The IDF Chief's Chemical Weapons Dilemma

Article Summary
With the prospect of chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands in Syria, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told the Knesset Defense Committee that ultimately, Israel should wait for the precise right time to pounce, writes Ofer Shelah. Gantz's restrained approach counters many past politicians who were much more trigger-happy.

The statement made Tuesday, July 24] by the IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was designed to clarify, first and foremost, to the parliamentary committee and the Israeli public at large — since as any senior IDF officer knows, an address to the committee plenum is a press conference of sorts — the dilemma facing Israel at the moment with regard to Syria. According to Gantz, Israel can optionally take its time and wait for the right moment, when Hezbollah or a Global Jihad element tries to gain control over Syrian chemical weapons (which is not a simple task, as a number of components, each kept separately, as far as known, have to be gathered and assembled for operational capability to be achieved), and then directly target a convoy carrying the deadly arms on its way to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon or toward the Iraqi border. In this case, it would be a focused foiling or a targeted prevention action, justified and effective. However, it would heavily burden the Intelligence system, as it would be required to closely and constantly monitor any suspicious activity on the part of hostile elements to locate and pinpoint such an event.

On the other hand, a preemptive military operation designed to put out of action all elements of the lineup of Syrian chemical weapons, including storehouses and launching means, is liable to spark a large-scale conflict. What's more, such action would call for the neutralization of other Syrian military lineups to enable [the IDF] freedom of action and it may also impact the confrontation inside Syria. It is also bound to have far-reaching international repercussions. As it is, quite a number of countries, primarily France and Russia, are involved in the endeavor to establish a new order in Syria. They may accept with understanding a justified Israeli operation aimed at preventing mass destruction weapons from falling into the hands of extremist elements, but they are much less likely to tolerate an all-out assault by Israel. Gantz explained all this to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday. However, his words received somewhat misleading headlines, as if the Chief of General Staff warned that an Israeli attack would inevitably escalate into a full-blown war.

Yet, his words carry an even more important message. No one in his right mind would be ready to put up with the transfer of chemical weapons, and other deadly arms, to the hands of Hezbollah. Israel already warned in the past of the danger of advanced anti-aircraft systems being passed on to Lebanon. Various Intelligence agencies, Israeli as well as foreign, have been working hard in recent weeks tracking the arsenals of mass destruction weapons held by the collapsing Assad regime. For the time being, there is no indication that the Syrian President is losing control over these weapons, as both Gantz and [director of the Defense Ministry Policy and Political-Military Affairs Major General (res.)] Amos Gilad said Tuesday.

At the same time, new winds are blowing behind the scenes and voices are heard in Israel calling for the settling of a number of unresolved matters right now, at this very moment. For one thing, they say, Israel has yet to avenge itself of Hezbollah for the Burgas terror attack [killing five and wounded 34 Israeli citizens on Wednesday, July 18; attributed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Iran-backed Hezbollah militants]. In fact, Israel has refrained from retaliatory action so far so as not to ignite a flare-up in the presently highly explosive situation. But there are those who argue that a smashing attack on Hezbollah would deter the militant Islamist organization from making any unacceptable move in Syria and serve as a warning to Hezbollah, giving it a taste of what it may expect in case it responds to an Israeli strike on Iran. It would thus pave the way to an Israeli assault [on Iran's nuclear facilities], mitigating fears over the fate awaiting the Israeli home front in such an event. Arguments of this kind call to mind similar calls for action made in the days of the 2006 Lebanon War [known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War]. Then, too, there were those who suggested that Israel should take advantage of the opportunity to settle a few matters with Syria and deal it a devastating blow.

Just a week before the war erupted [on July 12, 2006] and two weeks following the abduction of [IDF soldier] Gilad Shalit [on June 25, 2006, by Hamas, in a cross-border raid near Kerem Shalom on the Gaza Strip-Israel-Egypt border], then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was approached with an interesting proposal: to do away with Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau Khaled Mashaal [who was at the time in exile] in Damascus. Olmert noted in response that the Syrians would go berserk. "So let them go mad. For three days, there will be some uproar here, which you may take advantage of to straighten things out, that is, to beat Syria as well as Hezbollah, and after three days, the international community would rush, alarmed, to ask us for cease fire." The man who came up with the ingenious proposal was none other than Avigdor Liberman, currently Israel's Foreign Minister.

The statement made by Gantz [at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee] is designed to remind any trigger-happy agent who seeks to straighten things out in the Middle East using F-16 fighter aircraft— like Liberman, before the abduction of [IDF soldiers] Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were attacked and abducted by Hezbollah on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border on July 12, 2006, an event that sparked off the 2006 Lebanon War — that past attempts on the part of Israel to establish a new order [in the region] by force have usually ended badly.The IDF Chief of General Staff is actually reminding those at the helm in Jerusalem that a military operation in the north, which would necessarily entail barrages of missiles on the Israeli home front, would be another obstacle on the way to an Israeli attack on Iran. After all, the IDF and even more so, the Israeli home front, would find it difficult to cope with two missions like this at one and the same time or even successively.

The present security situation in Israel is no doubt highly complex. Any move made by Israel would have far-reaching implications. It is not a black and white dilemma that Israel is facing at present, but rather a choice between two equally hazardous alternatives, at least one of which is unacceptable under any circumstances whatsoever as it involves the scenario of unconventional weapons held by a terror organization. It is not the first time that, of all the figures in power, it is the IDF Chief of General Staff who has to remind the trigger-happy among us that reality, alas, is not that simple.

Found in: syria, lebanon, knesset defense committee, knesset, israel, iran

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