Strategic Dilemmas

The fighting in Syria is part of a complex multi-layered proxy war with huge implications for the future of the Middle East

Missile521 (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Strategic decision time is fast approaching the newly installed Israeli government on several fronts. The chaotic Syrian civil war is showing signs of spilling over into northern Israel; Israeli air attacks on weapons stores destined for Hezbollah could trigger cross-border retaliation; the Iranians are close to crossing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nuclear red line; Gaza-inspired terrorist cells are taking root in Sinai; and, on a different but not unconnected plane, Netanyahu will soon have to decide whether or not he truly wants to embrace a vigorous US-led peace effort on the Palestinian track.
“Don’t let the quiet fool you. A storm is brewing,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz warned in mid-April. With the Arab world in turmoil, torn by internal strife, no one is likely to start a classic land war against Israel. Rather, precisely because of the erosion of central government control and the grinding down of state armies, terror or rocket hostilities launched by rogue non-state actors is the chief concern. Indeed, in Gantz’s view, 40 years of quiet on the Syrian front may be about to come to an end.
IDF officers have already dubbed the Syrian border area “Afghanikan” – a Hebrew play on words meaning “Afghanistan is here.” Some of the opposition irregular forces there identify with al-Qaeda; some even call themselves Taliban. By far the most significant such group is the Salafist Jabhat al-Nusra. Although they only have around 6,000 men, they exert enormous influence, having brought in weapons, won victories on the battlefield, seized oil fields in eastern Syria and taken over food distribution in the areas they control. The danger they pose to Israel is two-fold: Turning their attention to cross-border terror attacks and/or getting their hands on chemical weapons.
To deal with the new Syria threats, the IDF is considering a number of tactical options: First, Gantz is building a new special antiterror force. Already infantry, reconnaissance and armored units have been moved up into the border area and old abandoned positions manned anew. The IDF is also strengthening the border fence and mulling the idea of establishing a buffer zone beyond it to push al-Qaeda elements further back from the border.
For now al-Nusra is fighting alongside the much larger Free Syria Army, the 140,000 strong FSA, even though they have very different ideas about the kind of new Syria they want to build. On the other side of the Syrian divide, there are two large forces: what is left of the Syrian army and a sizable Iran-financed, Hezbollah-led contingent determined to keep President Bashar Assad in power or at least to influence Syria’s orientation the day after his fall. For Israel the immediate danger here is a seepage or deliberate transfer of long-range ground-toground missiles, ground-to-air and groundto- sea missiles and chemical weapons to Hezbollah.
On May 2, the new cabinet met to approve a series of air strikes against strategic weaponry in Syria destined for Hezbollah.
The decision to go ahead reflected a new policy: exploiting Assad’s weakness to stop the flow of sophisticated missiles from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah.
According to foreign sources Israeli jets bombed Syrian Scud D ballistic missiles in transit to Lebanon and stores of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles north of Damascus. The Scud D has a range of around 800 kms and the new improved Fateh-110 a range of 300 kms; both are capable of carrying payloads of 500 kilograms. Earlier in January, the IAF bombed a convoy on its way to Hezbollah in Lebanon with Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, also weapons Israel considers potential game-changers.
Netanyahu has also repeatedly warned that Israel will act if chemical weapons fall into or are about to fall into “the wrong hands.” That, however, is easier said than done. Syria has around 18 chemical weapons sites, ranging from production installations to storage depots.
Simply bombing them would be highly problematic. By international law, the bombers would be held responsible for any collateral damage caused by the fallout of lethal gases. On the other hand, Israel could bomb convoys transporting chemical weapons to terrorist forces, say Hezbollah, carefully choosing a spot where collateral damage is likely to be negligible or nonexistent.
According to former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Hezbollah may have already received some chemical weapons.
Netanyahu, however, is determined to prevent them from getting any more.
This could entail a very difficult and complex operation against the chemical sites.
Israel and the US are exchanging intelligence on this and the US is reportedly training special commando forces in Jordan.
The chemical weapons issue took on added urgency after reports in late April, first from Israeli intelligence and then corroborated by Western agencies, that one of the sides in the civil war had actually used poison gas, probably the Syrian regime against rebel enclaves.
As a result, US President Barack Obama is also contemplating a dramatic policy change.
Up till the reports of chemical weapons usage, he had been careful to supply moderate rebel forces with only non-lethal equipment. Now he is considering arming them with lethal weapons, which could prove a game changer.
The Americans are reportedly very impressed with Gen. Salim Idris, the moderate secularist commander of the rebel Supreme Military Council, which controls the FSA. The thinking is, if they get Western arms they could win the war, or at least force regime change in which the chemical weapons sites are secured. Idris, a Germantrained engineer who defected from Assad’s army last summer, is strongly opposed to al-Nusra. Properly armed, in a best case scenario, he could also defeat the Jihadists.
The fighting in Syria is part of a complex multi-layered proxy war with huge implications for the future of the Middle East. It is largely a struggle between Iranled Shiites supporting the regime and Arab Sunni forces opposing it; there is an element of Russia, with its facilities in the Syrian port of Tartous, against the West; and, as the recent air strikes show, it is also a case of Israel against Iran.
On another level, there is a centralized modern state battling forces of ethnic fragmentation; and within the Sunni camp itself, there are radicals seeking to establish an Islamist Caliphate versus a more moderate mainstream.
How all this plays out will shape the region.
If moderate Sunnis come to power, that would be a major strategic blow for Iran, severing its land connection with Hezbollah in Lebanon and severely weakening its influence across the region as a whole. On the other hand, if the Shiites prevail, the nightmare for Israel and the West of a “Shiite crescent” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon would become a dire reality.
And if Syria were to disintegrate into sectcontrolled areas, with Alawites, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and Kurds all having their own autonomous enclaves, that too would mean a complete reshuffling of the deck on Israel’s northern border.
The Iranians have found a way to force the issue in their favor, fighting tooth and nail through Hezbollah. Israel and the West have yet to find an adequate response. Arming the Sunni moderates and imposing no-fly zones to neutralize Syrian air power could be the way to go.
The Israeli air strikes in Syria were also a strong message to Iran. Indeed, over the next few months the government will face a huge strategic decision on the Iranian nuclear weapons program. At the UN last September, Netanyahu drew a red line at 250 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent.
This could easily be converted to 90 percent weapons’ grade uranium and provide enough fissionable material for a bomb.
Possibly with Netanyahu’s warning in mind, the Iranians have been careful to keep their total of 20 percent enriched uranium to well below this figure. They claim to have only 170 kilograms stockpiled after converting 110 kgs to solid reactor fuel.
But former chief of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin says they have kept 80 kgs in an interim powdered state, which could be converted back to the weaponizable form in no more than a week, inflating the stockpile to around the 250 kg red line. In other words, says Yadlin, to all intents and purposes, they have already crossed Netanyahu’s red line.
The question is what does Netanyahu do when he too determines that the red line has been crossed, and the Americans argue that there is still time for diplomacy and sanctions? Does he back down and undermine his credibility, or does he act against US wishes? Clearly for Israel, it would be better to leave any military action to the US, given its far greater fire power, its international standing and its capacity to follow up with further strikes, if necessary.
Nevertheless, in recent weeks, Gantz and others (including Yadlin) have been trumpeting Israel’s capacity to attack Iranian nuclear installations on its own. This is part of an Israeli policy of creating a credible deterrent. Israeli strategic planners make no secret of the fact that they would also like to see the US making its readiness to use force, if necessary, more credible. They argue that if the Iranians really believe the US is serious about using force against them, they may back down without force having to be used.
The threat to southern Israel from al- Qaeda-linked and other jihadist groups in Sinai also poses a serious strategic dilemma.
To a large extent, Israel’s hands are tied. It doesn’t want to strain the peace treaty with Egypt by retaliating in Sinai.
Therefore, retaliation for the mid-April rocket attack from Sinai on Eilat took place in Gaza with the targeted assassination of the rocket expert who planned it. Israeli policy is rather to cooperate with Egypt in helping it reassert a larger measure of control in Sinai.
So far this low key approach seems to be yielding important dividends. Egypt has been urging Hamas to keep the quiet achieved after last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense.
Most significantly, partly due to Egyptian pressure, Hamas has not been replenishing the rockets and missiles used or taken out in the November operation.
Clearly, Israel’s strategic outlook would be considerably eased if it were to make real progress with the Palestinian moderates in the West Bank.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s supreme efforts in this direction seem to be bearing initial fruit. His success in persuading the Arab League to accept “comparable, mutually agreed and minor” land swaps between Israelis and Palestinians in the context of a peace agreement, including normalization of ties between Israel and the entire Arab world, could be a game-changer.
The Arab League members’ 2002 peace plan had spoken of full withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Their newfound readiness to countenance land swaps makes all the difference: It enables Israel to keep the large settlement blocs and gives the Palestinians an Arab League sanction to make concessions along these lines.
True, the Palestinians have long since agreed to the principle of land swaps, and in their 2008 talks with former prime minister Ehud Olmert, the argument was over just how much to swap: Olmert proposed 6.1 percent of the West Bank, the Palestinians countered with 1.9 percent. The Arab League declaration makes continuing this conversation that much easier.
The odd man out in all this is Netanyahu.
He has never agreed to the principle of swaps based on the ’67 border. And so far his response to the new American initiative has been mixed, at best. Speaking to Foreign Ministry officials in late April, he insisted that the conflict is not over borders but over the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people – implying that he would continue to resist the key ’67 borders plus land swaps principle, at least until the Palestinians changed their tune.
There was also a frosty silence from him on the new Arab League position. On the other hand, he told the Foreign Ministry personnel that Israel must go for a two-state solution to avoid the threat of a binational state with a Palestinian majority. This is demographic language Likud leaders rarely use; for Netanyahu to have made such a comment is significant.
The region is in the throes of major historic change. For Israel there are real dangers and significant opportunities. In this remaking of the Middle East, there are two diametrically opposed but not impossible outcomes: At one extreme the picture is of a rampant Iran, leading a wide anti-Western and anti-Israel front; at the other, a weakened Iran, no longer on course for nuclear weapons, and an Israel having made its peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world.
How to prevent the former scenario and achieve something approaching the latter will be this government’s biggest challenge. 