‘A pity they both can’t lose’

Five insights on how US action in Syria might play out, and how Israel might want it to; and one battle-proven suggestion for an ultimatum to Assad

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

US fighter jets flying in formation. (photo credit: Seaman Andrew Skipworth/US Navy, Department of Defense)
US fighter jets flying in formation. (photo credit: Seaman Andrew Skipworth/US Navy, Department of Defense)

As the hulking US war machine comes to life, pivoting menacingly toward Syria, five insights and one suggestion regarding the developing situation to the north:

1) There are still fundamental differences of opinion within the Israeli security establishment as to the preferred results of the looming US offensive in Syria and the eventual outcome of the war.

After two and a half years of fighting, including a Hezbollah-driven triumph in Qusayr in June, the prevailing opinion is that weakening Bashar Assad harms Hezbollah and Iran and therefore trumps all other considerations. In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eyes, all considerations are subservient to the Iranian quest for the bomb. Defanging the Iranian threat, Netanyahu believes, is his historic mission. His former bureau chief and current Minister of Economy and Trade Naftali Bennett confirmed this in an interview with the Times of Israel in 2012, saying that, from his old boss’s perspective, “it is his raison d’être.”

On Sunday, during the government’s weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu touched on this again, noting that the Syrian example of WMD use proves that “the most dangerous regimes in the world can’t possess the most dangerous weapons in the world.”

But there are also those who believe that Assad’s removal from the stage will only lead to far more extensive bloodshed and that a victory for the Sunni extremists will place Israel in greater peril than an Assad victory.

Maj. Gen. (res) Uzi Dayan, a former deputy chief of the IDF General Staff and a former head of the National Security Council, said in a telephone interview that he is firmly opposed to deposing Assad. “What really frightens me is a ring of Muslim Brotherhood nations from Turkey to Egypt. That’s what I’m most concerned about,” Dayan said.

Uzi Dayan, a former general and nephew of Moshe Dayan (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)
Uzi Dayan, a former general and nephew of Moshe Dayan (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/ Flash 90)

He suggested that Sunni extremists would then destabilize Jordan and Lebanon. “Whoever is interested in keeping the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan,” he said, “would do well not to support the deposing of Bashar Assad, because they [Jordan] are the next target.”

Furthermore, he called the killing of 100,000 people thus far during the war “a promo” in comparison to what the future held in a post-Assad era.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, without saying which side he prefers in the ongoing war, has suggested that the gravest possible result in Syria is anarchy. “The worst outcome in Syria is a chaotic situation… meaning a vacuum in which al‐Qaeda elements, terror elements will come in and will challenge us, will challenge Jordan, will challenge the stability of the region,” he said in June during an address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

When journalist Barbara Slavin asked Ya’alon after his talk whether an accurate description of his feelings regarding the conflict in Syria might be in line with Henry Kissinger’s alleged quip about the Iran-Iraq War – that it’s a pity they both can’t lose – he said simply, to laughter from the audience, “might be.”

2) The US will strike Syria, perhaps attempting to strip Assad of the ability to fire chemical weapons, perhaps simply to deter his regime from leaning in that direction again, and perhaps, in the maximalist approach, to pry several fingers of the Alawite fist from power. Israeli officials are keen to convey that the chances of a Syrian counter-strike against Israel, in any of these instances, as slim. That is an optimistic prognosis.

On May 15, several days after Israel allegedly struck Fateh-110 missile warehouses in Damascus, at least two mortar shells landed on the high flanks of Mount Hermon. The original assessment was that this was stray fire from battles on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Veteran military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai subsequently revealed that the mortar fire on the Hermon had not been an accident. It was an assignment that the Syrian regime farmed out to Hezbollah, which then farmed it out to an unknown extremist Sunni organization, which launched the retaliatory fire. That sort of attack allowed Damascus to claim domestically that it had responded to Israeli aggression, and it allowed Israel, for its part, to absorb the blow in silence.

But beyond that sort of symbolic action there is a wide spectrum of responses. Syria, or an emissary, could strike Israeli territory with a larger caliber weapon, in a more sensitive location; it could task Hezbollah with a foreign response, such as an attack on an embassy or a Jewish community center; it could target military installations of varying degrees of importance, including air bases; it could target civilian centers; and it could – although this is extremely unlikely – use a weapon of mass destruction.

The most likely scenario, in response to a US strike, is something akin to last Thursday’s rocket fire on the western Galilee or an attack along the Golan Heights – a move that is difficult to trace back to the regime and of a scale that does not demand an immediate and scathing Israeli response.

3) In such a scenario, in the current constellation, Israel, despite proclamations to the contrary, may find its hands tied. The US is in the process of assembling an international coalition. Great Britain, France and Turkey are on board. Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will likely play an assisting role. The USS Harry S. Truman, an aircraft carrier, is currently in the Red Sea. It could make a U-turn and sail back into the Mediterranean. But even if it does, providing a nearby battle platform for US jets, the US may still want to use its air bases in Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey and thus, at the very least, provide a way for the NATO member, a long-standing foe of Alawite-run Syria and one of the few islands of stability in the Middle East, to be closely involved in the offensive. Israeli actions would complicate that sort of cooperation.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan alongside Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh during a January 2012 meeting in Istanbul (Photo credit: Mohammed al-Ostaz/ Flash 90)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan alongside Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh during a January 2012 meeting in Istanbul (Photo credit: Mohammed al-Ostaz/ Flash 90)

On August 21, MK Avigdor Liberman, the head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, responded to Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim that “Israel is behind the coup in Egypt,” with the following proclamation: “Anyone who heard Erdogan’s words, which were filled with hate and incitement, understands without any doubt that this is a continuation of the way of Goebbels.” This so-called heir to the Nazi propaganda minister, it stands to reason, would be disinclined to cooperate with the US-led coalition if USAF and IAF planes share the skies.

4) On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called a US-led strike on Syria, without the UN Security Council’s authorization, “a severe violation of international law,” and characterized such an act as a “catastrophe.” He did not threaten the US-led coalition with hostile action, but Russia, like Israel, seems to believe that Syria is a test case for Iran, and therefore there is a good chance that Russia, in the wake of a US strike, will  provide previously withheld air defense systems such as the S-300 to Syria and prove, in the aftermath of a strike, even less cooperative with the West on Iran and the sanctions regime. Israel has made crystal clear its profound opposition to the Russian supply of S-300s — not only because of the advantage the systems would bring to Assad, but also because of the protection they would afford Hezbollah.

5) In 1991, when the US invaded Iraq, Israel had little to offer in the way of intelligence. Iraq is a distant country and was, and remains, far down the list of priorities for Israel. Syria is a different story altogether. The countries are neighbors. In September 2007, when Israel reportedly obliterated Syria’s nuclear reactor in Dir a-Zur, the strike came as a complete surprise to the Syrian leadership. Earlier this year, Amos Yadlin, the head of military intelligence at the time of the strike and the current head of the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, revealed that even the Syrian army chief of staff did not know about the covert nuclear plant. Since then, Israel reportedly has struck in Syria four times and the nature of those strikes would indicate that the Israeli security establishment has a very good handle on the state of affairs within Syria. The behind the scenes cooperation between Israel and the US, therefore, likely is and will remain quite close.

6) On July 12, 2006, two hours after Israel learned that two of its soldiers had been abducted during a cross-border Hezbollah raid, MK Ami Ayalon, a former admiral and Shin Bet commander, called his party colleague, then-defense minister Amir Peretz, and offered him some advice. “Tell the prime minister to call a press conference and to announce that he is giving Hezbollah three days to return the soldiers. At the same time, announce a large call-up of reserves and the preparation of the IDF for an attack,” he said, according to an account in the Second Lebanon War book “Captives of Lebanon.”

Peretz was incredulous. “You don’t understand,” Ayalon told him. It isn’t Hezbollah that needs these three days. It’s you.”

Peretz did not heed the advice; Israel went rapidly to war — and ended that war, more than a month later, at best inconclusively.

A US soldier on patrol last week in Afghanistan (Photo credit: Senior Airman, Grovert Fuentes-Contreras/ US Air Force)
A US soldier on patrol last week in Afghanistan (Photo credit: Senior Airman, Grovert Fuentes-Contreras/ US Air Force)

The US is in a similar situation. It needs to rush, while the outrage over Assad’s alleged chemical attack remains fresh, but it needs time to assemble itself. Once the obligatory moves to the UN have been made and the machinery of war is in place, the US should offer Bashar Assad an ultimatum. It could even be sugar-coated. Everyone detests the usage of chemical weapons, President Barack Obama could say. They are a heinous weapon. You claim the rebels have used them against your forces. We have evidence of your forces using them against civilians. In the interest of world security we offer you three days to surrender all chemical weapons materials to a UN team. So that they do not fall into the wrong hands. So that the weapons are safe. If you do not comply, we will be left with no alternative but to strike.

Assad is fighting for his life, and for the life of his clan and his religious group. There is little chance of him accepting the terms of a US ultimatum. However, there is no better time to bargain with him than with the cold steel of an American sword against his neck. In the worst case scenario, he says no, makes a bravado-laced speech, and the coalition buys itself some time, gets synchronized, and offers the world, as in the first Gulf War, a countdown to action.

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