Analysis: Return of the 'miscalculation'

With tension running high in the North, there's concern a wrong move will lead to a full-fledged war.

Syrian troops 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian troops 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
On Wednesday morning, Israel awoke to a headline in the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi saying Syria had concentrated troops and tanks along the Lebanese border and summoned reserve forces in preparation for a possible Israeli attack. A few hours later, the security cabinet decided to distribute gas masks to the public. The ministers also approved an unprecedented emergency exercise to be held next week aimed at preparing the country for a nonconventional missile attack. All of this happened a day after Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the northern border and issued a threat to Syria and Hizbullah declaring that "Israel is the strongest country in the region" and he would therefore "not recommend that anyone provoke us." Earlier Tuesday, a senior Military Intelligence officer briefed the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Hizbullah's military buildup, claiming that the guerrilla group was rearming at a rapid pace and was preparing for a renewal of violence with Israel. This talk of war, the distribution of gas masks and the rapid sequence of events took place over a 24-hour period - not unusual for Israel, where the news moves so quickly - is naturally concerning. At the same time, however, the reports need to be put into perspective. The decision to distribute gas masks is not a new one. Two years ago, when the Defense Ministry began collecting the public's gas masks, the plan was to collect, refurbish and redistribute them. The announcement Wednesday that the masks would be returned to the public is also premature. The ministry has yet to finish collecting or refurbishing them, and is still months away from returning the masks to the public. On Wednesday, however, it wasn't about the news but the timing. Next Sunday, the IDF, Defense Ministry, Israel Police and civilian emergency services will hold the largest emergency exercise in Israel's history, which will include simulated conventional and nonconventional missile attacks, cabinet meetings and hospital drills, as well as the activation of emergency sirens countrywide. While defense officials did their best this week to claim that the drill and the gas masks were not connected to any intelligence information regarding an imminent war, both moves are nevertheless connected to regional trends and particularly the race to nonconventional capabilities in Iran and Syria and the buildup of tens of thousands of long-range missiles in those countries and by Hizbullah in Lebanon. Barak's threats on Tuesday did not come out of nowhere. They were aimed at deterring Hizbullah from attacking Israel or an Israeli target abroad in retaliation to the February assassination of Hizbullah arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. Israel is extremely disturbed by this possibility and has made major alterations to security arrangements throughout the world. In the event of a major attack, there is a possibility that Israel would not limit its response to Lebanon - as it did during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 - but would expand the conflict to Syria and use a Hizbullah attack to strike at the group's main supplier of anti-tank and Katyusha rockets. Then there's Iran, which continues - in defiance of the international community - to develop nuclear arms capabilities. According to the latest intelligence assessments, Iran could have a nuclear weapon as soon as the end of the decade. With regard to Syria and Israel, however, it is no secret that both countries are preparing for war. Since the war in Lebanon, most of the IDF's exercises have simulated war with Damascus. The Syrians have held a number of major military exercises in recent months, including those reported in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on Wednesday. They are also buying advanced weapons and military platforms, mostly with Iranian funds. So with tension running high along the border, there is concern that a misstep, a wrong move, an accident or what the defense establishment is calling a "miscalculation" will lead to a full-fledged war, one with very severe consequences for both sides. The IDF warned about this sort of miscalculation last June, when tensions with Syria were also high.