Syria is the key

To achieve Israel's goals in Lebanon, it must use both sticks and carrots.

syrian troops 298.88 AP (photo credit: AP [file])
syrian troops 298.88 AP
(photo credit: AP [file])
After four weeks of fighting Hizbullah and responding to repeated attacks on our home front it is more than ever clear that Israel is unlikely to be able to halt the firing of missiles into its territory by relying solely on aerial bombing. Israel could end this chapter of exchanging fire by launching a ground operation in Lebanon so extensive that we conquer almost all of southern Lebanon again. Yet an operation this extensive is almost impossible since, in addition to the high price Israel would have to pay, its experience following the Lebanon war will definitely lead the nation's decision-makers to avoid the possibility of resinking into the Lebanon quagmire. Thus, for now, this magnitude of ground operation is out of the Israeli toolbox; if the option of conquering southern Lebanon is eventually selected, it will be as the option of last resort. As for the ground operation being implemented by Israel in Hizbullah-controlled villages along the northern board, it has little merit and is not influencing Hizbullah's ability to fire rockets into Israel. OUR OTHER option for halting the firing of missiles into Israel is reaching a cease-fire agreement with Hizbullah - which would be a strategic mistake for Israel to agree to without achieving some of our main goals: • guaranteeing that Hizbullah is disarmed and unable to rehabilitate its military infrastructure; • preventing, or at least minimizing, Iranian and Syrian support for Hizbullah; • returning the soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah. If Israel does not achieve these goals, or at least the majority of them, by signing a cease-fire agreement, then the agreement would be considered a failure that would only increase the Hizbullah's popularity in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, reduce Israel's deterrent image and send a negative sign to Israel's enemies in the region. While the American-French initiative in the UN does not guarantee any Israeli strategic interest, it can serve as a platform for future achievements. This is exactly why Hizbullah and Iran will not let such an initiative come to fruition, exerting their utmost influence on the Lebanese government to guarantee its refusal to accept the deal. If they fail to prevent this initiative, Hizbullah can be expected to fight it on the ground by not letting international forces deploy and stabilize the situation. THE ADDRESS to turn to in reaching a cease-fire agreement that will enable Israel to achieve some of the goals listed above is not Hizbullah or Iran - and hardly the Lebanese government (which is still influenced by Syria) - but Syria. Therefore Israel must pressure Syria effectively and wisely, using all the means at its disposal in the military, political, economic and diplomatic arenas. The threat of military force against Syria should not be ruled out at this stage. However, in addition to using the stick, there is a need for carrots too - incentives that will change Syria's cost-and-benefit calculations. The first step is to try to understand how the unholy alliance between Syria and Iran came about and recognize that this alliance is artificial, illogical (even by Middle Eastern standards) and goes against the Syrians' basic interests. For example, Iran is controlled by a radical Shi'ite Islamic regime striving to export the Shi'ite revolution to all Shi'ite communities and, in practice, the entire world, starting with Lebanon. This is why Iran has established special forces such as its Revolutionary Guards. Syria's Alawite regime, in contrast, is not a radical Islamic regime and is actually threatened from both inside and out by radical Islamic sources. Therefore, were Iran to achieve its goals in the Middle East it would directly threaten Bashar Assad's regime in the long term. A change in American-Israeli policy toward Syria is liable to help Bashar Assad make the right choice - that is, the choice that suits his real interests. It would lead Assad to follow the precedent set by Libya's Mu'ammar Gaddafi (who, like Assad, has nothing in common with radical Islam). Following extensive secret talks with the CIA, Gaddafi made the rational decision to leave the "axis of evil" and join the enlightened world; and he was well rewarded for it. THE CURRENT situation with Syria calls for quiet diplomatic action led by the Americans and moderate Arab countries. Assad should be presented with two clear alternatives. On the one hand, if he continues his alliance with Iran and support for Hizbullah, it will lead to the imposition of severe international sanctions on Syria, as well as the threat of Israeli, and perhaps even US, military action. On the other hand, if he cuts his ties with Iran, blocks the Iranians' channels for supplying Hizbullah with arms and assists the Lebanese army in gaining control of southern Lebanon (and seals his own border with Iraq as well), then Syria will be granted international legitimacy and even financial assistance. In that case, it is likely that the special relationship between Syria and Lebanon would be recognized, including Syria's economic interests in Lebanon (though the Syrian army's return to Lebanon would not be accepted). This could end the current crisis in Lebanon and perhaps even revive the peace process between Israel and Syria. However, such a process requires an 180-degree turn in American-Israeli policy and, more problematically, is liable to be interpreted as contravening America's almost obsessive aspiration to bring democracy to the Muslim world and the Middle East. Israel also would need to overcome its natural inclination not to grant legitimacy of any sort to Assad's regime. Adopting my suggested policy would be possible only if the Israeli government changed the rationale it is following in the current crisis, which has led the government to make some very questionable decisions and mistakes. The government should acknowledge the need to shift the crisis from a zero-sum game (Israel versus Hizbullah and Lebanon), which Israel can't win, to a "greater cake" model, which involves other important actors, foremost of them Syria. It's a cake that can be divided in a way that eventually guarantees Syria and Israel interests. The writer is founder of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and deputy dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.