Thursday, June 29, 2006

Calling Card

As we've noted before, it isn't easy being Bashir Assad, the current Syrian dictator and son of that nation's long-time ruler, Hafez al-Assad. After succeeding his father in 2000, the younger Assad has committed a series of blunders that have weakened Syria and his own, personal authority. In 2003, he openly sided with Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the run-up the the U.S.-led invasion, further isolating his regime.

Two years later, Assad's intelligence services were implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, prompting the so-called "Cedar Revolution" that forced a withdrawl of most Syrian military forces, and ending Damascus's de-facto control of its neighbor. The bombing that killed Hariri earned Syria more international condemnation, and was viewed (internally) as a humiliation. It also prompted grumbling from Syrian elites, who had profitted handsomely from their nation's 30-year occupation of Lebanon.

Making matters worse, Bashir Assad also has a failing economy, two powerful--and hostile--ighbors on his doorstep (Israel and Turkey), and continuing condemnation from the United States, for Syria's support of terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere. Not exactly a recipie for long-term regime survival, but the younger Assad soldiers on, using Iranian-backed terroristsin southern Lebanon (notably Hizbollah) to pressure Israel, and Hamas to perform the same function in the West Bank and Gaza.

Has Bashir Assad finally over-played his hand? That seemed to be the message yesterday, delivered by the Israeli Air Force. A flight of four IAF jets (apparently F-16s) overflew Assad's seaside villa near Latakia, in northwestern Syria--and the Syrian President was reportedly at home when the F-16s made their run. Damascus claims that its air defense forces "drove off" the Israeli formation, but such claims are laughable, considering Syria's long-standing inability to effectively engage the the IAF. Consider these examples over the past 25 years:

-- October 2003: Israeli jets attack a Palestinian terrorist camp near Damascus. There is apparent confusion in Damascus's air defense system, and the Syrians never fire a shot, or scramble a single jet. The Israelis destroy key facilities at the camp; IAF jets were in Syrian airspace for almost 20 minutes, but Damascus proved unable--or unwilling--to engage them.

-- June 1982: Syria deploys SA-6 surface to air missile batteries in Lebanon's Bekka Valley, in response to the Israeli incursion into south Lebanon, to destroy PLO forces based there. The IAF quickly determines that the SA-6s must be neutralized. Over a two-day period (9-10 June), the IAF destroys all 19 missile batteries in the Bekka Valley. When the Syrian Air Force (SAF) rises to challenge the IAF, they pay dearly for that decision. In air-to-air combat, the final score was IAF: 82 SAF: 0. In response, Moscow disptaches a high-level military team to find out what went wrong; their conclusion--the Syrians were thoroughly outclassed, both technically and tactically. After the Bekka Valley disaster, the SAF avoids challenging the IAF, a policy that continues to this day.

If I had to bet, I'd guess there weren't any Syrian fighters within 50 miles of the Israeli formation. It is possible that ground-based defenses got off a shot or two, but they had no apparent impact. Like most dictators, Bashir Assad has assured that his nation's air defense network covers his vacation home, but yesterday's IAF incursion proves that (a) Syrian air defense is almost a contradiction in terms, and (b) Israeli intelligence is adept at tracking Mr. Assad's movements.

Yesterday's aerial calling card was designed to send a clear, unambiguous message to Bashir Assad. Use your influence to free the kidnapped Israeli soldier and get Hamas back in line, or face the potential consequences. Or, the next time the IAF flies over Latakia, they may deliver a different sort of calling card (call it a Zarqawi special), the kind that leaves a large crater, and drives down property values.

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