The IDF’s deployment along the Golan Heights did not change on Thursday, despite the escalation in rhetoric on both sides of the Israeli-Syrian border.
Relations between the countries took a turn for the worse on Monday, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a gathering of senior IDF officers that in the absence of a peace deal with Syria, Israel could find itself at war with its neighbor to the north. The war, he said, would be pointless since its conclusion would likely be followed by immediate peace talks that would focus on the same issues that are currently separating the two states.
The response from Damascus came the next day, when Foreign Minister Walid Moallem warned Israel not to test Syria’s resolve. Israel quickly fired back with its own foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who warned Thursday that not only would Syria lose a war with Israel, but the Assad family would lose the presidency.
While the rise in tension is worrying, the assessment in the IDF is that it will not lead to a wider conflict, which is currently against the short- and long-term interests of both sides. The scenario in which the IDF believes war with Syria could break out? Following an American or Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. If this happens, Syria might be urged by its strategic ally to retaliate.
The strategic alliance between Syria and Iran is exactly the reason why Barak, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin have been pushing for the past three years to launch peace negotiations with Syria.
This is due to a change in Israeli military thinking. Twenty years ago, Israel was genuinely threatened by Damascus. The need for peace then was in order to prevent war. In the past 10 years, though, the military balance has dramatically shifted, largely due to the major technological advantage the IDF now has over the Syrian military. While the Syrian military should not be underestimated, it does not really have an air force, it has outdated artillery and armored corps, and its air defense systems were ineffective in the September 2007 strike against its nuclear reactor.
The main damage to Israel in the event of a war with Syria would be on the battlefield between IDF infantry and Syrian commandos, and on the Israeli home front which Syria could easily penetrate with its assortment of Scud C and D ballistic missiles.
Ultimately, though, with the IAF, Israel would have the upper hand and would be able to inflict major damage on Syrian military installations, government buildings and basic infrastructure.
A war with Syria would also be very different to a conflict with Hamas or Hizbullah, both terror groups that operate inside states. While in those conflicts Israel has traditionally made a distinction between the governments and the terror groups, in Syria’s case this would not apply. As Lieberman said Thursday, Assad would lose his presidency.
But despite this military advantage, the IDF still believes that it has more to benefit from peace with Syria than it does from keeping the Golan Heights. Since taking up his current post three years ago, Ashkenazi has been a silent proponent of peace talks with Damascus. He backed the previous government’s indirect peace talks with the Syrians in Turkey and has said on more than one occasion that in his opinion, a peace treaty with Syria could have a positive ripple effect through the region and help isolate Iran and stabilize Lebanon.
Together with Yadlin, Ashkenazi believes that peace with Damascus would
further isolate Teheran and increase the chance of diplomacy stopping
its nuclear program. With the right assurances, peace could also cut
off the supply of weaponry to Hamas and Hizbullah, two Iranian proxies
that currently enjoy full Syrian support.