Searching for a sense of certainty amid the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East, Israel was convinced until a few months ago that Syrian President Bashar Assad was about to fall. Up until three months ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was predicting during his travels across the globe that Assad would be toppled “within weeks,” a conclusion he first mentioned last June on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show.
But with the Syrian uprising entering its 14th month, Israel’s intelligence and defense leadership is changing its tone. Barak, in his most recent interview with CNN last week, abandoned timeline-based predictions and instead declared that Assad is “doomed.”
In a rare moment of candor, Barak – who had predicted for almost a year that Assad would fall within weeks – pretty much admitted that his predictions were mostly based on wishful thinking and not on intelligence.
“I’m quite frustrated with the slowness of its collapse. I believe that he [Assad] is doomed anyhow,” Israel’s defense minister said.
Senior IDF officers and members of the intelligence community admit that Assad will likely remain in power for longer than they had initially assessed.
For that reason, Israel’s primary concern with regard to Syria has shifted away from fears that, due to the upheaval in the country, terrorists would get their hands on Assad’s advanced military capabilities. Instead, the concern is back to the traditional one – that the Syrian leader will simply transfer the weapons on his own to Hezbollah.
Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh revealed this week that Assad was doing a remarkable job at retaining control over Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and was continuing – despite the protracted civil uprising – to bolster his country’s borders with advanced Russian air defense systems.
Syria is known to have acquired SA-17 medium-range and SA-22 short-range air defense systems with ranges of between 12 and 45 kilometers. Israel’s concern, Naveh said, was that these systems would be transferred to Hezbollah.
And that is just on the Syrian front. Looking at Israel’s other points of interest today – Egypt and Iran – the best word to characterize the sentiment within the defense establishment is “uncertainty.” There is uncertainty regarding who will win the presidential elections in Egypt – the first round of which was held on Wednesday – and how the results will impact the already-strained peace treaty with Israel. There is uncertainty about what will emerge from the talks the P5+1 is holding with Iran, how long the talks will continue, what type of resolution might be in the works and how it will impact Israel.
Within this uncertainty, the IDF is getting ready to hold marathon deliberations in June to finalize its multi-year plan, which sets procurement, training and operational development for the next five years. The challenge, though, is how the military can be expected to do this when it is not sure what is going to happen tomorrow, let alone in two or three years time.
The new plan, called “Oz” – Hebrew for “strength” – is supposed to go into effect at the end of the year once it is approved by the IDF General Staff, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the cabinet. It is supposed to be a revision of Halamish, the plan Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz drafted last year but had to nix due to government-imposed budget cuts.
Almost halfway into his term, Gantz will end up only enjoying the fruits of his labor for a little over a year, until he steps down in February 2014. Therefore he will need to draft a plan that will remain relevant under the next chief of staff and within an everchanging Middle East.
Brig.-Gen. Haig Topolansky, deputy commander of the Israel Air Force, shared some insight into how the changing landscape has affected the IAF in recent decades. In the 1980s and ’90s, he said, the IAF was focused on Iraq. “In the 2000s, the focus turned to Iran,” he continued, adding that in the end it was the same basic need – to carry out long-range operations, far from Israel, with limited support and intelligence.
Ultimately though, the IAF – like the rest of the IDF – hopes that it will not need to one day attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is not because of the concern that its military option will not be effective, but rather with the consequence such a strike will have on the region, on Israel and on the country’s international standing.
That is why the Israeli approach to the West’s talks with Iran are a mix of frustration and hope. On the one hand, Israel is concerned and frustrated by what it fears might be Western capitulation if an agreement is reached without a complete cessation of all enrichment activities.
On the other hand, there is some hope that the talks will succeed in stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and removing the Iranian threat – at least for some time – from over Israel.
The problem is that in either scenario, instead of the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, Israel will be looking at a situation more like the one in Iraq following the IAF’s strike of the Osirak reactor in 1981. The airstrike set back Saddam Hussein’s attempt to obtain a nuclear capability, but it wasn’t until the First Gulf War a decade later that he was stopped for good. If we apply this history lesson to Iran, this might mean that the nuclear threat could potentially continue to loom over Israel for years to come, albeit at varying degrees.
The question on everyone’s mind in Baghdad this week is how long they really have to pursue a diplomatic agreement before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decides to give the IAF attack orders.
Israel is naturally not revealing its complete hand and is instead abiding by a policy of ambiguity while expressing skepticism regarding the possibility of a deal with Iran. This is a convenient position for Israel, although also slightly risky.
Netanyahu is basically allowing the West to use him and Israel as a sword to wave around the room and threaten the Iranians with. But he also runs the risk of missing the boat on potentially successful diplomacy and leading Israel to an even more isolated position within a stormy sea of uncertainty.