Stand up to Syria
September 5, 2006
by Max Singer
The outcome of the recent war between Israel and Iran's agent Hizbullah will be determined by what Israel and others do now. Israel should be acting to secure a real victory rather than arguing about who won until now.
The direct outcome of the war depends on whether Iran can replace the missiles destroyed by Israel and regain the freedom to fire Katyushas from the area close to Israel's border. Also on whether Hizbullah can by force and enticement—and support from Syria and Iran—maintain its powerful voice in the Lebanese government.
Israel has the power to compel Syria to refrain from using or allowing its territory to be used to provide arms and support to Hizbullah. Compelling Syria to do this will be forcing it to comply with international law and its obligations under UN Resolution 1701. And if Syria is prevented from providing or allowing passage of support for Hizbullah there is a much better chance that Hizbullah can be controlled by Lebanese more interested in protecting their country than attacking Israel.
The reason Israel can compel Syria to obey the law is that the Syrian government is so politically weak that it cannot afford to have Israel bomb even a relatively small number of military targets. And Syria cannot use its ground forces against Israel.
Hizbullah was able to cause problems—and casualties—for the Israeli army because it was fighting on the defense on well-prepared ground. Since Israel has no reason to move its army into Syria, Syria must either settle for an air war or attack Israel on the ground, for which it is entirely incapable. There will be no ground battle with Syria.
There is no need for a 'new war' with Syria. Syria is already attacking Israel by supplying replacement forces to Hizbullah. All Israel has to do is to make it clear to Syria that if they do not stop Israel will destroy the bridges or facilities used for these shipments, and the headquarters of the organizations involved—and perhaps any Syrian tank forces near the Lebanese border.
When the Turks massed forces on the Syrian border and gave an ultimatum to stop harboring Ocalan, the head of the PKK, Syria complied and there was no war. Because of Israel's weak response to Syria since the Hizbullah attack, Syria may well at first refuse to comply with Israel's ultimatum, forcing Israel to do some bombing, until Syria has to accept that Israel is serious—and that the US will not hold it back. They may even threaten to, or actually, fire a few missiles into Israel. But that is a game that they know they can not keep on playing. Israel has both better firepower and a stronger political system.
In the last few weeks Syria has been making aggressive noises toward Israel and moved troops to the Golan border. This does not mean that Syria believes it is stronger than Israel; it means that Assad thinks that Israel is scared of Syria and won't respond to provocations. He is a typical bully responding to perceptions of fear, and his aggressiveness will completely disappear when he comes to see that Israel is prepared to attack Syria.
One of the reasons that Israel didn't act against Syria until now is the common view in Israel's security community and in US policy circles that it would be bad if the Assad government were to fall, because the likely result would be a government, probably controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, that is both worse and stronger. Therefore sophisticated policy-makers in the US and Israel react against any action that threatens Assad's tenure in power in Syria.
But even if it were true that it would be a mistake to try to remove Assad, that doesn't mean that Israel and the US have to be his protectors, and give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants with no response.
In fact Syria's weakness may well be the key to improving the political environment in the Middle East. The easiest significant victory available to Israel and the US is to prevent Syria from regaining control of Lebanon, from sustaining Hizbullah in Lebanon, and from using Lebanon as a base for missile or suicide terrorism against Israel. We are kept from gaining these necessary victories partly by fear of causing Assad's downfall. That is too big a price to pay for what is, after all, only a theory about Syrian succession.
Israel's natural inclination is to shy away from 'starting another war.' But that is a misunderstanding. The way to prevent another war, and to bring a more favorable result of the one that was fought, is for Israel to stand up to Syria concerning its continuing supply of weapons to Hizbullah. This supply is both an act of war against Israel and a defiance of UN Resolution 1701. As Efraim Inbar has written in these pages, Israel can stop it if it begins to talk Turkish to the Syrians.
It is not too late to demonstrate and exploit Syria's weakness and to turn a costly equivocal result into a victory. Doing so does not mean that Assad will fall—although he will quake. Which is why he will yield rather than expand the war. We can count on Assad to make sure that he doesn't fall, by yielding before Israel has done too much for him to survive. His judgment is not perfect, but we do not need to be more cautious about his survival than he is.
Syria is willing to fight Israel to the last Lebanese and Palestinian. Iran is willing to fight to the last Syrian. But Assad is not willing to fight to the last member of his ruling clique.
This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on August 30, 2006.
Max Singer is a Senior Fellow and Trustee Emeritus at Hudson Institute. He founded Hudson with Herman Kahn in 1961.