Interview'The US balked at launching half a dozen Tomahawk missiles at Syria'

US is ‘floundering’ over Syria, says ex-Mossad chief

Russia’s proposal makes Assad’s ouster less likely, to Israel’s detriment, says Shabtai Shavit; attacks like 9/11 won’t recur, thanks to Western vigilance

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, September 2013 (photo credit: IDC/Adi Cohen Zedek)
Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, September 2013 (photo credit: IDC/Adi Cohen Zedek)

Russia’s proposal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons has driven the prospect of Bashar Assad’s ouster further away, to Israel’s detriment, the former head of the Mossad told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview.

Shabtai Shavit, who served at the helm of Israel’s overseas intelligence service from 1989 to 1996, accused the administration of President Barack Obama of “floundering” over Syria. He noted witheringly that the US had “balked” at firing “half a dozen Tomahawk missiles” at the Syrian regime in the wake of the August 21 alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad, that the US says killed 1,429 Syrians.

Replacing the Assad regime was a clear Israeli interest, he said, as it would significantly weaken Hezbollah, leaving Israel to confront Iran without its regional proxy.

Israel’s biggest gain in any action involving Syria would be to break the “axis of evil” between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, Shavit added in the rare interview Wednesday, on the sidelines of the World Summit on Counter Terrorism at Herzliya’s International Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) which he chairs.

‘On Iran, Israel stands alone’

Echoing comments by Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday and by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, Shavit said that Israel will likely have to face the Iranian threat on its own.

Economic sanctions could cause Iran to halt its nuclear program if the pressure is strong enough to “strangle” the Iranian economy, he said, but added that it is doubtful whether the international community will impose such harsh sanctions. The military alternative seems less likely than before in light of the Obama administration’s reluctance to act decisively on Syria.

“The US balks at launching half a dozen Tomahawk missiles at Syria,” he said. Such “floundering,” he added, has caused Washington “to lose prestige,” he said. “No one [in the world] wants to wage wars that don’t directly concern them. Will Europe go to war with Iran?”

“We [in Israel] will have to decide on our own strategy … since the world will not recognize the Iranian threat as a global threat, [viewing it] only as one directed at Israel. If we stand alone, we have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Could Israel conceivably allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons? Shavit did not rule out that possibility — but only in a different Iran. “In a scenario where Iran changes from [a leadership] of Muslim fanatics to a civil society, we can decide that ‘OK, it’s not worth going to war over.’ Why? because a civil society decides differently than fanatical Muslim leaders whose duty in life is to annihilate you.”

The Russian deal: Good for Assad, bad for Israel

Russia’s proposal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons, gradually morphing into international policy, worried Shavit. The plan demonstrates President Vladimir Putin’s “mastery of realpolitik,” he said, giving Obama a much-coveted “ladder” to withdraw his threat of force against Syria.

“It seems to me that a deal is being hatched between Russia, the US and Bashar Assad … Syria announced that it is willing to destroy its chemical weapons or remove them from Syrian territory. The world can indeed arrange that without much effort.”

Shavit described such a scenario as a win-win situation for the three parties involved.

‘Israel’s biggest gain, a strategic gain, [would be if] the axis of evil between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah is broken’

“The United States gets off the hook, Russia will have strengthened its standing in Syria, and Assad remains in power, albeit weakened. What happens next? That question remains open.”

Such an outcome, he stressed however, “is not good for Israel.”

Unlike the moralistic tone used by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in Wednesday’s call for international intervention in Syria, Shavit’s argumentation remains strictly practical.

“Israel’s biggest gain, a strategic gain, [would be if] the axis of evil between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah is broken. That would inevitably weaken Hezbollah and leave us alone to confront Iran. It would mean Iran minus a [military] division; since Hezbollah is effectively an Iranian division.”

‘A Kurdish secession in Syria would be good for Israel’

The prospect of an independent or autonomous Kurdish state splintering from the central government in Damascus — as in Iraq — would be good for Israel, Shavit opined, but quickly added that such a state will never come to be due to the objection of two regional powers, Iran and Turkey, which would actively oppose such a move.

“The reason this will not happen is not only that Syria will have to pay a territorial price for this [Kurdish] state, but that a Kurdish state will demand territories under the control of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Former Soviet Republics.”

“The emergence of an independent Kurdish state would entail a price that the surrounding countries will not be willing to pay.”

It is for good reason that the Autonomous Kurdish Region in northern Iraq has not unilaterally declared statehood, he said. “If the Kurds unilaterally declare independence, no one will come to their aid.”

‘An attack like 9/11 cannot repeat itself today’

The United States and Europe are far more prepared to confront terrorism since the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, Shavit said.

“I do not believe that global terrorism can execute an operation on the scale of the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “Many things have changed in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the free world, both with regards to preventative and defensive measures and with regards to the development of offensive counter-terrorism doctrines.”

‘The fact of the matter is that since 9/11 they haven’t repeated an attack of similar magnitude, and it’s not for lack of trying’

Following 9/11, Shavit founded Athena, a company which advises countries on issues of homeland security, intelligence gathering, and counter-terrorism. He maintains the position of CEO in the company.

If international terrorist groups were free to plan and execute attacks before 9/11, today they invest over 50 percent of their time worrying about their own survival, he claimed.

“The fact of the matter is that since 9/11 they haven’t repeated an attack of similar magnitude, and it’s not for lack of trying.”

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