The actions and words of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Syrian ruler Bashar Assad in the last 72 hours indicate they are poised for a regional war, including an attack on Iran, for some time between December 2011 and January 2012.
In their different ways, both have posted road signs to the fast-approaching conflict as debkafile's Middle East sources disclose:
1. Saturday, Dec. 3, Syria staged a large-scale military exercise in the eastern town of Palmyra, which was interpreted by Western and Israeli pundits as notice to its neighbors, primarily Turkey and Israel, that the uprising against the Assad regime had not fractured its sophisticated missile capabilities.
debkafile's military sources advise attaching more credibility to the official Damascus statement of Sunday, Dec. 4: "The Syrian army has staged a live-fire drill in the eastern part of the country under war-like circumstances with the aim of testing its missile weaponry in confronting any attack."
Videotapes of the exercise, briefly carried on the Internet early Monday before they were removed by an unseen hand, support this statement. They showed a four-stage exercise, in which missile fire was a minor feature. Its focus was on the massive firing of self-propelled 120mm cannon, brigade-strength practice of 600mm and 300mm multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), offensive movements of Syrian armored brigades backed by ground-to-ground missiles with short 150-200 kilometer ranges. They drilled tactics for repelling enemy reinforcements rushed to combat arenas.
All this added up to is an impressive Syrian demonstration of its ability to ward off an attack on Syrian soil by turning a defensive array into an offensive push for taking the battle over into the aggressor's territory, whether the Turkish or Israeli armies or a combined Arab League force backed by NATO.
2. Israel made its rejoinder to the Syrian war message 24 hours later.
Addressing a ceremony honoring the memory of for Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu recalled how 63 years ago, Ben-Gurion declared the foundation of the State of Israel in defiance of pressures from most of Western leaders and a majority of his own party. They warned him that he would trigger a combined Arab attack to destroy the fledgling state just three years after the end of World War II.
But fortunately for us, said the prime minister, Ben-Gurion stood up to the pressure and went through with his decision, otherwise Israel would not be here today.
"There are times," said Netanyahu, "when a decision may carry a heavy price, but the price for not deciding would be heavier."
"I want to believe," he said, "we will always have the courage and resolve for the right decisions to safeguard our future and security."
Although he did not mention Iran, it was not hard to infer that the prime minister was referring to a decision to exercise Israel's military option against Iran's nuclear program in the face of crushing pressure from Washington and insistent advice of certain Israeli security veterans.
Defense minister Ehud Barak, who was standing behind the prime minister's shoulder, was as tense as a coiled spring.
3. Six hours later, Netanyahu dropped a bombshell on the domestic political scene: He announced his Likud party would hold elections, including primaries, before January 31, 2012 - two years before schedule and a year before Israel's next general election. As head of one of the most stable and long-lived coalition governments ever to have ruled Israel, he is under no pressing domestic need of a demonstration of leadership at this time.
4. In the last two weeks, the Netanyahu government has been subjected to acerbic criticism on the part of one Obama administration official after another. They have presented Israel as having fallen into the hands of right-wing extremists who are engaged in a mad race to suppress the judiciary and diminish the civil rights of women and children - not to mention Palestinians.
Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton went to unimaginable lengths when she likened Israel to Iran because fringe ultraorthodox group's in a couple of suburbs in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak were fighting for gender segregation on public transport against the government and the courts.
She was clearly aiming to undermine the Netanyahu government's democratic credentials - and therefore his moral legitimacy - for going to war to halt Iran's attainment of a nuclear weapon.
5. The unusually powerful US and Russian naval buildups in the waters around Syria and Iran.
Washington sought in late November to give the impression that the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group was anchored off Marseilles, when it was spotted in the eastern Mediterranean opposite Syria.
Moscow then rushed to Syria's defense by airlifting 72 anti-ship Yakhont missiles (Western-coded SSN-26) to Damascus. These water-skimming weapons can hit naval targets at a distance of 300 kilometers.
After that the Bush, whose freedom to approach Syrian or Lebanese shores, had been curtailed by the new weapon reaching Syria, departed to an unknown destination, while the USS Carl Vinson strike group took up position opposite Iran.
Moscowis also playing hide and seek with its only air carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. It was announced that the vessel would set sail for the Mediterranean on Dec. 6. But on Nov. 25, it was sighted passing Malta and chugging past Cyprus four days later on its way to join the flotilla of three Russian guided missile destroyers already anchored off Syria.
Neither the United States nor Russia would have concentrated two powerful fleets in the proximity of Syria and Iran unless they were certain a military conflagration was imminent. While any of the prime movers, Washington, Moscow, Tehran, Israel or Bashar Assad, may at the last moment step back from the brink of a regional war, at the moment, there is no sign of this happening.