Under shadow of arms transfers, US and Israeli defense chiefs holding critical talks

Russia is supplying weapons to Syria, Assad is sending missiles to Hezbollah, and with war ‘ten minutes away,’ Ya’alon will tell Hagel Israel acts on its red lines

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, center, and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, on Hagel's left, visit a group of female IDF soldiers belonging to the Oketz canine unit, in April (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, center, and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, on Hagel's left, visit a group of female IDF soldiers belonging to the Oketz canine unit, in April (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)

Hafez Assad kept Hezbollah on a short leash. Although the terror organization was founded with Syria’s consent in the autumn of 1982, the father of the current Syrian dictator did not allow Hezbollah to arm itself with anything more than Katyusha rockets.

Bashar Assad has been more lenient since taking power in 2000.

Some say he is enamored of Hezbollah. Some say, in the third year of the civil war, that he is reliant on Hezbollah, while others believe the reliance is mutual. Either way, Assad has repaid the organization for its blood-drenched labors in its currency of choice: weapons.

These weapons transfers, which start in Russia and Iran and filter from Syria to Hezbollah, will be at the center of Friday’s meeting between US Secretary of State Chuck Hagel and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is making his inaugural trip to Washington in the post. The meeting will be heavily colored by the fact that Israel, in a sea change from past policy to make noise but keep the planes on the tarmac, has reportedly begun striking to stymie the weapons transfers, spurred by the war in Syria and the subsequent tightening of ties between Hezbollah and Assad.

Today, with Assad celebrating victory in Qusair and Russia mulling the transfer of more arms to Syria — Israel is within what IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel recently called “10 minutes” of war.

The scope of Hagel and Ya’alon’s conversation and the resolution of the details are unclear. The two, former infantrymen both, may have found a common language, though Hagel may still be stewing over his last visit to Israel where, one day after he described chemical weapons use by the Assad regime as an American red line, the IDF’s top intelligence analyst sidled up to a lectern in Tel Aviv and announced that Assad’s regime had already used sarin gas against the rebels.

Nor is it clear what the US administration thinks of the secular, socialist hawk, who believes that the Islamist jihad against Israel is but the first stage in a global campaign that has its sights set on the subjugation of Europe and the United States. But it seems quite certain that Ya’alon will do all in his power to convince his counterpart that Israel’s three red lines are firm and that the US, despite its alarming and understandable hesitancy regarding Syria, should do its utmost to convince Russia, Iran and Syria that Israel is not bluffing.

On April 22, Ya’alon, standing alongside Hagel, articulated three scenarios in which Israel would strike in Syria: if chemical weapons crossed into rogue hands, if Syria launched a cross-border attack against Israel and if the regime transferred sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah.

On three occasions Israel has reportedly acted. Once, in January, to thwart the transfer of a surface-to-air missile system called SA-17 and twice in May, apparently destroying an Iranian, Hezbollah-bound shipment of medium-range rockets called Fateh-110s.

But while the red lines have remained unaltered, the situation has shifted, the stakes risen. Since April, Russia has pledged several times to honor its defense contracts and to deliver all manner of weapons to Syria, despite Israeli threats that the transfer of the S-300 advanced air protection system could spark war.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has stepped out of the shadows, mostly notably in the battle for Qusair. “We cannot sit by idly with our hands folded as the back of the resistance is broken,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on May 25.

According to the Meir Amit Center for Intelligence, which translated the speech to Hebrew, 96 Hezbollah fighters have paid with their lives on Syrian soil. They have also helped turn the tide, at least for now, back in Assad’s favor.

These developments further complicate Israel’s decision-making process. Amos Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence and current head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies think tank, underscored this in mid-May when he wrote that, regarding Syria, the assumption of Israeli “freedom of action is an illusion, because freedom of action is a consumable asset.”

This indisputable fact pushes an essential conflict within the Israeli defense establishment to the fore. Regarding Syria there are two schools of thought. The first was articulated by former head of intelligence for IAF Special Operations, Col. (res) Ronen Cohen, who told Army Radio in early May, after two alleged Israeli strikes in Syria, that what Israel should seek is “a cleaning of the arena” in advance of a looming confrontation with Iran.

In other words, sacrifice strategic interests on the Syria front, allow Hezbollah and Iran to rack up points, refrain from involving the US in yet another Middle East conflagration at this time, so that Iran, which will persevere with its nuclear program regardless, can be met under optimal conditions when the time comes.

The other approach could be called “Hezbollah and Syria first,” Yadlin wrote. This school of thought is “based on the recognition that it is possible to deter Iran and demonstrate Israel’s resolve and capabilities when it comes to crossing red lines and [to] weaken Iran’s ability to respond by attacking its allies and [its] first line of fire.”

This, judging by Ya’alon’s autobiography, is the approach that he endorses. Published in Hebrew in 2008, “The Longer Shorter Way” is more about ideology than life story. Ya’alon, a refreshingly humble man, does not tell stories from basic training or even mention the mission that he led to assassinate Abu-Jihad in Tunisia. Instead, speaking like a new convert from his Laborite upbringing to the Land of Israel nationalist right, he focuses on the Israeli-Arab conflict and the way it altered his life view.

The heart of his assertion is this: In the early eighties, after the Arab nations internalized that Israel could not be annihilated on the battlefield, and the nationalist threat, as embodied by Pan-Arabism, subsided, Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power, marking the dawn of a new threat, Islamism, which “seeks to impose Islam on the entire world” and perceives Israel, which is seen as sacrifice-averse and overly eager to appease, as the first battle in that larger war. “Just as animals in the forest know how to recognize the weak animal,” he wrote, “so do they recognize Israel as a weak state.”

The remedy to this perception, which Ya’alon feels is mistaken but understandable, is several decades of staunch determination and perseverance.

That stance likely led to the clear articulation of the red lines and the firm enforcement of each violation. And although there is a growing concern within the defense establishment that another alleged Israeli intervention might, as Yadlin noted, “generate a breaking point and an extended response, followed by [a] dangerous escalation,” Ya’alon will seek to convince Hagel on Friday that Israel means business, and that, if the US has leverage with Russia, and by extension Iran, now would be the time to apply it.

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