Getting Serious About Syria

Barry Rubin, GLORIA

“We must once again restore the Israeli army’s deterrence, because there is no other way,” explains Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Quite right. The place to start is Syria.

Israel’s strategic policy toward Syria should be based on two simple, basic principles:

    1. Israel should make the Syrians believe it wants to see the current regime there overthrown even if it has no intention of making this happen or even really wants that outcome.

    2. Israel should make clear that if there is a future Hizballah attack leading to a war like last summer’s that Syria, not Lebanon, will be the main target of retaliation.

Let’s review the issues and then discuss why this is the best policy. It is true that Israel does not seek the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist dictatorship dominated by the Alawite minority. The reason is that the likely replacement would be an Islamist regime from the Sunni Arab majority. An alternative could be simply another Baathist regime under a different leader but the risks of regime change are certainly real.

Strategy, however, is not just stating what you ultimately want but also what you wish the other side to think you want. In Syria and throughout the Arab world, the idea is clearly held that Israel is not willing to strike too hard as to bring down the Assad regime. In turn, this emboldens that regime to strike hard at Israel, knowing it has little or nothing to fear. That security should be taken away from the Damascus regime.

Clearly, Israel does not want war with Syria. Yet the whole concept of deterrence is to make clear to the Syrians that Israel is not afraid of war and that Syrian support for terrorism against Israel will have real and costly consequences. Without this fear, there is no deterrence. And without deterrence war–either directly with Syria or with Syria’s clients in Lebanon–is far more likely.

The weakness of Syria should also be a factor in Israeli thinking. Despite the possibility of renewed Russian aircraft sales, Syria’s military is badly outdated. A lot of the regime’s threats and use of terrorism is a bluff, formulated precisely to distract from that fact. The Syrian regime has no great power ally and cannot depend on a single Arab government.

Of course, the one international asset Syria enjoys is its alliance with Iran. Yet especially in the period before Iran obtains nuclear weapons, Israel can and must press Syria hard–verbally and even covertly at regular intervals; materially if events require it.

This leads us to the second point. It could not be more obvious that the current Lebanese government is not really an enemy of Israel. While it might be incapable of making peace, it would prefer a quiet border and no conflict. The main enemy of the Lebanese government is not Israel but rather Iran and Syria. Whether or not officials in Beirut say this openly, this is certainly what they think. The same goes for Hizballah, which is the main threat to take over the government.

Given the fact that the vast majority of Christians, Druze, and even Sunni Muslims do not want to participate actively in the Arab-Israeli conflict, their suffering in future clashes in that quarrel should be limited. Anything that weakens the Lebanese government and society is against Israel’s interests.

Obviously, of course, this does not include direct strikes against Hizballah but there should be no such attacks against the Lebanese infrastructure, aside perhaps from roads being used as part of Hizballah’s military effort. To hold the Lebanese government responsible for Hizballah–when it would love to rein in that group but cannot do so–is sheer folly.

It is clear also that Hizballah is not highly responsive to rational calculations of the strategic balance or to the infliction of material damage. Certainly, destroying its military equipment and killing its troops can be most effective. But material damage inflicted even on its supporters is welcomed by Hizballah as a means of mobilizing them and even making them financially dependent on an organization well-funded by Damascus and Tehran.

If, therefore, Israel is going to force a state actor to pay the price in order to give it an incentive to rein in Hizballah the proper address is Syria.

There is another important factor here which suggests holding Syria, rather than Lebanon to account. International diplomacy and public opinion has become an important force in shaping regional issues. This situation was central to the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war when there were tremendous demands and heavy pressures for Israel to stop operations in and against Lebanon.

In the event of a Syrian-oriented response, however, such reaction and pressures would probably be much less. Unlike Lebanon, Syria would not be seen as an innocent victim able to muster sympathy. Attacks on Syrian government, military, and even strategic facilities would be less likely to involve civilian casualties. And while Israel has something political to lose by alienating Lebanese, there are no such considerations regarding Syria. Given the fact that peace with Syria is simply not a possibility–a fact that should be clear for anyone going beyond the most superficial level of solely English-language rhetoric from Damascus–there is nothing to lose on this front either.

To rebuild Israeli deterrence requires a proper degree of credible threat against those inciting, planning, financing, and equipping attacks on Israel. This should be directed against those forces which are both implacable enemies and which have to take into account material losses. If deterrence must turn into implementation, the guns should be pointed in the right direction. Let the Syrian rulers tremble where now they swagger.

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007.

July 10, 2007 | Comments Off on Getting Serious About Syria

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