Syria Syndrome: an Israeli Illness?

The Arab-Israeli war of 1948, mournfully named al-Nakba, the catastrophe, by Arab public’s, resulted in a series of separate armistices between the Zionist combatant and its neighbors. The consequences of the failure of the Arabs to settle the war for Palestine on favorable terms, was an ongoing, low-level, border conflict between the Zionist government, occupying Palestine, and the newly independent Arab states. The latter now hosted displaced Arab populations from Palestine, who idled in limbo while Jordan, Egypt, and Syria attempted to negotiate agreements over DMZs, UN auspices, and water rights in the demilitarized lands between the conflicting forces. It was these issues which would frustrate the Israeli’s most with Syria.

In 1949 a brisk Israeli encroachment into the DMZ zones between Israel and Syria began. Soldiers, disguised as policemen and settlers, actively provoked Syrian aggression by tilling the land and embarking on water projects that would limit the stream of rivers reaching territory controlled by Syria. Land and water rights were the primary bilateral contentions between Syria and Israel before the 60’s. The experience of al-Hammah and Tal al-Mutilla in 1951 played an exceptional role in convincing Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion that “…relations with Syria were a zero-sum game and that Israel should act unilaterally…” (p. 76) to extend its control over the DMZ land and water. In the firefight of al-Hammah, an Israeli patrol, “in a very rash and ill-considered action” (p. 75) according to members of the Knesset, attempted to plant their flag in the extreme east of the southern DMZ resulting in seven casualties. In the latter, the Syrians countered in the north DMZ by the sea of Galilee, taking a strategic hill before losing it, but killing 40 soldiers before retreating. The Syrians made serious efforts to pragmatically resolve the fundamental problems underlying the tit-for-tat offensives, but the Israelis were in no mood for agreements that would not end in a favorable peace treaty. The popular perception in Israel was that Syria is their most “intransigent and implacable” (p. 72) enemy, but in the 1950s, particularly after pro-American Syrian president Adib Shishakli took power in a November 1951 coup, serious efforts were made to mollify the Israelis, without resolve.

By the 1960s the feelings of animosity towards Syria were so solidified that Israeli Brigadier General Israel Lior gave it a name, the “Syrian syndrome”, whereby, for all those who served in Northern command, “…feelings of exceptional hatred for the Syrian army and people” (p. 244) existed. Yitzhak Rabin was plagued by this syndrome, a casualty from his time as chief of staff in the north for the war over water sources. Syria had been defeated in the water wars, and supported the Palestinian guerrilla movement as part of their foreign policy repertoire. In the lead up to the 67′ war, Nasser of Egypt was caught up in Yemen’s civil war. His best troops were on the ground in the Arabian peninsula, so he was particularly careful to keep his front with Israel quiet. The Syrian front was where the primary Palestinian and Arab resistance was met. Nasser sought to restrain the Palestinian front by creating the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), while Syria often empowered the resistance by giving them a base to move through and launch attack, often from Jordan. It was Syrian resistance efforts to Israel’s water projects, in addition to the countries support for the Palestinian movement, that made it the primary target of and threat to Israel.

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