A Question for Israel: What If Syria Becomes the Next Lebanon?

Analysts believe that Assad’s regime will be replaced by a fragmented new Syria, where different parts of the country will be ruled by different militant groups. A wave of Druze (living in the Golan Heights) requesting Israeli citizenship, testifies to that fear. Consequently, Israel must change its classical defense doctrice, Ofer Shelah writes.

al-monitor Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker waves a Syrian opposition flag as he takes part in a protest organized by Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir, against the Syrian regime in Sidon, southern Lebanon, Oct. 7, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

Topics covered

lebanon, idf, hezbollah, golan heights, druze, assad

Oct 7, 2012

How quickly does reality change. Less than half a year ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak assessed that Assad would fall “within weeks.” When the months passed and Assad continued to remain in power, Barak’s rash announcement was shelved together with IDF Intelligence Branch forecasts that were proved wrong regarding the stability of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and other macro developments in the area. But recently, as the number of casualties in the Syrian civil war reach the hundreds every day, and when the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] evicts hikers from the Hermon [Mountain] because of the appearance of small numbers of armed people [Syrians] not far from the border fence, the very words “regime of Bashar Assad” and considerations regarding his staying in power — seem out-of-date. Perhaps Assad will continue to bear the title “President of Syria,” and it is almost sure that there will come a stage when he will lose it. But that is much less important than a true understanding of the chaotic situation on the Northern border.

A high-placed IDF officer described a situation this week [of Sept. 30] in which Syria will, in effect, be partitioned into several zones of control, each of them constituting a regional power base. It is definitely likely that one of them, let’s say in the environs of Damascus and surrounding other cities as well, will be under Bashar al-Assad’s control. But he will not be, and to a great extent is no longer, the “President of Syria” any more than Amine Gemayel was the president of Lebanon after the parliament members of that so-called state (some who came to vote with Israeli backing) elected him to that exalted position.

In effect, it has happened already: [quasi-]independent rule with formative signs of sovereignty already exist in the North and East of Syria, in parts of the border regions (such as the Turkish border) and in the Kurdish region. These areas belong to the rabble camp of the regime’s opponents. Such being the case, if Assad will fall it will be from such a low height that it may not have much significance.

What is significant is the fact that Syria is becoming the most extreme example of the new world surrounding Israel. National states, some of which (Lebanon, for example) were artificial colonial creations while others had a long history, are weakening and some — disintegrating. The danger of “large-scale” war, involving capture of Israeli territory, disappears together with the dismantling of these countries. But new dangers are created instead: dangers that are, by nature, grey, decentralized, much harder to decipher. Yet the intensity of these [new] perils is just as great as the dangers we became accustomed to viewing as existential threats for many decades.

The identity of the Druze 

Ever since Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, the Druze residents of the Golan Heights refused Israeli citizenship (certainly in public), and loudly announced their status as Syrians. However, over the past few months a new phenomenon has noiselessly emerged in which many of these Druze are openly requesting the blue [Israeli] identity card. The Druze have always lived in the Middle East in territories controlled by others, and now they have derived the first inference of the current situation: not just that “the big war” with Syria is disappearing from the horizon, but that a political arrangement with Syria disappears simultaneously. What was once a national debate that begat the most prevalent political sticker in Israel (“The nation is with the Golan”), goes up in smoke together with the villages that are shelled by Assad’s forces with incomprehensible brutality.

On the other side [of the border], says the IDF, there is no dominant agent to seize power, even if Assad were willing to relinquish it. Just as in Lebanon, there are too many meddling hands, too many regional and religious conflicts involved: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates against Iran, Turkey against Iran (two conflicts based first and foremost on religious differences — Sunnis against Shiites), Israel and the West versus the agents of world terror. This is one of the reasons that not only will it be difficult to put an end to the civil war — because a well-known power broker is needed to reach an arrangement — but also that any international intervention may be problematic. In Libya, for example, the West stopped Gaddafi for the sake of the rebels. But for whose benefit would it be, to stop Assad?

History teaches us that a failing country invites all the worlds maniacs. That is what happened in Lebanon, and that is what is taking place in Syria, but with one difference: there are vastly greater quantities of weapons of all types in Syria today, than there ever were in Lebanon. Thus the rebels really don’t need assistance in this regard: the regime’s brutal behavior is their best mobilizing force, and the weapons caches scattered the length and breadth of the country serve them no less than Assad’s army.

The guerrilla warfare doctrine designed by Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro 50 years ago, dictated that guerilla fighters must live off the weapons of its enemy, and become stronger while accumulating small victories at weak points. Never was enemy weaponry, in all sizes and types, as available as in Syria today.

Facing the agents of chaos in front of us

This change renders large sections of Israel’s classical defense doctrine as meaningless, about as relevant as the question of when Assad will fall. Take the three classic principles of military response: deterrence, warning, and tilting the balance. Each of these is feasible in the current situation, roughly like an anti-tanks missile designed to stop divisions of Syrian armored fighting vehicles from crossing the border. 

Deterrence is local-specific, temporary and sometimes has the opposite effect on another agent. A strong and ambitious organization like Hezbollah can be deterred; on the other hand, all of the IDF’s might may not deter an agent from launching a heavy missile from an abandoned Syrian storehouse toward Israel. That agent feels no responsibility for the territory in which he is located and does not care if Israel destroys it in response; he has no close political objectives and war, for him, is not necessarily the continuation of politics by other means [Carl von Clausewitz]. The contrary is true: The goal of al-Qaeda, for example, is to increase turmoil in regions lacking order by perpetrating big terrorist attacks. Chaos is its victory. 

Deterrence is also another story. Israelis may continue arguing over the “golden intelligence report” [delivered by Israel’s Egyptian agent Ashraf Marwan] that existed or didn’t exist during Yom Kippur war [November 1973 war], but what will ignite the next confrontation will not be an organized decision of a regime or even of a large organization. Syria was Israel’s first and foremost intelligence objective, intelligence that was once relied upon to sound the warning bells for war (the famous “special means” from the days of the Yom Kippur War). In recent years, Israel was able to make a reasoned assessment that Assad would refrain from retaliating against the strike on the nuclear facility in Deir al-Zour [in 2007]. It is doubtful if it will be possible to sound a warning before the explosion that will set off the next confrontation. It is likely that, just as in the summer of 2006, Israel will be the one to create the confrontation in response to an attack — when the one who ordered the attack never imagined that it would lead to [the Second Lebanon] War, as Hassan Nasrallah eventually admitted.

Regarding tilting the balance we have to ask: With whom? In how much time? For what objective? In the new world, the goal of the strong party — and Israel is the strong one — is to return as quickly as possible to the existing order. It has no power to impose a new order, it cannot even make real distinctions between the agents of chaos it faces. The problem is formed when our decision-makers and general public are still held captive by the old-world concepts of clear victories, and look for tilting the balance when that is no longer possible.

New intelligence 

In the North [of the country], they are talking about preparing for a new world. First of all, physically strengthening the obstacles to protect ourselves from infiltration attempts of people and weapons. The border infrastructure, which has not been dealt with since the disengagement agreement in the mid-1970s, is being re-established. So far, new infrastructure has been completed for a section of around 20 kilometers [12.4 miles].

Head of Military Intelligence Directorate Aviv Kochavi and top officials of the directorate recently explored the border. An army spokesman announcement of the tour said that the purpose was to “create [three-way] dialogue between high-level corps officials, the Golan Division Commandant and intelligence officers in the sector — in order to adjust and modify the Intelligence Branch tools and methods of collection and research of the threats in the zone .” In simple words that lead to complicated actions, Kochavi and his people understand that they must seek new intelligence with new definitions, new objectives, and new tools. Systems that were built over scores of years with much money and judiciousness have lost their relevance all at once. In the new world it will be difficult for military intelligence, in charge of providing clear answers (“will there be war?”) to even define the correct questions.

Yair Golan, currently Head of the [Northern] Command, had previously served as Home Front Command. Golan is a veteran infantry man, but it seems that it is his previous role which prepares him to understand the “day of judgment” that is likely to be realized in his zone. Hezbollah also hears Israel’s statements about what the next war will look like. They [Hezbollah operatives] also assume that the next war will not involve an initial foot-dragging period followed by gradual escalation, a two-week period until Israel mobilizes its reserves and almost a month until the first big operation takes place. Thus, we assume, Hezbollah will act accordingly: they will hurl all the firepower they can at us much earlier, much more violently. While the IDF’s mantra has been to keep its wars as short as possible, this goal was not realized in [the Second] Lebanon [War] nor in the Cast Lead operation [2008-9]. Instead, this mantra is liable to be adopted by Hassan Nasrallah in his next war.

Golan, who had participated in numerous meetings about what is likely to happen to the Home Front in the case of a flare-up, has his own assessment of what it will look like. He is realistic, sober, far from hysterical but knows that there are things that have not yet been done in preparing the home front and in [updating Israel’s] classical defense doctrine. He also knows that a combat-ready IDF — over which he currently has responsibility for operating a significant part of – continues to receive traditional cuts of the pie that are not necessarily relevant to the world he sees when he looks North and East-ward through his vision facilities. 

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz also talked recently about Syria, using the same terms. There will be an edge contact with some enemy agent, Gantz told the combat soldiers he hosted, and you will be involved in it. Gantz often says, in other contexts, that military operations are carried out when possible, but wars are conducted when needed. This is his refined version of  [former head of Israel’s Security Agency] Meir Dagan’s words about [going to war only when] a sword is at Israel’s neck, literally cutting into the flesh. The operators of force in Israel, who deal every day in preparing for the moment when they will have to use force in its entirety, are sometimes more realistic than their superiors, with regards to when, how much and for what objective.

The true conclusion to be drawn from the new world that is currently being shaped in the pillars of smoke and murder of citizens across the border, is that we must change our conceptions. We must use our power to meet real needs, and not [fulfill outdated] mantras from the past and longing for things that have passed from the world. We must understand the true significance, limitations and benefit to be gained by use of force, if needed. In contrast to the sense that is reflected by the culture of victimization of the government and part of the media, Israel is becoming stronger every day in relation to its adversaries. To the same degree, some of this power loses its importance every day. Instead, it becomes more and more critical to answer the questions about when, and for what, to activate this power.

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