The fact is that we are already at war. It may not be official, but it is no less real. It’s been going on for a few years now, even if its intensity has gone back and forth based on shifting circumstances. It is being waged on many fronts, both covertly and in the open. The front that gets the most attention is Syria. On that front, Iran and its subsidiaries (Assad and Hezbollah) are fighting against a bizarre coalition that can lead to nothing good. This alliance brings together Sunnis of various shades of extremism, terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, Western nations (who mainly provide money), and “moderate” Arab states.
As usual, Israel is caught in the middle. But there are the other fronts too: between Israel and Iran, between Iran and the West, between Israel and Hezbollah, and between Israel and Hamas. Apart from all that, Egypt is burning, Jordan is wobbling, and the situation inside Lebanon hardly bodes well. Welcome to the Middle East.
Now let’s assume that reports about a huge, mysterious blast at the subterranean uranium enrichment site in Fordow are true. Given the restrictions imposed by the Israeli censors and the limited amounts of accessible information, we have no way to confirm it for now. On Monday [Jan. 28], a White House spokesperson denied these reports, as did the IAEA (January 29). And yet, reports about the blast continue to surface, so let us assume, for the sake of argument, that there really was an explosion. This wasn’t some “work-related accident,” but a premeditated blast, the (remarkable) result of a covert action by Israel’s Mossad or some coalition of Western intelligence agencies (which has become more and more frequent of late, when dealing with Iran).
Such a blast, which should have destroyed Iran’s most significant nuclear facility, constitutes a real strategic shift. After all, this is the very facility for which the term “immune zone” was coined. An attack of this magnitude is grounds for a full-fledged declaration of war, rather than some covert campaign fought by agents and other operatives. We’re talking real war. W-A-R. If Iran links this operation to Israel, it could order its representatives throughout the Middle East to launch their entire arsenals against Israel, or it could do it itself, or we might see some combination of the above. The current situation is highly reminiscent of the destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor in Deir al-Zour by Israel’s air force. At the time, Israel was concerned that if news of the attack became public knowledge, Assad would be forced to respond, if only out of sheer humiliation. Things would then spin out of control and result in an all-out war. Back then, Israel’s spokespeople talked about a “miscalculation” that could carry the whole region past the brink of war. It was why the entire IDF was present on the Golan Heights for military maneuvers, while Israel’s political and military leadership clambered into its bunker and ignored the reactor’s sudden disappearance. They wanted to provide Assad with an opportunity to ignore it too.
Now let’s get back to today. Israel’s prime minister is prevaricating. On one hand, he has an opportunity to cause real damage to Iran’s nuclear program. On the other hand, it could bring the entire region into the kind of war that will soon leave us longing for the allegedly pastoral quiet of now. So what can be done? If, despite everything, the prime minister decides to go ahead with the operation in Fordow, Israel would station its “Iron Dome” batteries along its northern border, and it would convene urgent meetings among the country’s top brass. It would summon the American ambassador Dan Shapiro, coordinate activities with the U.S. and Europe, and come up with some pretext concerning Hezbollah or Syria to explain the steps that it is taking to the international community. It is probably worth mentioning that this is exactly what has been happening over the past few days.
And what if there was no explosion in Fordow? Well, Syria still has enough chemical and biological weapons for everyone. The truth is that the situation in Syria is dangerous in and of itself. It is certainly a cause for alarm in Israel and many other places too. Assad’s chemical arsenal is vast, varied, and top-notch. Should this arsenal, or even just a part of it, fall into the wrong hands, it would pose no less of a risk to this region than Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Hezbollah’s [Secretary-General] Nasrallah with chemical weapons is a very different Nasrallah than the one we have now. He won’t have to live in his bunker anymore. Israel will be living in bunkers instead.
Nor have we even mentioned other high-end weapons systems, like anti-aircraft missiles and next-generation Scud missiles, which are considerably heavier and have much longer ranges than the Scuds that fell on metropolitan Tel Aviv in 1991. Over the past few months we’ve seen the slinking decline of Assad’s ability to control his omnifarious arsenals. More and more Syrian bases are falling into rebel hands. Assad’s attention is being diverted from preserving his strategic weaponry to preserving his skin.
Compounding all this is the concern that in a moment of sheer desperation, Assad himself could make use of his unconventional weapons. These considerations are more than enough to put Israel on high alert. They are all it would take to evoke deep concern in Washington and to cause the leaders of Europe to break out in a cold sweat.
Meanwhile, Israel itself is deciding what to do. Should it act independently and launch an attack to destroy the Syrian weapons depots? Should it lead a more comprehensive attack by the West, or should it suffice with encouraging such an action? Just like in the previous dilemma, this could lead to all-out war, to Iran stepping out of its nuclear closet, and to a vast conflagration that rages from one end of the Middle East to the other.
No Israeli leader can allow a Hezbollah armed with chemical weapons or al-Qaeda terror cells armed with strategic weapons camped out along the nation’s northern border. And with all that, some people in Israel are still competing over who gets to be the country’s next prime minister.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.