Prepare for the next round

Syria's use of Hizbullah as a means of bleeding Israel has gone unpunished for too long.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The IDF has exacted a heavy price from Hizbullah for its aggression, but failed to achieve an unequivocal victory. It was a mistake to believe that military pressure could generate a process whereby the Lebanese government would disarm Hizbullah. Neither the latest UN Security Council resolution or the deployment of an international force will be able to overcome the centrifugal political processes that have beleaguered the divided Lebanese society. Similarly mistaken was the belief that reliance on air power could paralyze Hizbullah's capacity to harm Israel by launching thousands of short-range rockets. The political and military circumstances surrounding the cessation of the fighting in Lebanon have left Hizbullah shaken but still a force to be reckoned with in Lebanon and a proxy for Syria and Iran. This inevitably means that Israel needs to prepare for another round. The IDF must learn and digest the military lessons of this campaign, and it needs to prepare, doctrinally and technologically, to better deal with military challenges such as short-range Katyushas and anti-tank missiles. The IDF's reserve units need serious upgrading, and more money needs to be diverted to the defense budget. Above all, strategic rethinking is necessary. SUBDUING SYRIA is the key to managing the Lebanese crisis, to rolling back Hizbullah, and to weakening Iran and its radical Islamist influence in the Middle East. In order to attain victory in the next military engagement, Israel should target Damascus. Syria allows supplies for Hizbullah to pass into Lebanon from its territory and provides the channel for Iran to do likewise. Syria's use of Hizbullah as a means of bleeding Israel has gone unpunished for too long. That being the case, the strategic address for dealing with Hizbullah and for restoring lost deterrence remains Damascus. Only military pressure on the regime of Bashar Assad can deny Hizbullah military capabilities and signal Israel's readiness and ability to respond tenaciously. Israel must emulate Turkey's behavior in October 1998, when Ankara forced Hafez Assad to cease long-time Syrian support for the terrorist Kurdish organization, the PKK. Turkey's ultimatum and unequivocal determination to use massive force against Syria then proved sufficient to coerce Damascus into cooperating. The current international constellation renders Syria susceptible once again to military pressure. Today, in addition to its support of Hizbullah, Damascus continues to house the headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, despite past promises to the US to close down their offices. Syria also disrupted American and French attempts to restore Lebanon's independence, particularly after Rafik Hariri's murder in February 2005. Washington knows that Syria is allowing the infiltration of insurgents into Iraq from its territory, and President Bush has made it clear he holds Syria to blame for the Lebanese crisis. Even Arab states would prefer to see Hizbullah, a radical Islamist organization, seriously weakened. Most try to suppress such groups at home. Moreover, the Shi'ite Hizbullah is correctly seen as an Iranian proxy, while the involvement of Iran, a historic rival of the Arabs, fuels fears of a Shi'ite ascendancy in Mideastern politics. THE TIME is, therefore, ripe for Israel to isolate Hizbullah from its sources of support. An ultimatum should be issued to Syria to cease the transfer of supplies to Hizbullah. If the ultimatum is not taken seriously, Israel should begin bombing the crossing points on the Lebanese-Syrian border and gradually expand its attacks on Syrian targets. The air campaign that has been problematic in hunting down a guerrilla force such as Hizbullah could prove effective against a state such as Syria that presents many valuable targets. Syria is militarily weak and unable to engage Israel in a conventional war. While it possesses an arsenal of long-range missiles with the potential to cause considerable damage, Israel's air force has demonstrated its ability to paralyze the long-range missiles in Lebanon, and it could eliminate Syria's long-range missile threat as well. The risks of regional escalation are minimal. Iran is in no position to intervene directly and is unlikely to provide a pretext for speeding up the international processes geared to bring its nuclear ambitions to a halt. A successful campaign against Syria would eclipse Hizbullah's sense of victory after the recent campaign in Lebanon, enhancing Israeli deterrence. It would also diminish Iran's influence in the region and lessen Iran's capability to retaliate in the event that its nuclear installations were attacked. The next round could serve as a lesson to all radicals who advocate terror against militarily superior powers. Indeed, the Palestinians, who have been much influenced by Hizbullah's past successes, would pay attention and might learn to calibrate their goals accordingly. Finally, it would strengthen Israel's value as a strategic asset to the West. Taming Syria is the key to weakening Hizbullah, Iran and the radical Islamist forces in the region, and to maintaining strategic superiority. In short, it is high time to speak to the Syrians again - in Turkish. The writer is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.