Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has urged the United States to exert "very heavy" pressure on neighboring Syria to dislodge militant organizations supported by Damascus, but stopped short of advocating military action that analysts warn could put Israel in far more imminent danger from missile attacks than ever posed by Iraq.
Sharon and his defense minister, in parallel interviews published today in Israel's two most influential Hebrew daily newspapers, outlined "precise and specific" demands they suggested the United States impose on Syria.
Sharon recommended "very heavy" U.S. pressure against Syria that would entail "not necessarily going to war, but diplomatic and economic pressure," in an interview published in Yedioth Aharonoth.
The two Israeli leaders said they would like to see the United States demand that Syria end its assistance to two Palestinian militant groups now working out of Damascus -- the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad -- and dismantle the Syrian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, which operates in Lebanon and occasionally fires rockets along Israel's northern border.
But even as the Israeli leadership is publicly basking in Washington's new barrage of warnings to Syria, military analysts cautioned that a U.S. military strike against Syria could have dangerous repercussions for Israel and could potentially strain U.S.-Israeli relations.
"Syria could do a lot of damage, a lot more than Iraq," said Yossi Alpher, a former official of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, and now co-editor of a Web site for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Bitterlemons.org. Syria could fire missiles "as far south as Tel Aviv" and Hezbollah "can open a fusillade" of rockets "as far south as Haifa," endangering the central and northern swaths of Israel.
Alpher said that while U.S. military action against Syria could have "long-term, immense strategic value," it would "require a much higher degree of Israeli-American coordination."
"When the U.S. said 'sit quiet and don't do anything,' we understood the likelihood of any serious damage from Iraq was quite low," said Alpher. "With Syria, this would be a different equation" and could serve as an additional restraint on any U.S. decision to use force.
"I think that the Americans will not ignore what Syria has done," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said in an interview published in the daily newspaper Maariv today. "This does not necessarily mean that they will take forcible action against them. The United States as a world power has many other ways before applying force to persuade and change ways of thinking and actions."
Zalman Shoval, a senior adviser to Sharon, said, "The view of the prime minister is that the purpose of the war in Iraq was to avoid further wars -- to be able to achieve those goals without having another war, whether it's through psychological or economic pressure."
The Bush administration announced Tuesday that in the first economic action against Syria, U.S. forces had shut down a pipeline from Iraq reported to have carried an estimated $1.2 billion worth of oil annually.
The Israeli news media have reported that Sharon and Mofaz have fueled Washington's threats against Syria with a stream of intelligence reports on the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
President Bush and other senior administration officials this week warned Assad against providing a haven for officials from ousted president Saddam Hussein's government and suggested Damascus "think seriously" about continuing its chemical weapons program and the assistance it provides anti-Israel militant groups. U.S. officials are also concerned that Syria could hamper any efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations by encouraging Palestinian militant groups to undercut reform efforts by the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazin.
Shoval, the adviser to Sharon, said he does not interpret the Bush administration's threats as "regime change the way they were in Iraq -- they're talking about behavior change."
"Young Bashar Assad has been acting very stupidly," said Eran Lerman, a recently retired Israeli military intelligence analyst who now heads the Jerusalem branch of the American Jewish Committee. "He doesn't have the cautionary mechanisms that drove his father." He added that "much of what we need can be achieved without war," but rather with "sufficient pressure to start behaving."
Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, who retired last week from the Israeli military after a career that included responsibility for preparing the national intelligence assessment, said, "If the U.S. and liberal countries around the world want to have a real new Middle East . . . Iraq must only be the first stage, and not the last."