Israeli Moves To Reduce Tension With Syria

Jerusalem Post, July 2 1997.

Quietly, without fanfare or ceremony, the Israeli government has made an important and unilateral first move in establishing a foundation for cooperation and reduction in tensions with Syria. This consisted of a relatively simple action -- the prior announcement of routine military training exercises that take place in the Golan Heights.

Last year, in the middle of a crisis between Damascus and Jerusalem, both Israel and Syria held large-scale exercises. The movement of Syrian commando units from Lebanon to the Mt. Hermon observation posts created additional tensions and fears of surprise attack on both sides. The official Syrian press warned of a possible Israeli offensive, while diplomats visiting Damascus were also briefed on this scenario. This led to heightened Israeli perceptions regarding a possible Syrian attack, claiming to be in response to an impending Israeli first strike. In October 1973, the annual Syrian and Egyptian training exercises provided the camouflage for preparing the surprise attack that marked the beginning of the Yom Kippur War.

As a result of these factors, last Fall, the Israeli Ministry of Defense decided to provide information on the scope of the exercises to Damascus, via Washington. Similarly, before beginning this summer's military training program in the Golan, the Israeli government again informed the United Nations and Syria. As a result, when the maneuvers started, nobody was caught by surprise, and there was little doubt regarding Israeli intentions. If the IDF was planning a surprise attack, it would hardly have announced the dates and plans in advance.

The prior announcement of military exercises is a primary example of what has come to be called Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs). In many other conflict frameworks, the development of CSBMs has been a critical first step towards conflict management. In Europe, such steps, including pre-announcement of military exercises, were an important part of the the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Similarly, the leaders of Pakistan and India have recently agreed on a series of measures to lower tensions and the risk of conflict between them.

In the Middle East, the efforts to develop some rules of the road and CSBMs to prevent misunderstandings and accidental war have been the focus of the multilateral working group on arms control and regional security (ACRS). The participants agreed to created a regional crisis management communication system, and discussed other forms of CSBMs. However, Syria never joined these discussions, and for over 2 years, Egypt has blocked progress.

In this context, the significance of the Israeli decision to begin the CSBM process with Syria unilaterally by announcing military exercises in advance can be understood. In an region plagued by a long history of warfare and violence, and in the context of the intense distrust that exists between Jerusalem and Damascus, the process of conflict management must begin with small unilateral steps. To prevent misunderstandings, on occasion, political and military decision-makers have to broadcast their intentions. This is precisely what Israel has done.

Now, the question is whether the Syrians will provide information, well in advance, of planned military exercises and unusual troop movements near the Golan and in Lebanon. If the government in Damascus takes such an action, it would create the basis for further CSBMs, including agreed limits (explicit or tacit) on the size of forces involved in maneuvers, and, later, the presence of observers at such training exercises. In the Mediterranean Sea, potential CSBMs include measures to avoid accidents between naval craft and cooperation in search and rescue missions.

The role for CSBMs is not confined to relations between Israel and Syria. Eighteen years after the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, the military buildup continues. In October 1996, the Egyptian military held its largest exercises (Badr 96) since the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, including a large number of recently acquired advanced American weapons. These exercises took place in the area near the Sinai, and were clearly aimed at a possible confrontation with Israel. Although 200 kilometers of demilitarized desert separate the Egyptian and Israeli forces, the growing Egyptian military capability creates the possibility that in the future, a process that escalates out of control could conceivable lead to a disastrous confrontation.

During the 18 years of increasingly "Cold Peace" in Cairo, no CSBMs have been implemented. The two sides do not exchange information regarding military maneuvers and there are no "rules of the road" or measures to prevent miscalculation or surprise attack. Now, with renewed Egyptian interest and involvement in the peace process, there may be a window of opportunity to improve the level of confidence and security along the Cairo-Jerusalem route. In contrast to the delicate and uncertain situation with respect to Syria, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship allows for a series of formal and explicit bilateral CSBMs.