Analysis: Watching Damascus

Timing the reservist mobilization has much to do with calming Syria.

Assad Nasrallah 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Assad Nasrallah 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Three weeks have passed since Israel embarked on a military campaign to change the status quo in southern Lebanon, exact a price from Hizbullah and get its kidnapped soldiers back. In these three weeks of battle, the army has dropped a variety of bombs, launched a wide range of rockets, missiles and shells and has deployed all of its elite reconnaissance units. All of this against a well dug-in guerrilla Hizbullah army, what one official closely associated with determining the government's defense policy on Tuesday called "a division of the Iranian armed forces." "There is a lot of Iranian activity within Hizbullah relating to actual fighters, supply of ammunition and other means. In the fighting so far, we have damaged some of this Iranian activity," the official told The Jerusalem Post. On the 21st day of this war, with the situation resembling more a stalemate than a decisive victory, and with the fighting taking place so close to the border, the IDF has finally unsheathed its ultimate weapon: its reserve soldiers. Thousands of reservists are set to pour into southern Lebanon to take part in the battle. Critics of the IDF's performance so far point to the still-existent Hizbullah capability to fire rockets at northern Israel, and its threatened capability of launching rockets even further south. Despite the army's contention that Hizbullah has been badly weakened operationally with hundreds of its fighters killed and many of its rocket launchers destroyed, Hizbullah has only to survive until a cease-fire is imposed on the region to claim victory, even if that victory is largely ephemeral. The fact that at least three divisions of reservists are going to be sent into action now, and not deployed at the outset of the fighting, gave Hizbullah enough breathing room to battle a large part of the IDF's standing army and its air force, the critics say. Had the reservists been called up the day Hizbullah carried out its cross-border raid on July 12, and deployed them as soon as they could have been made operational, the past three weeks of battle may have looked different. So the question arises, why were the reserves not activated earlier? The main reason, according to the official, lies with how Syria perceives the unfolding events. Had Israel called up its reserves at the outset of the battle, Damascus could have potentially "freaked out" and open a second front against the IDF. The Syrians could have perceived the move as an immediate threat and acted accordingly. This way, with reservists mobilized three weeks into the war, the Syrians were "massaged", and could see the IDF's gradual build up forces in southern Lebanon. Damascus could clearly see how Israel is building its forces in "stages and steps" and not giant leaps. This is why the Syrians, despite their latest saber rattling, are not "that freaked out" right now. They are on alert, worried, and tense, and are watching events, but they have not been jolted into hysterics. Political and defense officials have been saying since the start of the war that Israel has no intention to fight Syria, and that Syria is not part of this war. "As you can see the Hermon is quiet, the Golan Heights are quiet, and that is important, as we still have the Gaza front," the official said. The mobilization of reserves at this stage of the game leaves the government the option of widening the scope of its campaign, without the immediate threat of a Syrian overreaction. Initially, the IDF's plan was to send in small forces to hit Hizbullah positions and rocket launchers, and leave to come back for more pin-point strikes. Officers fighting in the North say they want to hit Hizbullah as hard as they can, in as little time as possible, and are heartened to be joined by thousands of battle-ready and experienced reservists, many of whom have fought in Lebanon before. Another reason Israel didn't mobilize its reserves at the beginning was that when reservists [read: fathers, businessmen, factory workers, etc.] are called up, they should be used immediately and not made to wait. Once reservists are called up and not deployed, they sit around playing backgammon, smoking cigarettes and drinking Turkish coffee, while their family situation, businesses, as well as the general economy, starts to decline, and quickly. As the government's goals for the war crystallize operationally, reservists could be mobilized and sent into battle.