By Ofer Shelah
Description of all the occurrences in the region as part and parcel of the struggle against Iran has become the main organizing factor in the Israeli security establishment.
Translated by Viktoria Lymar
Edited by Steven Stenzler
20 July 2012
The constitutive assassination attack in Damascus alongside the terrorist attack in Burgas indicate again something many refuse to grasp: there’s a new Middle East over here with no reasonable landlord in sight.
Wednesday was the kind of day that reminds us where we live. In the morning, Yisrael Beiteinu1 faction still brought up a populist universal draft bill – rejected in a preliminary reading by a large majority. Until the evening, the discussion on the Tal Law2 became news of the day before yesterday. Even the Damascus bombing, which may change the face of a neighboring country, was pushed to the margins of the news in the wake of the devastating reports from Burgas.
These extreme shifts in the agenda symbolize our changing environment and the difficulties of adjusting the political, security, media and public world to the tempo of the transformations. Things happen: what is said about them by senior government and army officials is sometimes an accurate estimate derived from information - but quite a few times no more than a heart’s desire. And old concepts, from a “people’s army” to an “enemy state” are modifying at a pace that the systems have difficulty keeping up with, and certainly with making the decisions necessitated by the changes.
When Assad’s regime began to falter, as a portion of the great wave that swept the Arab world, it was difficult for many high-ranking figures in the political and military echelon to hide their concern. Bashar Assad didn’t win a lot of compliments in Israel over the 12 years of his reign: they said about him that he’s inexperienced, falling to Nasrallah’s charms, a captive of Iran, and just not bright. But Assad was always seen as better than the alternative.
The Syrian border has been quiet for already over 35 years, Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Assad stood complex tests both in 2006 (for those who don’t remember, some dozens of Syrian farm workers were killed in an unintentional Israeli bombardment in Lebanon Valley) and in 2007. Israel has at all times preferred an Arab dictator, preferably an outwardly weak one, like Assad, over uncertainty.
And besides, it was hard to give the Syrian opposition signs. Even today, the assessment of who’s doing what on the strengthening front against Assad is complicated. In general, Israel distinguishes three components: the central one, which also seems to be responsible for the assassination of Assad’s brother-in-law, Assaf Shawkat, defense minister Rajiha and other higher-ups this week in Damascus, is an ad hoc coalition of Sunni elements, partially, such ones that were not far from the plate of the Alawite regime.
Only those – a senior Israeli source estimated this week – were able to reach a man who could set foot in the room where the people closest to the president held meeting and plant a bomb there, and after that, to activate it at the exact point of time when it was to cause the maximum damage. The Free Syria Army – the accepted name for this coalition – is supported by a number of factors outside of Syria. Perhaps, the most important and interesting of them is Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi regime so far eluded the shock waves that rolled through the Arab world, and it is steadily positioning itself as an opposite pole to Iran – like the Egypt of Mubarak before his downfall. The Saudis have money, have extensive developments in the West, and have a clear-cut interest to inhibit the Iranian influence that threatens them as well.
The two other poles of the resistance in Syria are the Muslim Brotherhood and the global jihad. It looks like the Brotherhood is responsible for the spreading of the clashes into Damascus itself. Those connected to al-Qaeda, including not a few who left for Iraq to fight the Americans there, some with the blessing of Bashar Assad himself, and are back to Syria now when the president is in their crosshairs, have carried out numerous spectacular deadly attacks in the Syrian cities.
Together, all these groups are creating anarchy that rocks the most significant group for the regime’s survival – the Syrian army commanders.
After the elimination of Rajiha who was the chief of staff until a short while ago, and Shawkat, the most menacing and hated man in the company surrounding Assad, there are some at our side who predicted that now, the generals sitting on the fence will start coming down from it and struggle for the dismissal of Bashar and afterwards, for his inheritance. A solution like the “Yemeni model” where Assad would leave the rule quietly, as Russia suggested until recently, has turned into a much less practical. Now, there’s no reason to give him this favor. One who managed to get to Shawkat knows how to find Assad.
And this very thought, disposing of the deterring appearance of the regime, is enough to cause anyone who until now did not know what he would gain from this to decide that from Assad, he already has nothing to gain.
The Mossad and Military Intelligence Are Curbing
the Terror Threats on Their Own?
What is going to be if Assad indeed disappears? It’s hard to know. There are a lot of hands stirring the pot. France was the one to secure Manaf Talas, the son of the former defense minister (residing in Paris) – who was very close to Assad. Russia, Iran, and as stated, Saudi Arabia – all of them are strong forces with a strong interest regarding Damascus. Unlike Egypt where the army was, and still is, a uniting glue, and it was its position that largely made possible the process of the elections and the transfer of at least some of the government’s powers – in Syria, the military top brass might be the focus of the conflict, when all kinds of big shots are competing for the legacy.
Israel has stressed this week, rightly, the fear for the fate of the enormous arsenal of chemical weapons in the Syrians’ hands. That’s just a piece of the new world Israel is coping with – another piece of which revealed itself in the fatal way in the Burgas terror attack. In Israel, the terrorist act has been perceived as an integral constituent of the war between us and Iran; the ability of the intelligence services, including those of Israel, to stop previous bombings (counting that of almost identical outline at the same place earlier this year), was presented as a proof that we really know whom we are countering – and we’re talking a concentrated and coordinated effort originating from Tehran.
The security circles of the country, in the first place the army, have by their very nature difficulties dealing with chaos. They seek an organized enemy, preferably one to whom they can attribute a state reason or state image, similar as much as possible to the logic of the opponent we learned to withstand. A prominent case when such a mentality led to a false perception of the situation, and a war matching all the characteristics of the war of deception3, was in the United States at the beginning of the past decade. Senior staffers of the Bush administration, all veteran graduates of the Cold War, copied lots of its patterns of thinking to the war on terror and found themselves embroiled in a fraudulent campaign in Iraq.
Description of all the occurrences in the region as part and parcel of the struggle against Iran has become the main organizing factor in the Israeli security establishment. The attempted terrorist attacks abroad are ascribed to the Quds machinery of the Revolutionary Guards, the arms race of the high trajectory weapons – to the “people who get up every morning in Iran thinking how to hurt us,” in the words of the former Navy commander Eliezer Marom (Cheney); the interests of Hezbollah or Hamas – to directives from Tehran.
A big part of this worldview is true, definitely when it comes to the operational details of acts of terrorism or arms smuggling. Another part is too neat, too “clean” to explain what is truly going on around us.
But the real question is not what’s happening but with what tools we are handling what’s happening. Already today, and certainly after Assad’s fall, the possibility of a symmetric-conventional confrontation of troops maneuvering between Israel and Syria is even out of the terms of theoretical possibilities. It’s been long since it is beyond practical possibility. The Syrian border, just as the Egyptian one, is likely to be a focus of infiltration or terrorist activity, but not of a ground offensive
And our ground occupation on the other side will have zero impact on deciding the battle, and possible negative impact on its continuation and results.
The international terrorism – the one that struck us in Burgas and the one halted time after time over the past year, from Azerbaijan and Thailand to Kenya and Cyprus – we tackle by plenty of sophisticated means, very different in their essence from those that served us for decades in border conflicts. Deterrence and intelligence, self-reliance (those who think that the almighty Mossad, and Aman4 are putting the brakes on the threats of terror all by themselves, or standing alone in the campaign against the Iranian nuclear program, must have read too many books) and the exercise of power – their meaning is changing radically in the new world.
Which brings us, oddly enough, to the matter we’ve started that turbulent and painful Wednesday with. There’s much talk in the recent weeks on the issue of who is going to serve in the army, and much less on the no less important issue – what kind of army we need. It can’t be that the answer after Assad’s overthrow (and even before it, because the processes have been taking place, of course, for many years already) will be identical to that of the times when Syria was one country, with an autocratic ruler and united army.
Last Thursday, Ehud Olmert5 delivered a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies. The attention was turned, naturally, to what the prime minister of the second Lebanon War said about that war. But in-between, Olmert issued a few no less interesting comments. He noted that “the days when Israel entered other counties to create deterrence, have passed from the world,” and added – without elaboration – a statement casting doubt on several heavy purchasing decisions by the security officialdom in the last years, for exactly these reasons.
It was hard not to think about Olmert’s remarks this week, when the [Knesset] Finance Committee passed in a six-minute meeting a resolution of six billion shekels on the purchase of new training aircraft for the Air Force. It’s hard not to think about it when recalling the way how the purchase of heavy armored personnel carriers (Namer) was approved, of the total value more than NIS 10 billion.
And it’s hard not to think about it also when the question of the enlistment and [military] service, which is substantially a clear civilian question, is not linked to the question what exactly kind of army we need, what it is doing and what it is not doing in the region altering in front of our eyes at such a rate. It was hard to trust to those who handled as they did the subject of the Tal Law – apparently, being satisfied with the answer that “Everything is Iran.”
Original Hebrew article:
1. (Heb. literally Israel is Our Home) – a nationalist political party, its base traditionally being secular, Russian-speaking Israelis; founded and chaired by Avigdor Lieberman – current Foreign Minister
2. Named after Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal, the Chairman of a Committee set up in 1999 to investigate the situation of unequal enlistment in the IDF for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab citizens. The Tal Committee's recommendations were enshrined in law by the Knesset in 2002 - one of the most controversial laws in Israel which exempts the haredim and Arabs from military service. Supposed to expire by August 1; writing a new law caused a grave coalition crisis in Israel
3. A term adopted in Hebrew after a title of the book on the 1982 Lebanon war
4. Hebrew acronym for the Military Intelligence Directorate
5. Former Israeli prime minister
* The Hebrew text on the smaller picture says: "Terror Attack in Burgas"