September 25, 2018

The Prospect of War

During the yearlong tenure of the Netanyahu government, Syria has become the forgotten front in the Israeli-Arab peace process. The two sides aren’t negotiating, and Warren Christopher’s frequent-flier shuttles between Jerusalem and Damascus are already a relic of Middle East diplomacy.

But every now and then, an Israeli military leader reminds the country that with regard to Syria, no news is not necessarily good news.

“[The Syrians] would prefer peace, but if it is not achieved, they have other options,” Gen. Amnon Shahak, Israel’s military chief of staff, reportedly told a recent closed meeting of American Jewish leaders, in New York.

There is a “worrisome” change in Syrian thinking about the feasibility of launching a surprise attack against Israel, Shahak said. He added that while war with Syria is not imminent, the eventuality of such a war must be considered.

The Netanyahu administration publicly gave little weight to Shahak’s remarks. The prime minister has contended that the Arab states have no option for war with Israel, and that he is confident he will make peace with Syria.

Many Israelis go along with Netanyahu’s view that since Israel is vastly stronger than Syria, and since Syrian President Hafez al-Assad knows this, Assad won’t attack.

But the Israeli army leadership is much less sanguine on this subject, said Professor Ze’ev Ma’oz, director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Israel’s leading think tank on Israeli-Arab affairs.

Shahak’s deputy chief of staff, Gen. Matan Vilna’i, and the head of military intelligence assessment, Col. Amos Gilad, have also warned of the threat of a Syrian attack if a peace treaty is not signed.

The army’s program of activities for this year takes into account the possibility of war with Syria, Ma’oz said.

“This wasn’t the case in 1992 to 1996,” when the Rabin-Peres administration was negotiating for a peace treaty with Syria in return for the Golan Heights, he said.

Retired Gen. Uri Saguy, who was chief of military intelligence during most of the Rabin-Peres years, said recently that Peres and Assad “were much closer to a peace treaty than people know.”

Ma’oz agreed, saying, “All they needed was a pen.” Asked why they didn’t sign, Ma’oz said that it is Assad’s view that Peres felt reluctant to take a Golan-for-peace deal to a public referendum.

When Netanyahu took office, the prime minister said that he was not bound by any verbal agreements between his predecessors and Assad. He hinted that he was open to the idea of giving back part of the Golan Heights for peace, but he never came anywhere close to meeting Assad’s demand for the entire Golan. The peace process with Syria immediately went into a deep freeze.

Toward the end of last year, Ma’oz gained wide attention when he said that Syria’s outlook was analogous to Egypt’s before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Even though Egypt knew in 1973 that it was weaker than Israel, it attacked with a limited objective — to shake a complacent Israel and its United States ally into moving the diplomatic process forward. The end result was the Camp David Accord and Egypt’s getting back the Sinai peninsula.

Likewise, Ma’oz argued, although Assad knows that he cannot conquer Israel, the Syrian leader might launch a limited attack designed to scare Israel — and bring about American pressure on Israel — to give him back the Golan in return for a peace treaty.

Since Syria is badly outmanned by Israel in ground forces, such an attack would be carried out with missiles, possibly even missiles with chemical or biological warheads, Ma’oz said. In lieu of a peace treaty, Syria has the incentive to launch such an attack before the year 2000, by which time Israel should have its Arrow antimissile system in place, he noted.

Over the last year, he said, Syria has been speeding up its development of chemical and other nonconventional weaponry, and, since last fall, its military exercises have concentrated more and more on “attack scenarios.” In addition, the Syrian leadership has resumed “indoctrinating the army toward a readiness for war, which is the opposite of what it had been doing in the previous years,” he said. As long as there is a stalemate in the peace process, Ma’oz added, “the chance of a military action by Syria goes up.”

Still, there are dissenters to this view. Dr. Yossi Olmert, a Middle East-affairs expert who was involved in the Shamir government’s negotiations with Syria at the Madrid talks, said that Shahak’s statement in New York “shouldn’t have caused such an uproar.”

Shahak was correct in saying that Syria trains for the possibility of war with Israel and that the kinds of statements coming out of Syria are more belligerent because there is no diplomatic movement, Olmert said. But, he maintained, Assad remains stymied by his own diplomatic weakness and Israel’s military strength.

“Assad knows that if he makes even a small-scale surprise attack on Israel, he cannot be sure that Israel’s response will be limited,” Olmert said. “He also can’t be sure that the U.S. will stop Israel, and he no longer has the Soviet Union to back him.

“Basically, the overall configuration hasn’t changed. All of the factors that have stopped Assad from attacking in the past will stop him from doing so in the future.”

Ma’oz, for his part, said that the possibility of a Syrian attack at any given moment has risen from 30 percent at the end of last year to 35 percent to 40 percent now. If no peace treaty is signed in another year, the risk will rise to 50-50, he said, adding, “This would be a very, very dangerous situation.”

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