Will summer bring war or peace to Israel and Syria

jerusalem | Amid signs that Syria may be preparing for war with Israel this summer, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly is considering sending secret peace feelers to Damascus.

In recent weeks, the signals have been mixed.

On the one hand, President Bashar Assad repeated for the umpteenth time that he wants to negotiate a peace deal. On the other, Syria has been engaged in an unprecedented upgrading of weapons systems, heavy fortification building and large-scale troop maneuvers.

One interpretation is that the war signals are an attempt to pressure Israel into peace talks. Israeli governments for years have ignored Assad’s calls for dialogue; the show of Syrian military power could be an attempt to concentrate the minds in Jerusalem.

If so, the gambit seems to be working.

Military intelligence, top-ranking Israeli army officers and some Cabinet ministers reportedly are advising Olmert to check out the possibility of peace talks and thus help to cool what could become a highly flammable situation.

For Olmert, though, the question remains: Is Syria serious about peace, or just about peace talks to relieve international pressure over its ties with Iran and involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri?

A second, more urgent imponderable on the table: If there are no talks, is Syria ready to go to war to force the issue, the way Egypt and Syria did in 1973?

Some senior Israel Defense Forces officers reckon that if Israel does not open peace talks, Syria might start a terror campaign in the Golan to suck Israel into a confrontation. These officers say the Syrians believe they would be able to use their ground-to-ground missiles to cause widespread damage on the home front.

The IDF assessment goes that if there is war, Hezbollah also would open fire, and Iran would help by sending in more weapons and ammunition.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a chilling reminder of his government’s position when he declared Sunday that “with God’s help, the countdown button for the destruction of the Zionist regime has been pushed by the hands of the children of Lebanon and Palestine.”

Given the volatility of the situation, the top IDF brass is urging Olmert to send out secret feelers to explore Syria’s position on a peace deal. Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defense minister, also has been saying it is time to sound out the Syrians.

Mofaz, who heads the Israeli team on strategic cooperation with the United States, is scheduled to hold talks this week with senior officials in Washington, where he may well seek American approval for an Israeli move to defuse the potentially explosive Syrian situation.

After last week’s U.N. decision to set up a tribunal on the Hariri assassination, the Syrians are under more international pressure than ever with regard to their suspected involvement in the murder. This could be another reason for Assad to be more forthcoming over Syrian concessions in return for an effective negotiating framework with Israel.

In any event, this summer could be a watershed in Israeli-Syrian relations. Even if neither side wants it, war could easily be triggered by an incident in Lebanon or a strategic misunderstanding on the Golan.

On the other hand, secret contacts, with the added ingredient of key American commitments to both sides, could pave the way for genuine peace talks and the detaching of Syria from the Iranian axis.

Indeed, America’s role, which has been largely negative, could be crucial. If the Americans were to try to underwrite an Israeli-Syrian peace the way they did at Shepherdstown seven years ago, Olmert and Assad might be able to do business.