What began as an apparent mistranslation of Ehud Barak’s remarks regarding Israel’s peace negotiations with Syria has snowballed into the clearest possible articulation of a new strategic posture by Syria and Hezbollah towards Israel.
Let’s rewind the tape to last week.
On February 1st, Ehud Barak made some remarks at an IDF gathering, saying something to the effect that if Syria and Israel did not resume peace negotiations in the near future, sooner or later the two countries would find themselves at war. It was a potshot aimed at Netanyahu and his hawkish cohort, who have refused to pick up where Olmert left off with Bashar al-Assad in late 2008.
Two days later, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem responded to Barak’s remarks, reading them as a declaration of war:
“One day you threaten Gaza, next day you threaten Lebanon, later Iran and now Syria,” Mouallem said at the news conference with his Spanish counterpart.
“Don’t test, you Israelis, the determination of Syria. You know that war this time would move to your cities. Come to your senses and choose the road of peace. This path is clear,” Mouallem warned.
Of course, we all know what happened next. The following day, Avigdor Lieberman donned his bouncer’s outfit and announced at a business conference that “Assad should know that if he attacks, he will not only lose the war. Neither he nor his family will remain in power.”
And so it goes. Washington has sought to calm the waters, in light of the fact that a new U.S. ambassador to Syria is supposed to be appointed imminently. But Nasrallah’s speech this evening will ensure that the flare-up will continue to be stoked in the press for at least another week or so. Here’s the takeaway:
في لبنان بنية تحتية وفي فلسطين أيضاً، نحن لدينا مطار ونصف وهم لديهم مطارات، نحن لدينا بعض محطات الكهرباء وهم لديهم محطات كبرى، لديهم مصاف للنفط ونحن بعض المصاف، البنية التحتية في اسرائيل أهم من البنية التحتية لدينا، أقول اليوم لهم ما يلي، ويمكنهم التأكد من هذه المعطيات: إذا ضربتم مطار الشهيد رفيق الحريري الدولي في بيروت سنضرب مطار بن غوريون في تل أبيب. إذا ضربتم موانئنا سنقصف موانئكم، وإذا ضربتم مصافي النفط عندنا أو قصفتم مصانعنا سنقصف مصانعكم ومصافي نفطكم. أنا اليوم، في ذكرى السيد عباس والشيخ راغب والحاج عماد أعلن وأقبل هذا التحدي نحن في لبنان شعب ومقاومة وجيش وطني قادرون بقوة لأن نحمي بلدنا ولسنا بحاجة لأحد في هذا العالم ليحمي لبنان
“In Lebanon there is infrastructure, and in [occupied] Palestine as well. We have an airport and they have airports. We have power plants and they have very large ones. They have oil refineries and we do too. The infrastructure in Israel is much more advanced than ours. Today, I hereby tell them the following, and they can be assured of it: If you strike Rafiq al-Hariri International Airport in Beirut, we will strike Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. If you strike our ports, we will strike your ports. And if you strike our refineries or our factories we will strike your factories and your refineries. Today, in the memory of Sayyed Abbas and Shaykh Raghib and al-Hajj Imad, I announce and accept this challenge. We, in Lebanon, as a people and a resistance and a national army are capable [of this] because we protect our country and we don’t need anyone in the world to protect Lebanon.”
There you have it. The rules have officially changed. Prior to 2000, Israel and Hezbollah operated according to an unspoken set of “tit-for-tat” conventions. The July 2006 war and the Gaza war that followed it changed the rulebook, ushering in the new “Boss Has Gone Mad” strategy, with all of its attendant carnage.
Tonight, Nasrallah articulated Hezbollah’s response. Coupled with al-Mouallem’s vow to take the war to Israel’s cities, it seems we are finally getting an inkling of how a catastrophic war between the three countries might unfold.
Why now? Was this all really prompted by a misunderstanding of Barak’s remarks? I somehow doubt it. Messages between Israel and Syria rarely get lost in translation. More likely, to me, are the following scenarios: (a) Syria is trying to push the peace talks back onto the Obama administration’s radar screen, after more than a year of complete stagnation and frustration on such matters; or (b) Syria may be worried that the U.S. and Israel are getting closer to a strike on Iran, given the recent concordance with Russia, China, and Europe to target the Revolutionary Guards.
Then again, it may simply have been a case of crossed wires. Your thoughts?