How to prevent war

The main determinant in preventing a Syrian attack is an old-fashioned one: deterrence.

idf artillery 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP )
idf artillery 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP )
Whether or not the latest reports of a billion-dollar arms deal cut during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Damascus are correct, Syria has been on an arms buying spree. In the past year, while alternatively engaging in peace rhetoric and saber-rattling, the Syrian regime has reportedly bought a billion dollars of sophisticated missiles and aircraft. Perhaps it is the hefty price tag of these weapons that prompted Syrian President Bashar Assad to say to his parliament last week that "The Israelis should remember that the price of peace is lower than the cost of war." We do not need Assad to tell us the price of war, a price we have been paying since the reestablishment of the Jewish state almost 60 years ago. Nor do we need the endless speculation about a war with Syria that so many seem to expect will occur this coming summer, as if wars are scheduled like vacations or election campaigns. Wars are indeed sometimes affected by miscalculations and misinformation. In 1967, for example, King Hussein of Jordan was convinced to attack Israel by false Egyptian reports that Egypt was defeating Israel, when the truth was that the Egyptian air force had been destroyed on the ground in the first hours of the Six Day War. But the underlying causes of war are not hidden; they are the result of aggressive designs of dictatorial regimes. Such regimes decide to attack when they deem it in their interest to do so. It is the task, therefore, of Israel and the international community to ensure that such an attack would not be in the interest of Assad's regime. One aspect of this is to make it clear to Assad, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has done, that Israel stands ready to engage in direct, unconditional peace negotiations with Syria any time, anywhere. We are under no illusions that Assad is interested in such negotiations, much less concluding a peace treaty. But the offer must be, and clearly is, on the table. Peace offers, however, cannot be relied upon to prevent war because Syria is not interested in peace. On the contrary, Syria fights peace with Israel with all its might, including through forces most opposed to peace with Israel, such as Hamas and Hizbullah. Like other Arab dictatorships, Syria has depended on enmity with Israel to distract from its own failed rule, and there is no reason to believe that its calculations have changed. Accordingly, the main determinant in preventing a Syrian attack is an old-fashioned one: deterrence. Syria must understand that the cost of attacking will be much higher than even a regime that cares nothing for its people's interests is willing to pay. The IDF understands this, and is therefore ensuring that it is trained and equipped to fight a conventional war, after years of focusing on fighting terrorists. Last year's war in Lebanon was a vivid wake-up call alerting to this necessity, and that call is being heeded. But deterrence is not just a matter of military capabilities, but of clearly conveyed intentions, including wider diplomatic repercussions. The Syrian regime should be made to understand the obvious, namely that Israel will not only destroy any attacking force, but in response to an attack, will eliminate the regime's military capabilities and therefore threaten the regime's survival. Further, any missile attacks against Israeli civilians will be met with the full and direct targeting of all of the regime's assets. The international community can also play an important role in preventing a possible Syrian miscalculation by clarifying in advance the diplomatic results of such aggression. If the Assad regime, for example, understands that an attack would be met with a European and American initiative to impose Chapter 7 sanctions on Damascus in the UN Security Council, and full backing for Israel's right to self-defense, the possibility of such an attack would be greatly reduced. To be credible, however, the UN must ensure that the resolutions it has already passed are enforced. Syria is flagrantly violating the UN-imposed embargo on support for Hizbullah without consequences. The US and Europe have not imposed sufficient pressure on the Lebanese government to request that UNIFIL deploy along the Lebanese-Syrian border to prevent weapons smuggling. The failure to punish Syria and enforce Resolution 1701 constitutes a direct risk of encouraging either Hizbullah or Syria to attack Israel, and should be urgently corrected regardless of any rhetorical dance over peace talks or a proposed regional conference. War is eminently preventable, provided that basic steps to reduce its likelihood - by convincing the aggressor that it will be too costly - are taken.