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George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers saw the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as an opportunity to expand the conflict into Syria and possibly achieve a long-sought "regime change" in Damascus, but Israel's leadership balked at the scheme, according to Israeli sources.
- Advertisement -One Israeli source said Bush's interest in spreading the war to Syria was considered "nuts" by some senior Israeli officials, although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has generally shared Bush's hard-line strategy against Islamic militants.
After rebuffing Bush's suggestion about attacking Syria, the Israeli government settled on a strategy of mounting a major assault in southern Lebanon aimed at rooting out Hezbollah guerrillas who have been firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.
In an article on July 30, the Jerusalem Post hinted at the Israeli rejection of Bush's suggestion of a wider war in Syria. "Defense officials told the Post last week that they were receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria," the newspaper reported.
On July 18, Consortiumnews.com reported that the Israel-Lebanon conflict had revived the Bush administration's neoconservative hopes that a new path had opened "to achieve a prized goal that otherwise appeared to be blocked for them military assaults on Syria and Iran aimed at crippling those governments."
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After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 after only three weeks of fighting the question posed by some Bush administration officials was whether the U.S. military should go "left or right," to Syria or Iran. Some joked that "real men go to Tehran."
According to the neocon strategy, "regime change" in Syria and Iran, in turn, would undermine Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that controls much of southern Lebanon, and would strengthen Israel's hand in dictating peace terms to the Palestinians.
But the emergence of a powerful insurgency in Iraq and a worsening situation for U.S. forces in Afghanistan stilled the neoconservative dream of making George W. Bush a modern-day Alexander conquering the major cities of the Middle East, one after another.
Bush's invasion of Iraq also unwittingly enhanced the power of Iran's Shiite government by eliminating its chief counterweight, the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein. With Iran's Shiite allies in control of the Iraqi government and a Shiite-led government also in Syria, the region's balance between the two rival Islamic sects was thrown out of whack.
The neocon dream of "regime change" in Syria and Iran never died, however. It stirred when Bush accused Syria of assisting Iraqi insurgents and when he insisted that Iran submit its nuclear research to strict international controls. The border conflict between Israel and Lebanon now has let Bush toughen his rhetoric again against Syria and Iran.
In an unguarded moment during the G-8 summit in Russia on July 17, Bush speaking with his mouth full of food and annoyed by suggestions about United Nations peacekeepers told British Prime Minister Tony Blair "what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh*t."
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Meanwhile, John Bolton, Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, suggested that the United States would only accept a multilateral U.N. force if it had the capacity to take on Hezbollah's backers in Syria and Iran.
"The real problem is Hezbollah," Bolton said. "Would it [a U.N. force] be empowered to deal with countries like Syria and Iran that support Hezbollah?" [NYT, July 18, 2006]