Security and Defense: Exercising precaution

Olmert's 'secret' talks with Syria aside, the IDF is stepping up preparations for a potential war.

IDF drill wicked 298.88 (photo credit: IDF)
IDF drill wicked 298.88
(photo credit: IDF)
In 1996, Israel appeared to be on the brink of war with Syria. Yehuda Gil, an admired Mossad veteran operative, had fabricated intelligence reports exaggerating president Hafez Assad's alleged aggressive intentions. As a result, the cabinet convened in a special session and debated whether to mobilize the IDF and its reserves. While war was averted - Gil was caught and admitted under interrogation to having passed on false information to the Mossad - senior officers in the General Staff and the Defense Ministry reminisced about the affair this week, using it to describe the current tension along the northern border which has made the possibility of war with Syria once again realistic. This time, however, the concerns are not based on a single Mossad operative. This time, Syrian President Bashar Assad has made his aggressive intentions quite clear: Immediately following the Second Lebanon War, he called on Israel to join him in peace talks, while threatening that if his offer were rejected he would consider using force to retake the Golan Heights. In 1996, Bill Clinton was president of the United States and he had the ability to pick up the phone, call Assad and prevent a war. Today, George W. Bush isn't running to make any phone calls. The Syrian military has beefed up its troops along the border, and renovated and built new bunkers and other fortifications. Tuesday's large-scale exercise outside Eilat indicates that the IDF has not stood idly by. For the first time in years, the annual exercise simulated the conquest of a Syrian village by infantry armor and airborne units, and not a Palestinian one, as had been tradition since the second intifada. "The IDF is preparing for an escalation on both the Palestinian and the northern fronts," Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said, as he watched the tanks cross over makeshift bridges to invade a "Syrian village." "The display seen here today is quite impressive. Only one element is lacking - an enemy." This shift from the Palestinian and Hizbullah threat to Syria is also felt in the entire way the General Staff is currently conducting itself. While Hamas has barely been weakened by the ongoing operations in the Gaza Strip, Ashkenazi has no intention of recommending a large-scale operation, which would require the allocation of too many soldiers at a time when they might be needed for a more immediate and existential threat - war with Syria. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is reportedly holding discreet contacts with the Syrians (Germany and Turkey have been mentioned as mediators), his call on the IDF to tone down the rhetoric is certainly in place. On Tuesday, Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Military Intelligence (MI) chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin all spoke about the possibility of war. AT THE moment, neither Israel nor Syria really has an interest in going to war. While Syria has been building up its military positions along the border - Assad has also held exercises for the first time in years - MI identifies the moves as defensive measures. Nevertheless, officials warn they could be turned from defensive to offensive in a number of hours. For better and for worse, war with Syria is clearly a different scenario from last summer's not-so-successful war in Lebanon. The first difference would be the bank of targets. On July 12 - hours after Hizbullah's kidnapping of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser - the cabinet convened to approve a list of targets for the IDF to strike. None of them included government or Lebanese armed forces sites. The closest the IDF got to striking at the Lebanese government during the month-long war was when it bombed the runway at Beirut International Airport. The Syrian bank of targets would probably be different, and would not only include military targets, but civilian ones as well. As Yadlin told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week: "Syria has a lot to lose." On the other hand, war with Syria would also be costly. Its military is no longer as outdated as Israelis once thought. And though the war would be conventional and the IDF would have the upper hand, Syria, with thousands of missiles, has the ability to strike at every city from the North to the South. In addition, the assumption is that Hizbullah would be quick to join the fray, and we would once again be looking at 4,000 Katyushas - like last summer. According to the Middle East Military Balance published by the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Syria has several hundred Scud missiles, some of which - Scud D - it received in 2002. In total, it has close to 100 ballistic missile launchers. In recent years, Syria has also built up a powerful division of well-trained commandos (the 14th Special Forces Division) who specialize in anti-tank warfare similar to the tactics which Hizbullah used to wreak destruction on IDF tanks in Lebanon. In addition, with Iranian funding, Syria has embarked on an advanced weapons shopping spree and is in talks with Russia over the purchase of 50 advanced Pantsyr-S1E air defense systems. This tension and military buildup have gotten IDF generals to start speaking a little English during security assessments. They have been using the word "miscalculation" - defense-establishment-speak for a misstep, accident or misunderstanding along the Syrian border that could lead to full-fledged war. "Miscalculation" refers to a number of possible scenarios. The first is a terror attack along the Lebanese border, with Hizbullah renewing Katyusha or mortar fire on the North. In response, the IDF bombs southern Lebanon and hits a target near the Syrian border. The Syrians view the attack as an excuse to open a second front and invade the Golan Heights. The second scenario is a potential terror attack along the Syrian border. In response, IDF troops fire into Syrian territory. A local Syrian commander views this as an attack on national sovereignty and responds. Either way, both countries find themselves at war. For the IDF, the intentions behind the Syrian moves are of secondary importance. More crucial is getting the military prepared for the possibility of war. The consensus in the IDF is in favor of talks with Syria. While recognizing the possibility that Assad's peace overtures are insincere, Yadlin and the head of MI's Research Division, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, both favor talks on the chance that they can prevent war. Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and National Security Council head Ilan Mizrachi agree. In the opposition is Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who believes that Assad's overtures are really part of a Syrian plot to try to alleviate some of the international pressure and isolation due to the UN tribunal set up to probe the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. IN THE end, however, the final decision will be up to Olmert. Well, not exactly. Mofaz is in Washington this week for a session of the Strategic Dialogue - the annual talks with the Americans about issues of strategic importance for both countries in the Middle East. While the session will focus on Iran, Mofaz told The Jerusalem Post he plans to raise his idea of opening a secret channel for talks with Syria in his informal talks with administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the end of the day, the Americans will play a key role in determining whether Israel sits down at a negotiating table with Assad. The Bush administration has a long history with Assad, and holds him responsible for a large portion of the insurgency in Iraq. At a conference in Tel Aviv this week, former MI chief Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash revealed that Assad had allowed hundreds of terrorists to cross through Syria on their way to Iraq. While Mofaz made his pitch to Rice this week, Olmert is also heading to Washington at the end of the month, where the Syrian issue is predicted to feature prominently during his talks with Bush. While Israel seems ready for war with Syria, it is also being cautious. A hard blow to Assad could topple his already weak regime, and Israel could wind up sharing a border with a state controlled by Iran or al-Qaida.