Analysis: Red lines and deterrence

Israel seems to be using same tactic in its efforts to prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on Syria’s chemical weapons.

weapons of mass destruction 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
weapons of mass destruction 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had a playbook, the strategy being used to prevent the proliferation of Syria’s chemical weapons would be taken straight out of the chapter on Iran.
Even if Israel ultimately decides not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, there is no question that Jerusalem’s saber-rattling has played a critical role in getting the international community to crack down on the Islamic Republic with additional economic sanctions.
Israel seems to be using the same tactic in its efforts to prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on Syria’s chemical weapons. By threatening to take military action, Israel hopes it ultimately will not have to. The same has been the case with Iran.
This does not mean the threats are not real, and it seems Israel is prepared to use force to prevent Hezbollah from receiving advanced military capabilities. If this happens, however, it would constitute a dramatic shift in Israeli strategic thinking and in the metaphorical “red lines” that the country has abided by for 64 years.
Until now, Israel has been willing to go to war either when it anticipated that its enemies were on the verge of attacking – as in 1967 – or to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear capability, as it did when it attacked the reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. In both of those cases, presumably the defense establishment was prepared for the possibility that the strikes would lead to a full-fledged war.
Thankfully, they did not.
This basically means that until now, Israel has been willing to tolerate a military buildup by its enemies, with a nuclear capability serving as the “red line.” However, with the threats coming out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the past week, it seems the line might be moving up to chemical weapons or even to advanced and conventional missile systems that Syria could transfer to Hezbollah.
Why would these systems make a difference for Israel? With chemical weapons, the answer seems obvious – Israel fears that Hezbollah, a terrorist group, would use these weapons of mass destruction against it.
On the other hand, why did Israel not try to stop Syria, a country that has always supported terrorism, from establishing the capability in the 1970s the way it later stopped Damascus’s nuclear program? In this case, the answer might be that Syria, a state, is a rationale actor, one that can be deterred. The same, according to this line of thinking, would not apply to Hezbollah – a rogue, non-state actor.
This argument, however, might be flawed considering the past six years of quiet along Israel’s border with Lebanon and the fact that senior IDF officers publicly declare that Hezbollah is being deterred from acting against Israel today.
Therefore, it might be the case that if Hezbollah obtains chemical weapons or advanced surface-to-air missiles, the opposite will happen – Israel will be the one deterred from taking action, losing the operational freedom it has today.
Take, for example, the following scenario – a soldier is abducted along the border with Lebanon and Israel wants to retaliate. Hezbollah warns that if the IDF invades it will launch chemical weapons into Israel. This has been one of Israel’s traditional arguments against allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear capability. It is not a threat just because of the possibility that one day a long-range ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead will be fired into downtown Tel Aviv, but due to the nuclear arms race it will set off in the region and because it will impair and undermine Israel’s operational freedom.
That argument is now being used regarding Syria and Hezbollah.