Strongman’s handcuffs: The futility of red lines

Strongman’s handcuffs: The futility of red lines

Pledging to take action if your enemy oversteps the mark has not always been the smartest strategy. As tension with Syria escalates, a look at Israel’s red lines, past and present

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

From left, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Moshe Ya'alon and Benny Gantz at a ceremony in May. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
From left, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Moshe Ya'alon and Benny Gantz at a ceremony in May. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

During the course of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1976, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin demarcated a red line. If the Syrian Army moved southwest into Lebanon, beyond the Jezzine-Zaharani line, he said in private conversations with secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Israel would be forced to respond. The message was conveyed to Syria.

Yet, with time, the line was trampled. “Their forces reached all the way to Aishiya,” recalled Brig. Gen. (res) Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister. “And they stayed there until 1982.”

One of the reasons Israel did not act, despite its pledge to the contrary, was a far more dramatic development to the east: Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of a nuclear reactor and the need to neutralize that threat.

“That’s why the story of red lines is so problematic,” said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “The pledge is binding. And when the situation changes and you don’t act, then you’ve lost credibility.”

Rabin’s red line was set and conveyed in private. Today, Israel has embraced a bolder strategy.

In a roiling Middle East, with the civil war in Syria threatening to exert its gravitational pull on Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted a two-pronged approach. The first part of the strategy could be called Bunker. As regimes change, civil wars rage, and axes rise and decline, Israel has attempted to minimize its profile — both in terms of war and peace. The Arab Peace Initiative, as reissued by Qatar, has gone untouched. Peace talks with the Palestinians have been stalled for years. And the one major military operation launched by Israel in November 2012, in Gaza, was short and did not include a ground maneuver.

From within the bunker, though, peering out at the turbulence all around, Israel has marked several “red lines” that, if crossed, will trigger a military response. And it is through this mechanism — a conscious cancellation of free will — that Israel has chosen to handle the two central conflicts facing the state: Syria’s dissolution, and Iran’s chess-like advance toward nuclear arms.

The mechanism, as a bold-lettered warning to Israel’s neighbors, has been proven ineffectual by history: Time and again Israel’s lines in the sand, whether drawn publicly or behind closed doors, have been nuzzled up against, slyly transgressed and, at times, defiantly crossed. In its relations with the superpowers, though — and this is particularly relevant to Israel’s handling of the Iranian quest for nuclear arms — the red-line diplomacy has proven helpful.

Israeli infantry soldiers on the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border, on the day after an early May strike in Damascus (Photo credit: Flash 90)
Israeli infantry soldiers on the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border, on the day after an early-May strike in Damascus (photo credit: Flash90)

Tuesday’s events in the Golan Heights are a further illustration of the difficulty with red lines as they relate to Israel’s unfriendly neighbors. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in April that three sorts of transgressions would trigger Israeli action: the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah; the transfer of chemical weapons to rogue actors; and well-aimed, cross-border fire from Syria into Israel.

The message is this: Do what you will within your own borders. But if you do any of these three things, we will strike back and, if necessary, topple your regime.

And yet Assad had tested Israel’s resolve on several occasions. In January, and twice in May, Israel reportedly struck in and around Damascus, preventing the transfer of arms to Hezbollah — either for safekeeping, or as payment for the organization’s assistance on the battlefield.

Some viewed the strikes as an unnecessary escalation, the kind of moves that change a tactical problem — additional missiles in the hands of a terror organization — into a strategic one, with the possibility of starting an unwanted war. Others, like military historian Professor Martin van Creveld, described the demarcation of a red line as a burned bridge.

On Tuesday, at any rate, after receiving a wink of authorization from Damascus, a Syrian army position on the central Golan Heights further ratcheted up the tension between the two countries. Syrian soldiers opened fire on an Israeli army jeep and, for the first time since the onset of the civil war in 2011, admitted it. “Any violation of Syrian sovereignty,” a statement from the Syrian Armed Forces read, “will generate an immediate response.”

Ignoring that the Israeli patrol had not entered Syrian territory, and further ignoring that the jeep was not destroyed (as claimed by the SANA state news agency), the incident, in which Israel responded by firing either one or two Tammuz missiles at a Syrian “position” — perhaps taking 1-million-shekels’ worth of revenge on a piece of real estate — illustrates some of the inherent problems with the red-line strategy.

“So long as they are made public, they are a very problematic tool,” said Brig. Gen. (ret) Shlomo Brom, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of strategic planning for the IDF. “You talk about how you will do X if they do Y, but by the time they’ve done it, the circumstances have changed. And that requires you to reassess, which you can’t do once you’ve pledged yourself to action.”

As an example, Brom pointed to then-prime minister Ehud Barak’s proclamations in May 2000, after the Israeli withdrawal from the Security Zone in South Lebanon. At the time, Barak, under fire from his generals for the hasty retreat, pledged that Israel would deal Hezbollah a crippling blow if it dared to attack Israel within its internationally recognized borders. Five months later, Hezbollah struck, ambushing, killing and abducting three Israeli soldiers from within Israeli territory. By then, however, the Second Intifada had reached a feverish pitch and Barak, who did not want to open a second front in the north, did not follow through on his threats.

Red lines, great wars

Red lines were drawn before the outbreak of the two great wars of the ancient world. Both Sparta, in its battle with Athens, and Rome, in its war against Carthage, employed red lines, said Van Creveld, the author of 17 books on military history and strategy. “The tactic is as old as humanity itself,” he said, “but it is a very dangerous game.”

In both instances, an attack against an allied state — a crossing of the red line — triggered a world war, Van Creveld noted.

This dynamic played itself out again during the lead-up to World War II. In September 1938, after the German reoccupation of the Rhineland and the Anschluss with Austria, France and England betrayed Czechoslovakia and allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland, convincing themselves perhaps that Germany’s taste for expansionism would end there.

Six months later, Hitler broke his promise — the words sound ludicrous today — and took all of Czechoslovakia. This prompted an Anglo-Polish pact: a German strike against Poland, England declared, would mean war.

Hitler, sensing the French and English reluctance to go to war again in Europe, signed a treaty with Russia on August 23, 1939, and invaded Poland several days later. England, which had signed a mutual assistance agreement with Poland on August 25, did not immediately respond. After a last-ditch diplomacy effort, however, on September 3, England was officially at war.

Winston Churchill had predicted this. In 1938 he said of prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”

At around that same time, the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine issued its first red line. In 1939, after the White Paper was released, severely restricting the immigration of Jews to Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, then the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed that Israel would “destroy” the British Empire if the policy was implemented in full, according to Dr. Avi Bareli, a researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism. (Ben-Gurion later formulated the saying: “War against the Nazis as though there were no White Paper; war against the White Paper as though there were no war against the Nazis.”)

“The threat was irrelevant,” Bareli said. “You can’t draw a red line without some power behind it.”

Ben-Gurion, who taught himself ancient Greek as an adult and was an avid reader of Thucydides and Plato, refrained, as prime minister, from using those sorts of threats as a foreign policy tool. “He did not make ‘if-then’ proclamations of that sort,” Bareli said.

Like Menachem Begin, though, he did have tacit red lines. And rather than being meant as an obedience tool, a tactic by which to curb foul behavior, they were used as effective rhetorical signals to the great powers.

President Obama, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/ GPO/ Flash 90)
President Barack Obama, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (in uniform), Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz against the backdrop of an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

First, their futility: At no point were the lines effective in deterring Israel’s enemies. In 1955, Egypt went ahead with a massive rearming of its forces, despite the fact that it triggered an Israeli countdown toward the 1956 war. In 1967, on prime minister Levi Eshkol’s watch, Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran and moved his army into the Sinai, even though he knew that such moves were a casus belli. In 1981 and in 2007, Iraq and Syria respectively sought nuclear weapons, despite Israel’s warnings and its previous actions. And in 2013, Syria continues to disregard Israel’s admonishments, and Iran, with a harrowing blend of audacity and caution, continues to march toward the bomb.

Netanyahu, though, may well have been looking toward Washington rather than Tehran when marking his red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons drive before the UN General Assembly last fall.

He and Eshkol, both perceived as cautious leaders with no taste for war, faced a US embroiled in global battles for supremacy (to a greater extent in 1967) and a president who appeared to have a preference for negotiations over war in the Middle East.

Amos Yadlin, a general who served as the previous head of Military Intelligence and today the head of the INSS think tank, said last week that the current situation reminds him of the spring of 1967 — known locally as The Period of Waiting. Yadlin related to Syria and Moscow’s promise to provide additional military aid, delivered amid spiraling tensions. But the comparison is especially helpful in terms of Egypt in May 1967 and Iran in May 2013.

Egypt then — and Iran today — was by far Israel’s most powerful foes. Then, as now with President Barack Obama, the Lyndon Johnson administration pushed hard against an Israeli preemptive strike. And though Yadlin did not say this, on both occasions the Israeli line drawn in the sand forced the hand of the US: either green-light an Israeli strike, or force the enemy into compliance.

In May 1967, the US administration browbeat foreign minister Abba Eban and, later, Mossad chief Meir Amit. At first, it said that an Israeli attack would be “a horrendous error,” and intimated that the US would not be of assistance of any sort were Israel to act unilaterally. But, eventually, it agreed to look the other way.

In 2013, Israel, more than any other country in the world, is again pushing the US to the brink of a decision, one that will be all the more vivid once May turns to June and the dust of the national elections in Iran has settled.

“On Iran, the red line offers clarity,” said Sneh. “It puts everyone on the same page.”

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