Air force chief warns of ‘surprise war’ with Syria

Amir Eshel says Assad’s ‘immense arsenal’ could be turned on Israel at any moment, accompanied by rockets from Gaza and Lebanon

Israel Air Force chief Amir Eshel (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)
Israel Air Force chief Amir Eshel (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

The commander of the Israeli Air Force, which has reportedly bombarded targets in Syria several times in recent months, warned Wednesday that war could break out on Israel’s northern border at any moment, demanding the full engagement of the IAF’s resources.

“If tomorrow Syria collapses, and I am not saying that will happen, we could find ourselves in the thick of it very fast and in great number,” IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said, illustrating how the nature of surprise wars had changed for Israel since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

“Because the immense arsenal parked there, just waiting to be looted, could spread with each gust of wind and you find yourself having to act very fast and in great quantity,” he said, alluding to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s sizable stockpile of both conventional and chemical weapons. “These days a number of scenarios can lead to a surprise war.”

Speaking at a conference in Herzliya, Eshel said that aerial superiority was the key to victory in such a war, and that swift triumph on the field would be of supreme strategic importance. That was why, he said, the Assad regime had spent billions of dollars on anti-aircraft missiles, including advanced S-300 batteries due to arrive from Russia.

Eshel said the Russian-made surface-to-air system would boost Syria’s confidence and could lead to more aggressive behavior toward Israel.

He cautioned that the regime could fall at any moment, and that many groups were resolved to lay their hands on Assad’s weapons.

“It doesn’t mean we’ll act, but it does mean we have to be ready with aircraft and defensive batteries,” Eshel said. “After all, we won’t be told ‘You have two weeks to prepare for a war.’ We’ll have to brace for rockets from Gaza and Lebanon and from further afield. And if we’re not prepared, it’ll show we’ve failed to internalize the lessons of the Yom Kippur War.”

Eshel assured his audience that Israel would likely win a potential war with Syria, but that it would have to to so in a matter of days.

“In 2013, we can win wars, but there are no more knock-out victories. The other side is focusing on sabotaging our abilities. We find ourselves in a very different context than during the Yom Kippur War, and we will have to employ greater flexibility, with more intensity and in a short amount of time. We can win and it will require massive firepower,” he said.

Echoing Eshel’s comparison of a future conflict to the traumatic Yom Kippur War, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said Wednesday that the IDF was preparing for the “tangible scenario of a confrontation on multiple fronts.”

“We’re resolved to act with jointness, cooperation and maximal efficiency to ensure our ability to swiftly overcome any confrontation and win any future battle,” he said.

On Tuesday, Gantz issued a severe warning to Assad, saying the Syrian leader would “bear the consequences” of future attacks on Israeli forces near the Syrian border.

The unusually explicit threat came hours after an Israeli jeep came under fire during a patrol in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.

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