The threats emanating from Syria have become downright frightening. For the past several days, Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan has been warning repeatedly that it is certain that Israeli population centers will be hit by Syrian ballistic missiles and that we have to be prepared for the worst-case scenarios, including Scud missile-launched chemical weapons attacks on Israel’s metropolitan centers.
On Wednesday, Air Force commander Maj.- Gen. Amir Eshel spelled out Israel’s concerns from a military perspective. The chance of war breaking out at any time is extremely high. Syria has a massive arsenal that includes advanced anti-aircraft missiles, anti-ship missiles and surface- to-surface missiles. Syria also has large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, advanced artillery as well as the other components of a large conventional military force.
Eshel warned, “Syria is collapsing before our eyes. If it collapses tomorrow we could find its vast arsenal dispersed and pointing at us.”
In that event, Eshel said, the air force will have to operate at 100 percent of its capacity to clear a path for ground forces to operate in Syria and secure the armaments to prevent them from being dispersed, or used against Israel.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz warned that Israel could easily find itself fighting a three-front war in the near future. Presumably we would be fighting Syria, Lebanon and Iran – whose nuclear program continues to move to completion undaunted by empty US and European threats.
Syria is a mess because there are no good guys in a position to win. Syrian President Bashar Assad is one of the most dangerous leaders in the world. He is a major supporter of terrorist groups. He enabled al-Qaida and Hezbollah to use Syria as a logistical base in their war against US forces in Iraq. He is a vassal of Iran. He is allied with Hezbollah. He is a mass murderer.
Since the civil war began two years ago, Assad’s complete dependence on Iran and Hezbollah – as well as on Russia – has been exposed for all to see. There is little doubt that whatever checks the US was able to exert against him before the civil war began no longer exist. And if he survives in power, he will be completely indifferent to US pressure and so will behave far more violently than he did before the war began.
And yet for all Assad’s horrific behavior and the reasonable presumption that his actions will only become more violent and dangerous with each additional day he remains in power, the most telling aspect of the Syrian civil war is that Israel, the US and Europe are incapable of deciding whether he is better or worse than the alternatives.
Because standing opposed to Assad and his Hezbollah and Iranian protectors is al-Qaida.
Last week, we were regaled with news analyses and stories about how the al-Qaida forces fighting Assad are now splintering. According to breathless, detailed reports, the “moderate” al- Qaida group, the Nusra Front, is being overwhelmed by the “extremist” al-Qaida in Iraq faction. The latter has moved into Syria and is taking over operations, much to the consternation of their moderate Syrian al-Qaida brothers.
But on second thought, since both the Nusra guys and the al-Qaida in Iraq guys are loyal to al-Qaida boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Zawahiri told the al-Qaida in Iraq fellows to move to Syria, and since al-Qaida in Iraq formed and financed the Nusra Front, it is not at all clear that anyone is splintering off from anyone, or that anyone is upset about anything.
Aside from revealing the pathological stupidity of Western news services, the attempt to make a distinction between good and bad al-Qaida forces fighting Assad points to the futility of trying to choose sides in this horrible war, which has already seen more than 80,000 killed.
At this point, despite Assad’s successful campaign to restore his control over Qusair, a strategically vital city adjacent to the Syrian-Lebanese border, most assessments indicate that the war is not nearly over. The sides may well stay bogged down fighting one another for years.
Then again, as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said, it is also possible that it will all be over quickly.
In short then, no one knows how the war will play out in Syria. All Israeli political and military leaders know is that whatever happens, the situation in Syria is dangerous and highly flammable.
Moreover, everyone agrees that the conflict can spill out in two ways – ways which are not mutually exclusive.
First, both the government forces and their Shi’ite allies, and well as their al-Qaida opponents, could attack Israel. Both sides have a clear interest in attacking Israel, since the one thing they all agree on is that they wish to see Israel destroyed. So as is the case for the Palestinians from all parties, for both Assad and his Shi’ite allies and his Sunni opponents, attacking Israel is a surefire way to build public support.
This danger has already materialized. Assad’s forces shot at an IDF jeep patrolling the border this week and rushed to get the story – and their exaggerated version of its outcome – to the media. Rebel forces have taken pot shots at Israel, and targeted UN forces along the border, accusing them of siding with Israel.
As Eshel made clear, the second danger is that the weapons in Syria will proliferate far and wide. US officials have already admitted that they have lost track of much of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
This week, PJ Media reported that a State Department whistle blower is about to come forward to divulge new information about the September 11, 2012, al-Qaida attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel were murdered in the attack. The whistle blower will reportedly reveal that Stevens was sent to Benghazi in a secret State Department effort to buy back anti-aircraft Stinger missiles that al-Qaida received from the State Department during the 2011 US-led NATO campaign to overthrow the regime of longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Since Gaddafi was defeated, his massive arsenal of terror weapons has spread out across the region, and particularly to Syria and Gaza. If Syrian weapons are similarly dispersed, the Libyan disaster will look like the military equivalent of a skinned knee.
The party most responsible for the barbarous, protracted Syrian civil war that will almost certainly drag Israel into a regional war with is of course the Syrians themselves. But the party second most responsible for this mess is the Obama administration.
Since the outset, the US had only one good option for intervention. It could have operated jointly with Israel to destroy Syria’s missile arsenals and confiscate its weapons of mass destruction.
That is the only sure bet move the US had.
Every other action came with high risks.
Rather than take its sure bet move, at every turn, the Obama administration has opted for the most dangerous action with the smallest possible payoff.
For instance, rather than actively build an opposition army based on Syrian Army defectors, Kurds and other relatively moderate forces, Obama subcontracted the formation of the Syrian opposition to Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As Israel and others warned, Erdogan used his power as the US contractor to build an opposition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology is largely indistinguishable from al-Qaida. It was the Brotherhood’s domination of the Syrian opposition forces that paved the way for al-Qaida to enter and dominate opposition forces.
After Obama ensured that pro-Western forces would have no chance of taking over a post- Assad Syria, he allowed Russia to make matters worse. Rather than threaten Russian President Vladimir Putin in a credible way to prevent him from supplying S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, Obama sat back and did nothing to block the imminent transfer of the game-changing system to Syria.
And as Eshel warned, Syria’s advanced anti-aircraft batteries, which will threaten Israel’s air superiority, will increase in a profound way the probability that Assad will attack Israel.
In the face of American rank incompetence, Assad has already broken all the red lines he and his father followed for more than 40 years.
He has already used chemical weapons. He has proliferated advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.
And he has already attacked Israel on the Golan Heights. Now that he has already crossed all of these red lines, the only question is how much he will escalate. Equipped with the S-300, the probability that he will escalate drastically has risen precipitously.
For all the danger emanating from Syria, Israel has one ace in the hole. We have a consensus that we must win the coming war with Syria decisively, whatever the cost. And for that consensus, we have just one man to thank: the late Hafez Assad.
During the 1990s, the Israeli Left and the Clinton administration managed to convince the Rabin, Netanyahu and Barak governments to offer to surrender the Golan Heights to Syria.
The only reason that the initiative failed was because Assad Sr. rejected Israel’s repeated offers to surrender the strategic plateau in exchange for a piece of paper with a smiley face on it.
Had Assad accepted Israel’s offers, we would have been facing a situation today that we would be hard pressed to contend with. On the one hand, we would be facing an all but certain war with Syria with al-Qaida or Iran controlling everything from the Jordan Valley to Haifa Bay.
On the other hand we would be facing this threat as a fractured society.
To hide their culpability for rendering Israel all but powerless to defend itself, those who supported surrendering the Golan would be pretending the dangers away. Instead of being free to discuss how to win a war in Syria, we would be bogged down in discussions of whether we have a right to fight in Syria.
In other words, if it hadn’t been for Assad Sr. and his unyielding hatred for Israel, we would be facing the same situation in relation to Syria today that we faced in Lebanon in 2006 and as we have faced in Gaza since we withdrew in 2005. The lack of consensus regarding our strategic imperative to defeat our enemies in Gaza and Lebanon caused the IDF to fail to win its campaigns in both theaters.
So at this bitter juncture, as we face the all but certain prospect of war with Syria while our one ally is behaving like a drunken bull in a China shop, we have one man to thank for our continued ability to face this daunting challenge.
Thank you, Hafez Assad. Your hatred has saved us.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.