Sideshow in the Desert

Adam Elkus

Special to Defense and the National Interest
October 22, 2007


Strike Against Syria

Between September 5 and 6, Israel launched an airstrike, possibly aided by special forces on the ground, on Syria. Though details remain sketchy, there has been much speculation on whether the target of the strike was weapons bound for Hezbollah, nuclear components from North Korea, or Scud missiles. Whatever the target, the aim seems clear. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, Israel’s military decision-makers intended the strike as a signal to Iran and other enemies that Israel’s deterrence, devalued by its humiliating loss to Hezbollah in the August 2006 Lebanon war, “has been restored.” However, the strike does not demonstrate strength. It is only more evidence of Israel’s reliance on high-tech firepower that will not deal with graver threats to its security.

It is true that the strike – and the failure of the Arabs to criticize it – once again demonstrates that Israel has the most powerful military force in the Middle East, with the exception of the US forces massed in the Persian gulf. Iran will take note, as it always has, of this. But an Iranian nuclear strike is not the biggest threat to Israeli security. The view of some Israeli opinion-makers like Benny Morris that Iran will attack Israel with nuclear missiles out of pure hatred for the Jews is far-fetched.

Target: Iran?

For one, the International Atomic Energy Agency has not found any evidence of military use of Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear facilities. If Iran is in fact making a play for nuclear weapons, their purpose would be to counterbalance conventional US air, naval, and ground power deployed in the Persian Gulf and Afghan theaters. It would also aid Iran’s quest to project its power across the Mideast. Lastly, it would shore up Iran’s embattled clerical regime by appealing to Iranian national pride at having joined the nuclear club. None of those objectives would be accomplished by a suicidal nuclear attack that would lead to massive retaliation by Israeli strategic nuclear forces and American conventional airpower. Those who claim that Iran cannot be deterred have done nothing to prove their assertions. Instead, they recite doomsday fantasies of mad mullahs that have little basis in reality. The real threats to Israel lie elsewhere and cannot be defeated by sophisticated firepower.

The Real Threats to Israel

Israel’s northern frontier remains a source of disorder, with Hezbollah ruling an effective autonomous zone inside South Lebanon. As demonstrated during the August 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah’s mobile rocket teams can target Israeli territory and mostly elude Israeli retaliation. Israel’s targeting of civilian infrastructure during that war has also bolstered Hezbollah’s position by weakening the Lebanese government and allowing the predominately Shiite Hezbollah to claim it represents the Lebanese national interest. Hezbollah and its allies within the Christian community (led by Michael Aoun) are engaged in a face-off with a coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze, and marginal Christian factions for control of the Lebanese government, a situation that could possibly degenerate into civil war.

Needless to say, history has shown that such a development would be detrimental to Israeli national security. War with Syria also remains a possibility, due to continuing poor relations. In the event of war, Damascus’s aging Soviet hardware would not pose a serious threat to Israeli forces, but the regime could conceivably employ commando teams, ballistic missiles possibly armed with chemical weapons, newly acquired anti-tank weapons, and guerrilla networks in an attempt to draw out such a conflict until the Israeli public loses the will to win. Yet, as Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) fellow Anthony H. Cordesman noted in a report on Syrian military capabilities, Damascus’ asymmetric capabilities would be little than an “irritant” in the face of vastly superior Israeli firepower.

In any case, the consequences from such a war would be bad for Israel. A limited war, the most likely outcome, would humiliate and radicalize the Syrian regime. The main consequence of this would be speeding up Syria’s ongoing project to develop a surefire means of deterring Israel with weapons of mass destruction. Syria already may be arming its Scud missiles for long-range chemical weapon delivery. If Syria really has been developing a nuclear capability defeat will not halt such a process. Additionally, as Cordesman also argues, Israel has nothing to gain by occupying more Syrian territory.

Israel also has borne some of the brunt of the disastrous American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fall of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban and the failure to put stable governments in the gaps has increased Iranian political and military power, triggering a struggle for influence between Iran and a coalition of Sunni states – again, not a good outcome for Israeli regional security. Should a joint Euro-American strike or an Israeli strike be launched against Iran’s nuclear facilities and armed forces, Tehran will retaliate against pro-Western interests with a range of lethal options. Iran could retaliate with naval asymmetric warfare against vulnerable oil shipping routes in the Persian Gulf and ballistic missile attacks against American allies. Additionally, Iran could also call up a multitude of guerrilla and terrorist proxies. American, Israeli, and European saber-rattling against Iran has not served to deter its behavior; it has only empowered hardliners and marginalized the already vestigial Iranian moderate opposition.

Finally, Israel faces a grave threat from within – a threat worsened by its own counter-productive actions. The Israeli-American strategy of marginalizing Hamas and backing the unpopular and corrupt Fatah has led to open Palestinian civil war and humanitarian disaster in Gaza, which has now been cut off from electricity and fuel and declared a “hostile entity” by the Israeli government. Israel has also carried out a strategy of targeted assassinations and limited military incursions within Gaza in the hopes of undermining Hamas and deterring its frequent rocket attacks.

Israel and the Bush administration hope that by doing this they can marginalize Hamas and elevate Fatah. However, Gazans blame Israel, not Hamas, for cutting off water and fuel. Without the support of the Palestinian population, Israel will not be able to neutralize the rocket teams. And Fatah – already unpopular due to its corruption and authoritarianism – has been tainted by its association with Israel and America. In any case, it will be hard to cut a deal with a party in control of only half the Palestinian territories. Should Hamas perceive such a deal as illegitimate, it would be easy for them to spoil it with a few well-timed rocket or suicide attacks. There is also a danger that the dismal conditions within Gaza will lead to further Palestinian radicalization, playing into the hands of Al-Qaeda strategists who have sought in vain to open a new front in their war against the West.

These threats are ultimately more dangerous to Israel than a hypothetical Iranian nuclear strike that will most likely never come. And as the 2006 Lebanon war proved, recycled versions of American military “shock and awe” doctrine will not protect Israel from its enemies. Expensive and flashy sideshows in the Syrian desert may delight defense contractors but have no real impact on improving Israeli security. Israel’s conventional military forces can deter invasion by Arab states and prevent an Iranian nuclear-strike. But they lack the capability to wage counterinsurgency warfare and the means to solve the mainly political problems that Israel faces.

An Imperative for Survival

What the Syrian strike instead demonstrates is a lethal combination of arrogance and weakness. Like the United States, Israel has a powerful military and national security state. And like the United States, it has found out the hard way that such power no longer offers protection. Israel would be better served by a strategy that aims to reduce tension with Syria, stop saber-rattling against Iran, cease the counter-productive isolation of Hamas, and work to conclude a genuine peace with the Palestinians.

Most importantly, Israeli decision makers must recognize that their national interests are not served by defining themselves as Washington’s proxy in the region. Recent Israeli security policies, most notably the invasion of Lebanon, were strongly supported by neoconservatives. With the US tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, they see Israel as a tool that could possibly complete the stillborn Bush administration agenda of Middle Eastern transformation. That agenda, however, empowers the very same terrorists that pose the most threat to Israeli security. And however much the neoconservatives may claim to love Israel, they do not have to live with the consequences of Middle Eastern instability. The writers of National Review and Commentary face down rude servers in Washington restaurants, not suicide bombers and rockets.

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