Confronting terrorism

Situated in a ‘tough neighborhood’, Israel must be ready to protect its citizens and deal with any threats to its borders.

conf.terrorism 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
conf.terrorism 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ask a typical American what it means to live in a tough neighborhood and they will tell you it means dealing with gangs, drugs and high crime within a specific set of street or blocks.
For Israelis, living in a tough neighborhood means dealing with bordering countries and non-state actors who actively or covertly work for your destruction.
A region known for its never-ending excitement is increasingly known for frenetically falling apart. This statement is truer than ever today; with the civil war in Syria raging, Egypt in tremendous turmoil and protests in Jordan and Turkey, as Brian M. Jenkins, senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, puts it, “We live in interesting times.”
While “interesting,” Jenkins also believes the environment will remain tumultuous for many years to come, eventually resulting in a positive outcome.
Speaking recently at the 13th annual World Summit on Counter-Terrorism at the Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Jenkins goes on to say that what is happening now is the most fundamental change this region has seen in a very long time.
Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the IDC, concurs with Jenkins’ regional assessment but emphasizes that the short term is going to be severely problematic.
As evidence, Ganor points to the breakdown of governments, severe instability, the theft of stateof- the-art weapons, and the development of ungoverned territory as contributing to the highly unstable nature and incredible fragility of the region.
Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, director of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyan Technological University in Singapore, congratulates Israel and the IDC for creating an event that he describes as the “single largest gathering together of practitioners, scholars and experts from all over the world to engage in serious debate.”
This debate is increasingly necessary as the region continues to change at a rapid pace.
The definition of the enemy is changing and the inability to properly define the enemy is dangerous. Ganor notes there are two schools of thought when it comes to terrorism: those who believe the enemy is specific organizations and those who refer to the enemy as an ideology; Ganor subscribes to the latter school.
Those who believe the former, says Ganor, noting current US policy subscribes to the first school of thought, are incorrect. For example, America believes the enemy is al-Qaida and its affiliates and that destroying them will solve the problem.
Ganor points to the recent attack at the Boston Marathon, noting the perpetrators of this attack were not part of any large or specific organization; rather they were motivated by extremist ideology.
Matthew Levitt, senior fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the conflict in Syria is pumping life back into the ideology of al-Qaida and that whatever happens there has the potential to inspire extremist ideology for decades to come.
The probability of traditional war against Israel has declined a great deal, according to Ganor, while Gunaratna notes the worrisome shift from conventional to unconventional weapons. Armies that had customarily threatened Israel are now defunct, removing Israel’s previous conventional war threat, he argues.
Levitt disagrees, noting that as long as there is turmoil in the Middle East the threat of traditional war remains; this move from the gun and the bomb to chemical and possibly biological weapons (in the future) is highly significant.
A change in the arsenal will change the rules, according to Gunaratna, and while happening now primarily in the Levant (Iraq and Syria), it has global dimensions. Moreover, the approximately 8,000 foreign fighters who Gunaratna notes are currently entangling themselves in the Syrian conflict are coming to Syria to gain experience and then going home, thereby exporting the chaos of the so-called Arab Spring and becoming the next generation of jihadists.
Ganor notes that this phenomenon is contributing to the changing face of terrorism, claiming terrorism will not be recognizable in five to 10 years and warning that how nations respond to this change will be critical.
Chemical weapons, also part of this new face of terrorism described by Gunaratna and Ganor, are critical to the Syrian conflict. Levitt believes it is legitimate to fear Syria could give these weapons over to terrorists. Hezbollah camps have been spotted near chemical weapons facilities, and while the exact meaning of this is unclear, it is certainly unsettling.
US President Barack Obama made the use of chemical weapons his “red line”; however, the Syrians crossed this line long ago with no repercussions. Setting a red line, according to Jenkins, was “not a smart move.”
Ganor concurs, noting “deterrence is built through years.
Image is more important than anything else and it is easier to destroy [an image] than to build one.”
For Obama to not fulfill his commitment hurts the image of the US in the region and the world, which Jenkins notes leads to an erosion of credibility and undermines the influence of diplomacy. He said that nobody should set a red line unless they plan to make good on their threat.
Despite possibly losing influence, the United States was able to strike a deal with Russia that while highly criticized by Canada, Turkey and members of the US Congress; it saved Obama from having to make a decision between a bad option and a worse option. This conflict involves several actors including the US, Russia, Iran, China, Turkey and the European Union, and Gunaratna says diplomacy must continue because the deterioration of security affects everyone.
The Obama administration emphasized that any strike would be a precise and measured response which, according to Jenkins, would be symbolic at best, fail to be a deterrent, and would not fundamentally change the dynamics and would not change the fact that the world will “never be able to fully restore [Syrian President Bashar]Assad to power.”
Gunaratna agrees adding that a surgical strike cannot budge an entrenched dictator like Assad.
According to Ganor, an attack on Syria now would not influence opinions, particularly that of Iran (and Russia) that America is no longer strong. Levitt recommends punishing Assad for his brutality and use of chemical weapons, empowering the Free Syrian Army, and sidelining the extremists amongst the rebels.
Levitt goes on to explain that the rebels are only working with extremists because they feel they are losing and cannot afford to turn anyone away, and that if the international community is to help the rebels the time is now. According to Levitt, the world has waited too long already and no matter who wins the world will be left with bad guys in charge.
Syria is a latecomer to the Arab Spring and Assad miscalculated the amount of brutality the international community would allow him to get away with, says Levitt. “He didn’t make deals like Jordan and he couldn’t buy people off like Saudi Arabia.”
Levitt notes the international community allowed Syria to spiral out of control, going from a rebellion to a civil war to a sectarian conflict and now a proxy war against Iran, with Iran and its proxy Hezbollah fully backing Assad.
Iran, an ever-looming issue particularly for Israel, continues to pay close attention. Neither the Syrian nor the Iranian problem can be solved unless Iran believes there is a credible international threat on the table, and currently Iran does not have faith that there is a true red line from the US. While it can be argued the US is being too optimistic about Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, others, including Israel, are not so hopeful.
Jenkins cautions it is still to be seen how Rouhani proceeds and advises assessments must be made on actions and not personalities. The change from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Rouhani at any rate is far less dramatic than people would hope because, as Gunaratna notes, Rouhani is not a key player, describing him as “1 percent” of the situation.
“Presidents do not control this issue even if they wanted to,” he points out, adding that key decisions in Iran are made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Ahmadinejad’s madness was for show; he never had any real power.
A common fear regarding Iran’s nuclear program is how it would use such weapons and who they would give them to, but Jenkins is steadfast that they would not give these weapons to terrorists, and Levitt agrees, noting Iran would not be willing to relinquish control. Israel, however, does not have the luxury of trusting this and therefore must stick to its own red line regarding Iran.
Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist surrogate, is now running into legitimacy issues. Under Iran’s leadership, Hezbollah is sending numerous fighters to Syria in support of Assad.
They cannot claim to be a resistance movement when they are fighting Muslims in the East and not “occupiers” in their own country. Levitt says Hezbollah is now challenged to prove it is a legitimate (Lebanese) resistance movement.
They would like to see Israel enter the Syrian conflict because this would help give them legitimacy and prove they are fighting the big bad Zionists. However they are not so foolish as to incur the wrath of the Israel Air Force, so they are looking to engage Israel on a small scale.
Additionally, Levitt notes that with no guarantee of re-supply, Hezbollah is not willing to go all out using its rockets.
Israel’s enemies continue to grow and change. They have learned they are incapable of defeating Israel on the battlefield and have moved on to other measures such as terrorism, which according to Ganor has also failed. The premise of terrorism is that those they terrorize have an Achilles’ heel: they value life too much. However, thousands of rockets have been shot into Israel without the desired result.
Ganor also says that Israelis are fooling themselves if they think the Iron Dome will save them. Israel’s anti-missile system, built with American aid, cannot “seal the skies.”
Instead, Ganor says Israelis can and should trust in Israel’s intelligence and offensive capabilities, noting enemies who attack Israel incur a huge price as Israel is able to inflict significant damage. Jenkins concurs, observing that while rockets have continued to rain on Israel year after year, Israel’s enemies know that a massive missile strike would provoke an American response, something they are not willing to risk.
Gunaratna joins the chorus, noting that if any country is prepared for such a threat, it is Israel.
A common criticism of Israel is that its actions in response to threats such as terrorism are “disproportionate.” Ganor advises that to have an impact, actions almost need to be disproportionate; clarifying that Israel is not looking for a tit-for-tat but that being strictly proportionate is something that only prolongs violence, it does not stop it.
There is potential for the chaos of Syria to spill into Iraq, Jordan is suffering severe economic issues, Egypt is in a turbulent state and Israel’s borders are becoming increasingly precarious. Israel must be ready to protect its citizens and deal with any threats to its borders; the product of living in such a “tough neighborhood.”