Will Israel Do It?
Ibrahim al-Amin, Courtesy: Alakhbar English, July 17, 2012
Israel and its backers have been hinting at possible military intervention in Syria on the pretext of preventing the transfer of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the Lebanese resistance. Such a step would set the region ablaze. Iran and Hezbollah have let it be known to all concerned that they would not stand idly by.
Putting aside all theoretical commentary about what is happening in Syria and the region, it would seem that we face a very high risk of a major explosion in the coming weeks.
By explosion, we are talking about a confrontation that could erupt with Israel. This would be liable to reshuffle the cards in every country in the region, and extend the tension and bloodshed to many of them.
Yet it is the countries meddling in Syria who hold the key to such a crisis.
At the heart of the matter is the reason why “the West” opted to revive Kofi Annan’s mission despite having announced its failure, and that is the absence of an alternative. In other words, the inability of the armed Syrian opposition – with Arab, regional and Western backing – to create facts on the ground that could decisively tip the balance of power.
Stalemates and Setbacks
Robert Mood, the head of the UN inspectors in Syria, paid a brief visit to Lebanon a few days ago. He spent a quiet evening with friends in Beirut, who quizzed him about what was really happening and his assessment of the situation.
Mood spoke of how the regime exaggerates the extent to which the violence is the work of Islamists. But he said peaceful popular protests have virtually ceased, and armed opposition is spreading, albeit highly chaotically, and without the resources to make serious changes on the ground likely.
Mood also said that the regime remains intact and in control of large parts of the country, while the armed groups control some rural areas, and that at the current rate, President Bashar al-Assad and his army could sustain the confrontation for years, barring a surprise development.
Sources say that prior to Mood’s visit, Turkish envoys were dispatched to some of the capitals that support Syria, and also to Beirut. They sought to hold discussions on how a solution could be devised, “if only hypothetically,” based on Assad leaving office, but were rebuffed.
When Turkey and some European governments got the impression that Russia was prepared to discuss the idea, “if only hypothetically,” Damascus and Tehran swiftly informed the Russian leadership of their categorical opposition on principle, the Iranians warning it was a trap to be avoided.
This was subsequently reaffirmed in “an official message to the West that if there is any solution based on the idea of Assad’s departure, there will be nobody around the table capable of discussing it”.
Meanwhile, signs surfaced of serious trouble in the condition, both political and military, of the Syrian opposition. In addition to the farcical spectacle of the opposition meetings held in Cairo, Western intelligence circles began speaking of a dangerous disintegration within the ranks of the opposition.
Pressure was put on Arab capitals to compel these groups to come together, but that came to nothing. Instead of bolstering the position of the armed groups active on the ground, these efforts had a negative impact, prompting some to declare their operational independence.
The result has been that hardline Islamist groups have gained influence, whereas other factions’ contact with external backers is confined to liaising over the provision of limited amounts of money and supplies, while some groups have engaged with mediation efforts aimed at brokering “a process of disarmament concurrent with political solutions.”
The WMD Alarm
Amid these difficulties, another aspect of Western and Israeli interest in what is happening in Syria has recently been brought to the fore.
Reports, mostly based on intelligence sources, have indicated that a frantic effort is being made (including on-the-ground activities attributed to Turkish, British and perhaps US special forces) to identify the locations of the Syrian army’s non-conventional arms – meaning not only its long-range missile arsenal, but also what the West says is the biggest stockpile of chemical weapons in the region.
There has been a profusion of reports focusing on this theme in the Israeli and Western media over the past two weeks.
It was reported in Foreign Policy magazine that the US State Department had sent diplomatic notes to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia warning them of possible attempts to move Syrian weapons of mass destruction into their territory.
Sky News and others have meanwhile quoted intelligence sources saying Israel is considering the possibility of military intervention to prevent Syria’s secret chemical weapons stockpiles from falling into terrorist hands.
Israeli media took the story further. Israel was said to have been told by the US that Turkish intelligence had admitted to having lost track of the whereabouts of these weapons.
This prompted a further round of alarm-bell ringing, with the commander of the occupation army’s Northern Region, Yair Golan, warning that strategic arms other than chemical weapons were being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah. When asked by the newspaper Israel Hayom about the prospective supply of chemical weapons, he said that would pose an unparalleled threat which Israel would not tolerate, which the paper took as meaning it would trigger a major war.
Military and security sources proceeded to tell The Jerusalem Post that intelligence received by the West about the transfer of chemical weapons to Lebanon could prompt it to take pre-emptive military action.
The Israelis did not stop at this. They also unleashed a sudden torrent of threats against Lebanon and Hezbollah, with numerous officials warning that utter devastation would be inflicted on the country in the event of a fresh confrontation with Hezbollah.
Developments on the ground in Syria could combine with these professed Western and Israeli concerns to grave effect.
It has become clear that the international balance of power prevents the UN Security Council from authorizing direct military intervention aimed at toppling the regime.
Nor could stepped-up cross-border actions be relied on to achieve that goal. Jordan would be exposed to an unavoidable internal explosion if the authorities decided to get involved. Turkey is also wary of a confrontation, to the extent of conceding that the two pilots downed off the Syrian coast were at fault. The US has meanwhile warned its Lebanese allies to be careful not to overdo things lest that lead to the collapse of the situation, thereby losing the Syrian opposition and the West-friendly territory. The armed Syrian opposition has in fact been gradually restricting its presence and movements in Lebanon to specific areas.
Moreover, ongoing Western and Arab political, intelligence and financial endeavors to influence members of the ruling establishment in Damascus remain insufficient to bring about a proper military coup. The parties concerned concede. While they expect further defections such as those of Manaf Tlass and the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, they are much less hopeful than they were six months ago that these can make a decisive difference.
Faced with this, it seems that the US and the West have reverted to seeking a role for the neighborhood bully, for whom the dirty work is left when all else fails.
As in Lebanon in 2005 and 2006, a point has been reached at which the West and its local allies feel they cannot achieve a breakthrough without a major shakeup on the ground.
Israel is thus perceived as preparing itself for a possible military blitz against Syria, under the pretext of getting rid of its WMD as in Iraq, with the aim of dealing devastating blows to the Syrian army and state. The hope is that having severely weakened them, Assad’s Western and Arab enemies could deal the killer blows, enabling the armed opposition to prevail and take over.
Seen thus, the main aim of the renewed Israeli threats against Lebanon would appear clear.
Some saw them as evidence that Israel is gearing up for an attack in Iran, following the failure of its talks the West over its nuclear programme. But there are few real signs of the enemy preparing to embark on so great a folly. Also, there are many reasons, well known and not-so-well known, why launching a war on Lebanon would be tantamount to inviting everyone to a barbeque party in hell.
That would suggest that the intended purpose of the threats is to “impose neutrality” on Hezbollah and deter it from taking action against Israel if it opts to attack Syria. Some decision-makers in the West, and in Israel, evidently believe it would be possible to single Assad out and pick him off.
This is not the case. Any Israeli military assault on Syria would, quite simply, be an invitation to war with Hezbollah. It would be naive to think that Hezbollah or Iran would stand idly by as their chief ally in the region is brought down, most especially by Israel.
Accordingly, the sources say, a variety of messages were conveyed to Washington, Tel Aviv and other capitals, to the effect that that an Israeli military operation, even if brief, against Syria, would tip the region into all-out war.
In that case, the barriers that prevent the fire spreading to other parts of the Arab world or the region would come down one by one. It would be hard and painful in the extreme. Strategic calculations and analyses would be of no use to anyone, nor wishful thinking or prayers. We would witness the most blistering episode yet of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with victory hinging on patience.
Let us listen carefully to Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Wednesday.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.