beyond the limits of an armed confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, or between Israel and Lebanon, or even between Israel and Syria

January 2001


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