Thursday, March 29, 2012
The Next Century Foundation hosted a fantastic discussion group on Monday night where Syria was discussed in some depth.
An interesting aspect of the discussion was to analyse Israel’s role in the Syrian crisis. Of course, Israel is keeping a very close eye on developments in the country, as Tel Aviv’s geopolitical and security interests are wound up in the Iranian axis of power, i.e. Iran-Syria-Lebanon. Tehran’s close ties with Damascus and Beirut continues to pose a grave threat to Israel, and any upheaval in Syria is likely to reverberate across that region. Tel Aviv has several concerns about the Syrian situation. Firstly, Israel is worried that with the continuing conflict, non-conventional weapons may find their way to Lebanon and into the hands of Hizbullah.
Secondly, Israel is concerned with what might replace Assad at the helm of the Syrian government. Assad has served Israeli interests over the course of his rule, not least because he held together the various Syrian factions and provided a stable neighbour. In particular, Assad has done little to overturn the Israeli occupation of the Golan heights, save for the Naqba day raids. Though Israel continues to technically be at war with Syria, the relationship has been relatively peaceful. Unfortunately for Israel, it appears unlikely that Assad’s replacement will take such a soft line. The re-emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Salafis in Egypt and now Syria is discomforting. Tel Aviv fears that the toppling of Assad would lead to a devil-unknown in the shape of armed jihadi-Salafis whose hatred of the Zionist state could lead to attacks on Israel.
It is for these reasons that many across the Arab world believe it is Israel who is preventing international action in Syria. Though Israeli voices maintained that Israel does not have the power to prevent the international community from acting an Arab diplomat retorted “the US Congress is more Likud than the Knesset!” The Kurds present were adamant that it was Israel preventing any action on Syria, though in this instance it does feel like Israel is being unfairly targeted.
In fact, it is possible that Assad’s replacement could even improve Israel’s security situation if a Saudi backed Sunni government could nullify Shiite power in Hizbullah and Iran in favour of closer ties with Gulf states. In so doing, the Iran-Syria-Lebanon axis would be seriously undermined and America may increase its influence in the Middle East. Such a government may also prove to be much warmer to Israel given Saudi Arabia’s interest in maintaining stability.
As can be seen by the discussion on Syria, Israel has its mind set on the Iranian threat and relates many of its other security questions to it. In fact, the Iran issue is becoming more important to Israel than Palestine, as shown when Netanyahu sought to address the Iran issue in a recent visit to Washington above all else.
Our discussion group was brought to a silence when a prominent Israeli claimed his sources told him the bombing of Iran was imminent. It is widely known that Netanyahu would love to strike tomorrow, but it was previously doubted whether he could win over his entire cabinet. Israel’s motivations for striking were in part logistical. The capabilities of the Iranian program, were it to be bombed soon, are not so great as to risk a great amount of radiation to be released in to the atmosphere. The longer the program is allowed to go on, the greater this risk becomes once the reactors become operational. Furthermore, Iranian programs are purported to be becoming more and more clandestine. If the strikes were delayed, it could become difficult to monitor such programs. Moving material to Fordow enrichment plant, which is buried 280 metres underground. Israel would have a window of opportunity of less than a year, unless American backing such as bunker busting bombs and air-to-air refuelling planes. But in part the motivation would be political, as the instability in Syria has weakened Iran who is also struggling under the US imposed sanctions. The domestic political situation is also said to be fragile as the supreme leader is said to be losing confidence in President Ahmadinejad, giving Israel a window in which to strike when Iran is at its most fragile.
But a majority did not believe an attack was imminent, not least because Israel probably does not have the capabilities to pull it off. Such a mission requires not only the targeting of all nuclear sites but also all missile sites to prevent an instant retaliation. Israel would need a huge number of bombers who would require mid air refuelling. Furthermore, Israel most probably does not have enough of the required “bunker buster” bombs to destroy underground research facilities. But most of all, an attack would lead to unknown, and potentially disastrous, consequences. An attack would quite possibly trigger retaliation and full scale war could break out. A tinderbox like the Middle East could easily blow up into a full scale war with Israel fighting on several fronts, possibly against Syria and Lebanon as well as Iran. The US would be reluctant to risk such a possibility at a time when the economic recovery is so fragile and the military has been drained by two long wars in the region. It seems quite clear that Israel can only attack with US support, though as Obama told Netanyahu in Washington last year, “we’ve got your back”. It’s hard to see the US ever denying its ally the support it needs.