Assad is no longer predictable devil for Israel in Syrian turmoil

2 June 2013 /CAN KASAPOĞLU* – Zaman – Since the outset of the Syrian turmoil, some actors have made their positions pretty clear.

 Turkey, for instance, has been taking the moral high ground starting from the first peaceful protests against the Baathist dictatorship, up until the current civil war. In the Turkish foreign minister’s words, Ankara could not and did not “close its doors on Syrian women who are fleeing from rape” and Bashar al-Assad’s butchering. Washington also sides with democracy and freedom in Syria, but the bitter outcome resulting from post-intervention Libya apparently made American decision-makers much more cautious towards military involvement in conflicts in the Arab world. The Russians do not want to lose their grip on the eastern Mediterranean and on Middle East. And the Iranians do not hesitate from supporting the tyranny that has committed violent massacres against the innocent people of Syria, even by using chemical agents.

In this clear picture, the Israelis’ position is vague. Unlike the other foreign actors, Israel, as one of the two democracies in the Middle East along with Turkey, does not have a good option in Syria, but only bad and worse ones.

The devil at the doorstep

Other than Turkey, which retaliated against violations committed by Assad’s forces with artillery fire, Israel is the only state that so far has conducted direct military operations by air deep in Syrian territory. Thus, understanding the Israelis’ military strategic thinking vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war is critically important. Many experts claim that the Baathist regime and particularly Assad himself have been guardians of the status quo in the Golan Heights and therefore a quite predictable enemy that Israel would prefer to deal with. Even in Israel, some strategists supported this claim, which may have been a basis for the paradigm of the pre-2006 Middle East, but not that of the current regional balance of power.

During the era of President George W. Bush when Washington was planning to sweep the remaining Baathist residue from the region after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, the Israeli prime minister at that time, Ariel Sharon, opposed this idea by voicing “the devil we know” quotation, referring to Assad and his regime. However, things have changed since 2006. In brief, the well-known devil has become much more dangerous in the last few years.

The second Lebanon war: A challenge to Israeli military thought

The first and foremost development that caused shifts in Israeli military thinking vis-à-vis Syria is the second Lebanon war in 2006.

Before the state of Israel was founded, the Jewish community in Palestine, the Yishuv, established irregular resistance organizations such as the Haganah and Irgun. Then, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was developed to fight conventional battles effectively and swiftly against the surrounding foes of the state. Especially under the influence of Gen. Israel Tal, the IDF’s armor doctrine showed impressive success in the Six-Day War in 1967 in conjunction with the air power approach pioneered by Gen. Dan Tolkovksy starting in the 1950s. Thus, air-land mechanized warfare became a source of pride for the Israeli military school. Later, Israel had to deal with low intensity conflicts that caused a drastic shift in its military strategic posture.

It was in 2006 when the IDF suffered from the sui generis hybrid warfare threat conducted by the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Assad regime paved the ground for this result. Hezbollah fighters managed to combine regular and irregular concepts within operational integrity, and the Israelis were unprepared to face this threat. Since then, Assad’s “turning a blind eye” policy regarding the status quo in the Golan Heights has not made much difference to Israel, as Syria became the Iranians’ open gate to Hassan Nasrallah’s militiamen. The Hezbollah threat against Israel, especially the organization’s missile and rocket inventory, has been growing since 2006, and Syria still plays a key role in this proxy war. Furthermore, Hezbollah and Quds Forces’ gradually intensifying participation in Assad’s violent crackdown increased the Israeli threat perceptions from this tripartite axis.

Currently, the nightmare scenario for Israel is a mass transfer of Syria’s game-changer weapons to Hezbollah. These game-changers probably include M-600 Tishreen missiles (the Syrian version of Iran’s Fateh-110), advanced man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that could challenge Israel’s air superiority, and anti-ship missiles (i.e., Yakhnot) that might threaten Israel’s energy and naval assets in the eastern Mediterranean. In fact, the first and foremost reason behind Israeli air strikes was the suspected arms transfers to Hezbollah.

Secondly, we should remember that Assad holds the largest weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal in the Middle East in the form of chemical, and allegedly, biological, weapons. Moreover, this arsenal is combined with ballistic missiles, so that the Baathist regime’s WMD warheads are pretty “deliverable” against Syria’s neighbors. Notably, during the 2000s Syria carried on SCUD tests, and in alliance with the North Koreans, it is believed that Assad upgraded his Scud-Ds to a formidable level. This missile system, which is believed to have a range of about 700 kilometers with a 500 kilogram conventional warhead, can also deliver chemical and biological warheads that would be catastrophic with respect to its range and possibly improved accuracy.

Furthermore, in 2007, in the same year when the Baathist regime conducted a Scud-D test with improved precision, the IAF hit a nuclear reactor in Syria that was sponsored by the North Koreans. Thus, evidence showed that Assad was not a status quo–keeper for Israel, but a cautious and cunning revisionist. As a matter of fact, on May 22 IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel indicated that Assad has been continuing to acquire the “best possible aerial defense capabilities that money can buy.” In this regard, the Baathist regime’s ongoing efforts to procure Russian S-300 surface to air missiles is pretty menacing to the region and to Israel.

Thirdly, the Baathist dictatorship is the closest ally of Iran, which is perceived as an existential threat to Israel’s national security. In fact, since the civil war was ignited, Tehran has turned Syria into a battlefield in order to maintain its regional influence. To be precise, the longer Assad and his clan keep their grip on power, the more likely it is that the Iranians would keep their leverage in the Levant.

WMD threat: Falling into the wrong hands, or already in the wrong hands?

As the conflict continues, worries concerning WMDs falling into the wrong hands have been raised by many experts. However, this concern might also mean a tacit assumption that the Syrian WMD arsenal in the hands of Assad and his regime would be safe.

First, this WMD arsenal is already as dangerous as it could be in the hands of a tyrant. Second, the Baathist dictatorship possesses not only a WMD inventory but is also known to have used them. In 1982, during the Hama massacre, the Assad regime used cyanide gas to indiscriminately annihilate the opposition at that time. So far, during the ongoing civil war, several reports indicate that the regime has used limited amounts of sarin in order to halt the opposition’s progress in strategic areas. What is more, the Syrian chemical weapons inventory includes the deadliest of nerve agents, VX. For starters, an effective VX dispersion might be tantamount to the possible effects of a tactical nuclear weapon due to its high contamination rates and its capacity to linger in the environment for a long time, up to weeks under appropriate conditions.

Notably, during his address at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) annual security conference in April 2013, Gen. Itai Brun, a top Israeli military intelligence figure, openly stressed that Israel firmly believed that Assad has used chemical weapons against the opposition. Moreover, according to press sources, one of the targets that the IAF struck in early May was the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Jamraya, which is a cover institution for Syria’s WMD proliferation.

No longer a predictable devil

In sum, there is no “perfect world” for Israel in Damascus, and it has to deal with a number of security issues emanating from Syria. On the other hand, Assad’s military machine was the last standing Arab army in Israel’s eyes, and regardless of the civil war’s trajectory, the Syrian Arab army will be eroded to a significant extent. The assumption that Israel would benefit from Assad staying in power is analytically flawed. Assad has proved that he is not a predictable enemy since 2006, and his stance during the civil war has confirmed this fact.

*Dr. Can Kasapoglu is a research fellow at İstanbul-based independent think tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). Dr. Kasapoglu served as a visiting post-doctoral researcher at the Israeli think tank Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies in 2012.