Israel and Syria Trade War Threats

Could a new armed conflict be looming in the Middle East?

ByABC News
February 4, 2010, 7:33 AM

JERUSALEM, Feb. 4, 2010 — -- Longtime enemies Israel and Syria have indulged in some fiery exchanges of rhetoric in the last 24 hours, leading some in the Middle East to fear a new armed conflict may be looming.

In Damascus Wednesday Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Mouallem fired the first salvo as he hosted his visiting Spanish counterpart Miguel Moratinos.

"Israel is indeed planting the seeds of war in the region, I would tell them to stop playing the role of thug in the Middle East," he said.

"Don't test, you Israelis, the determination of Syria. You know that war this time would move to your cities. Come to your senses and choose the road of peace," he added.

The threatening language implied Syria would be willing and able to target Israeli population centers with long-range missiles in a conflict. It was the first time such a threat had been made.

Today Israel's rightwing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman fired back during a speech to businessmen in which he made a direct threat against the Syrian president Bashar al Assad.

"Assad should know that if he attacks, he will lose the war. Neither he nor his family will remain in power," he said.

The two nations have been at loggerheads ever since the Six Day War in June 1967. Israel occupied the Syrian Golan Heights and has remained there ever since. Syria demands the return of its territory as a condition for peace.

Several rounds of U.S.-backed negotiations have come and gone. The most recent talks were mediated by Turkey but were scuppered by Israel's military offensive against Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008.

Syria, a close ally of Iran, continues to support Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and is thought to be playing an active part in helping the Lebanese group Hezbollah re-arm in contravention of UN resolutions.

Israel has made it clear that Syria must make a strategic turn away from friendship with Iran and its regional allies in exchange for a handover of occupied territory.

Today, Lieberman signaled he thought this most unlikely. "Whoever thinks territorial concessions will disconnect Syria from the axis of evil is mistaken. Syria must be made to understand that it has to relinquish its demand for the Golan Heights," he said.