What Syrians Say About the Israeli Air Raid


(The Economist) — EIGHTEEN days after a mysterious Israeli air raid on a Syrian target that neither country has so far identified, near the town of Deir ez-Zor in the north-eastern desert on the Euphrates river, an air-raid siren wailed in Damascus, the capital. Barely anyone looked up. Syrians are used to being on a war footing with their neighbour and the sirens are regularly tested. While the Western media speculated excitedly over exactly what was hit and why, most Syrians accept the official version of events—or at least accept that it may be a while before they know the full story.

Rumours and theories still swirl. Missiles on their way to Hizbullah, the Shia movement that Syria backs in Lebanon? A nuclear reactor in the early stages of construction? Were North Korean nuclear technicians involved? A full three weeks after the attack, President Bashar Assad gave a supposedly definitive account to the BBC: “They bombed buildings and constructions [sic] related to the military, but it’s not used, it’s under construction, so there are no people in it, there is no army.” Only the next day did Israel confirm that it had, indeed, hit a military installation. Syria’s foreign minister confusingly said the place was agricultural, not military.

Initially cautious, the government in Damascus sought to manage the news. The official media huffed and puffed, describing the raid as “wild” and “a new act of piracy”, then dropped the topic from the headlines. When an Israeli journalist on a foreign passport visited the area and published a snapshot of himself posing outside the supposed target, Syrian commentators showed less interest in the target and more outrage at how the reporter had slipped in unnoticed. The authorities then organised a rural outing for foreign journalists to an agricultural set-up near Deir ez-Zor, who duly reported the baffled denials from Syrian crop scientists who said they had neither seen nor heard a thing.

If Syrians do not appear to be driven to discover the details of the attack, it may be that they think they know the motive. “It’s Bush, pushing us into a provocation with Israel,” was a typical comment. “But I don’t think there’s going to be any war.”

Syria’s government has lodged a formal complaint with the UN. It has consulted its neighbours and encouraged Turkey to mediate. The state news agency said that Mr Assad’s visit this week to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, had gained importance thanks to the recent raid. The Turks were the first to protest against it because the Israelis had encroached on their air space and had dropped empty fuel tanks on Turkish soil on their way home.

Elsewhere in the region, many Arab analysts joined in the speculation. Was the raid an indirect way for Israel and its American ally to warn the Iranians of what may happen if they continue to enrich uranium? Or was it just an Israeli exercise to test Syria’s air-defence system, said to have been upgraded by the Russians? Most Arab commentators, however, suggest that the raid was meant to stir bad blood between the two old enemies and ensure that Syria would refuse to attend the Israel-Palestinian peace conference expected to be held in America next month.


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