The guns of August?

AFAVORITE Washington fantasy this summer is that clever U.S. diplomacy might somehow succeed in splitting Syria from its current patron, Iran. The dream is a bipartisan indulgence — and probably quixotic. Instead, the United States and its allies would do better to turn quickly to the urgent matter of preventing war between Syria and Israel.

War fears have been fanned by a notable Syrian arms buildup. Damascus has purchased surface-to-surface missiles, antitank weapons and sophisticated air-defense systems. It is also believed to have received Iranian funds to pay Russia for missiles and a reported $1-billion purchase of five advanced MIG-31E fighter jets. Syria denies Israeli reports that it is rearming Hezbollah, whose weapons stores were depleted during its war with Israel last summer. But a recent report to the U.N. Security Council warned that poor security along the Syrian-Lebanese border allows arms smuggling to Hezbollah to continue.

Even more ominously, Syria has hinted that if Israel continues to spurn its offers to restart peace talks on the return of the Golan Heights, perhaps a war to retake the Golan might be its only option. The Bush administration has been opposed to Israeli-Syrian peace talks, which it sees as undermining its campaign to isolate and punish Syria. Israelis are divided on the matter, but so far their government has opted not to pursue talks — perhaps using U.S. resistance as a convenient excuse.

At last month’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Bush finally stepped aside and said Israel was free to conduct whatever negotiations it wished with Syria — but the U.S. would not take part. That lessens prospects for peace, because an Israeli-Syrian pact is unlikely without U.S. mediation, or at least Washington’s blessing. U.S. attempts to isolate Damascus have failed, and Syria’s economy boomed last year despite U.S. sanctions and a steady decline in oil production. Is it worth risking war merely to keep Israel from talking to its longtime enemy?

Meanwhile, opportunities mount for miscalculation. Israel does not want to appear weak in the eyes of Syria, nor does it want Damascus to fear an Israeli attack. Syria might not want war either, but it has reason for paranoia given its provocative role in supporting the Fatah al Islam militants and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Beirut or Gaza might easily provide the spark for a disastrous new Middle East war, perhaps fought by proxies.

Some analysts say Syria would not go to war against Israel without Iranian approval. But who wants to gamble on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calculations of Iran’s national interest? Diplomacy and deterrence are a safer bet.