Saturday, July 15, 2006

Israel and Syria dance, and a question for the readers 

Stratfor has sent around a "red alert" analysis, and is particularly interesting on two points: Hezbollah's obvious desire for a fight, and the question of Israel's interest in the continuation of the Assad regime.

We are now in the period preceding major conventional operations. Israel is in the process of sealing the Lebanese coast. They have disrupted Lebanese telecommunications, although they have not completely collapsed the structure. Israeli aircraft are attacking Hezbollah's infrastructure and road system. In the meantime, Hezbollah, aware it is going to be hit hard, is in a use-it or-lose-it scenario, firing what projectiles it can into Israel.

The Israeli strategy appears to be designed to do two things. First, the Israelis are trying to prevent any supplies from entering Lebanon, including reinforcements. That is why they are attacking all coastal maritime facilities. Second, they are degrading the roads in Lebanon. That will keep reinforcements from reaching Hezbollah fighters engaged in the south. As important, it will prevent the withdrawal and redeployment of heavy equipment deployed by Hezbollah in the south, particularly their rockets, missiles and launchers. The Israelis are preparing the battlefield to prevent a Hezbollah retreat or maneuver.

Hezbollah's strategy has been imposed on it. It seems committed to standing and fighting. The rate of fire they are maintaining into Israel is clearly based on an expectation that Israel will be attacking. The rocketry guarantees the Israelis will attack. Hezbollah has been reported to have anti-tank and anti-air weapons. The Israelis will use airmobile tactics to surround and isolate Hezbollah concentrations, but in the end, they will have to go in, engage and defeat Hezbollah tactically. Hezbollah obviously knows this, but there is no sign of disintegration on its part. At the very least, Hezbollah is projecting an appetite for combat. Sources in Beirut, who have been reliable to this point, say Hezbollah has weapons that have not yet been seen, such as anti-aircraft missiles, and that these will be used shortly. Whatever the truth of this, Hezbollah does not seem to think its situation is hopeless.

The uncertain question is Syria. No matter how effectively Israel seals the Lebanese coast, so long as the Syrian frontier is open, Hezbollah might get supplies from there, and might be able to retreat there. So far, there has been only one reported airstrike on a Syrian target. Both Israel and Syria were quick to deny this.

What is interesting is that it was the Syrians who insisted very publicly that no such attack took place. The Syrians are clearly trying to avoid a situation in which they are locked into a confrontation with Israel. Israel might well think this is the time to have it out with Syria as well, but Syria is trying very hard not to give Israel casus belli. In addition, Syria is facilitating the movement of Westerners out of Lebanon, allowing them free transit. They are trying to signal that they are being cooperative and nonaggressive.

The problem is this: While Syria does not want to get hit and will not make overt moves, so long as the Syrians cannot guarantee supplies will not reach Hezbollah or that Hezbollah won't be given sanctuary in Syria, Israel cannot complete its mission of shattering Hezbollah and withdrawing. They could be drawn into an Iraq-like situation that they absolutely don't want. Israel is torn. On the one hand, it wants to crush Hezbollah, and that requires total isolation. On the other hand, it does not want the Syrian regime to fall. What comes after would be much worse from Israel's point of view.

This is the inherent problem built into Israel's strategy, and what gives Hezbollah some hope. If Israel does not attack Syria, Hezbollah could well survive Israel's attack by moving across the border. No matter how many roads are destroyed, Israel won't be able to prevent major Hezbollah formations moving across the border. If they do attack Syria and crush al Assad's government, Hezbollah could come out of this stronger than ever.

Judging from the airstrikes in the past 24 hours, it would appear Israel is trying to solve the problem tactically, by degrading Lebanese transport facilities. That could increase the effectiveness of the strategy, but in the end cannot be sufficient. We continue to think Israel will choose not to attack Syria directly and therefore, while the invasion will buy time, it will not solve the problem. Hezbollah certainly expects to be badly hurt, but it does not seem to expect to be completely annihilated. We are guessing, but our guess is that they are reading Israel's views on Syria and are betting that, in the long run, they will come out stronger. Of course, Israel knows this and therefore may have a different plan for Syria. At any rate, this is the great unknown in this campaign.

So here's a question for our smart readers, the answer to which genuinely baffles me: Is it actually in Israel's interest for the Assad regime to fall, or would Israel be better off with the weakened Ba'athists in power than the alternatives? If Assad were to fall, what are the alternatives in Syria? Are they truly "much worse," as Stratfor says, from Syria's point of view?

Fire away.


By Blogger Pile On®, at Sat Jul 15, 08:28:00 PM:

I had the same question while reading this. The idea of Israel being better of with Assad than the alternative is a proposition I have not heard.

I guess I don't know what the alternatives are.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 15, 08:56:00 PM:

If the Assad government falls, wouldn't the Syrian Army step up and maintain order in the country? I don't think the army is controlled by Islamists, most likely they are Baathists, or want another armed group like Hezbollah running around in their country. And I would think these are the last guys who want to come to blows with the IDF.  

By Blogger allen, at Sat Jul 15, 09:03:00 PM:

Is there are great deal of difference between the guy who wants you dead one way and the guy who wants you dead two? Indeed, life for Israel might be worse without Assad, but I suspect only marginally so. However, without victory against the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah alliance Israel’s days are numbered. There is no real substitute for victory.  

By Blogger John Aristides, at Sat Jul 15, 09:44:00 PM:

I find it surprising that the article doesn't mention the Iran-Syria defense pact.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jul 15, 11:30:00 PM:

Do you dance with the asshat you know or do you dance with the one you don't know? If IDF is serious they will go into to Syria if the US has their backs which I think they have. It's better to do it now since they have to call up the reserve (big issue) & "world opion.". The one you don't know who to dance with is that it's Iran and she doesn't look to good. Let them try the logistics of backing up their "treaty with Syria" It time for a change in Syria LET THE DICE roll. If the IDF goes to strike, from where? Since bombing roads/bridges/highways from Beriut to Syria, could it be through the Golan? If so, expect a massive air op on Syria.


By Blogger honestpartisan, at Sat Jul 15, 11:53:00 PM:

The Assad regime is from a relatively small offshoot of Shi'ism called the Alawites, who a lot of Muslims -- like the more extreme Islamists -- regard as blasphemers. It's in the Assad regime's self-interest to clamp down on Islamists, like Hafez did in 1982. If Bashir were to fall, who the hell knows who would end up in power -- and occupation by either the U.S. or Israel is just not feasible. Welcome to Morgenthau-style realism.  

By Blogger Final Historian, at Sun Jul 16, 12:35:00 AM:

Frankly, if it were up to me, I would take that risk. If radicals took power in Damascus, it would mean they have bunched themselves, and hence are vulnerable to precision airstrikes.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sun Jul 16, 12:42:00 AM:

If the radicals flee to and take over Syria somehow, it doesn't leave'em much room to operate.

Syria's borders are all with states that won't be interested in radical islamists running around willy nilly.  

By Blogger C. Owen Johnson, at Sun Jul 16, 12:56:00 AM:

"On the other hand, it does not want the Syrian regime to fall. What comes after would be much worse from Israel's point of view."

It's hard to answer your question without knowing the basis for this unqualified assertion. It sounds like there are some assumptions being made here, and they could well be wrong (most people's prior assumptions about almost everything that's happened in the Mid-East for the last 6 years have pretty much wrong).

As for the alternatives, I must say I have no idea. I'm not aware of any significant dissent movement or alternative base that could vie for control if the Baathists were toppled. I have no info suggesting the Syrians are ready for or desire popular sovereignty, but who knows? The implication from Stratfor is that some really nasty terrorist type organization would come into power, but if they, would not Israel then have a clear target, with diminished combat power to take out? In that case, perhaps the most likely alternative is paralyzing sectarian conflict?

That said, what the US and Israel both really need is for Syria to be impotent: incapable of attacking Israel or supporting the reformation of Hamas or Hezbollah. It doesn't matter who is "in charge" if they can't do anything crucial. But I don't know what Israel wants. If they want to destroy Hezbollah and Hamas, they need to take Syria out of the picture until Iran is dealt with. Iran is the key the whole question, and at this point, the whole GWOT. As Iran goes, so goes everything else. Of course, dealing with Iran is going to take a lot of guts; perhaps more than are currently available.

But if Israel just wants the status quo +1 -- that is, containing Hamas and Hezbollah -- they are probably better off with Boy Assad, whoever is acting for him, who might be intimidated for awhile.

Another question (implied by your question) that should be considered is: what good are weakened Baathists to Israel? If they are so weak they cannot exert control over the terrorists, what is the point? If they are strong enough to exert control, then they can continue to make trouble and Israel has gained almost nothing.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jul 16, 07:34:00 AM:


The coastal facilities attacked were radar installations only (including so called grain silos). The reason being the radar-guided land to sea missile that hit the Israeli ship. Such missiles require a coastal radar to guide them through the initial phase of their flight.

In addition the Israeli Navy has finally turned on their missile defense system (turned off to prevent friendly-fire incidents between Navy and air force)

Apparently Israel has committed to the US government not to hit the Lebanese national power and communication grids. Limiting the infrastructure attacks to transportation (including oil)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jul 16, 07:49:00 AM:

crosspatch said...

"Israel moves in and pushes Hezbollah out of the immediate border areas. They then declare a ceasefire and turn the area over to Lebanese army and withdraw. Hezbollah can escape destruction but can not regain the positions they had before without fighting their way in through the Lebanese army and possibly through UN monitors."

Absolutely right. Only, Israel is hoping to achieve that without using ground forces (except for occasionally special forces). In interviews, Israeli ministers did not include the destruction of Hezbollah as their goal, only changing the situation along the border.

Concerning Syria, of course the current regime is better than an anarchy. Both hot-spots in terms of Israeli security (Gaza and South Lebanon) are anarchies where militias reign. Any nation state which is militarily weaker than you are is better than an anarchy. A nation state will maintain a cease-fire.  

By Blogger Diane Wilson, at Sun Jul 16, 09:24:00 AM:

One key question is what would replace Assad if he falls. I can think of three alternatives: One, Hezbollah. Two, an al-Qaeda-alligned Islamist group. Three, the Syrian army.

Whichever group gets power, they will have chemical weapons; Syria has had its own WMD program, regardless of what Saddam may or may not have buried in the Syrian desert.

With options 2 and 3, Iran loses its Syrian ally (probably), which almost guarantees that Iran will be active in Syria to bring about a Hezbollah rule.

Hezbollah running Syria will be a worse outcome than Hamas winning the Palestinian elections.

Al Qaeda running Syria would probably result in a failed state, with both internal and border conflicts, as well as terrorist training camps for all sides.

The Syrian army would perhaps be the best outcome, with a weak Mubarak-style government that would oppose (not necessarily with full success) any terrorist groups basing in Syria.

The problem is that the country best posed to ensure any specific outcome in Syria would be Iran.

Leaving the question, how best to ensure a transition from Assad to the Syrian army?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jul 16, 10:02:00 AM:

A lot of intelligent and thoughtful comments are posted here. I think that the main point is that the Israeli government is wary of being overly ambitious. The failed attempt to install Bashir Gemayel as President of Lebanon with a peace treaty signed with Israel (circa 1982) was largely responsible for Hezballh's emergence. The 1993 Oslo Accords were also designed to reshuffle the deck and assist in the birth of a cooperative Palestinian government. Along with the recent US difficulties in Iraq. I think
that the Israeli government just does not have the appetite for regime change at this time, with all of the possible negative outcomes, including international indignation, and pressure.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jul 16, 12:28:00 PM:

Israel must find a way to leverage its power by bringing its own proxies to bear in this fight.

It has access to the biggest proxy of them all: the U.S. military.

The fall of Assad alone, or certainly his replacement with a Jihadist government, virtually forces the US into the fight.

That may or may not happen, but it is certainly important to recognize the Israeli interests served by getting the US involved.  

By Blogger allen, at Sun Jul 16, 02:51:00 PM:

As I said at Belmont yesterday,

"I am going to go way out on a limb here and make a prediction: As long as Syria remains Syria and Lebanon remains its vassal, EVERY Israeli city will be in range of missile attack. Indeed, I will go further: no matter how much farther north or east Hezbollah is driven, the range of its munitions will increase accordingly.

Of course, if the Syrian government were to collapse and were the real Lebanese government/military confident in unwavering, non-duplicitous US and Israeli support, the Western flank would be secured promptly and Iran would be surrounded.

Should the US take today’s attack on Tiberias as the pretext to initiate its joint defense agreement with Israel and, thereby, launch a brutal air campaign in the Bekaa and the foothills of the Golan, the real Lebanese government/military might consider this a green light for action against Syria and Hezbollah.

As an afterthought, if/when high value Hezbollah human targets are hit, Israel will know. That no announcement of same has been forthcoming makes me consider the possibility that the bad guys got a "heads-up" (or down, as the case may be)."  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Jul 16, 07:20:00 PM:

The Muslim Brotherhood is Islamist, but not jihadi (at least by most accounts). Some experts, and not just squishy ones, believe we can work with them. I have no independent knowledge or expertise -- just sayin' there's more than a little disagreement over the character of the Muslim Brotherhood.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jul 16, 10:31:00 PM:

If you want to solve a Syria-Iran problem, where would you start? Maybe in Lebanon. You don't need to crush Assad, you need to collapse the Syria-Iran partnership.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jul 18, 12:52:00 AM:

Can you learn from the past?

General Douglas MacArthur fought HARD to keep the king in Japan from being killed. Perhaps, a test came, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when truman called the king and "made him one of those offers."

It was MacArthur's point of view that the king,alive, was worth more than dead, because he could sign the surrender agreement. And, this is exactly what happened. on the Missouri. Where MacArthur forbid every American from wearing a gun. He even told Halsey he couldn't arm his thigh.

MacArthur, like Ulysses S. Grant believed in crushing your enemy. He also believed, once the cease fire came, it was real. AND, YOU DID NOT HUMILIATE YOUR ENEMY, EITHER.

I'll also point out that Assad caved into the Americans, when it came to fighting up at the syrian/iraq border. And, we did GO INTO syria to clean out pockets of terror on that border. (It, too, was full of tribal affiliations.) What did we do t get that co-operation, then?

And, also that Arik Sharon had steadied Bush hand, when it came to Assad. And, it's the reason he is still alive. Weak. And, better than his uncle. Less prone to violence. Rather than what would follow, IF syria collapsed.

Syria depends on the illegal trade. Including the drug trade. And, up at DEBKA, because the Israeli's know that nasrallah has run to hide; meeting up with Iranian guards. And, is in bunkers ... it comes to mind that all of this is NEW to nasrallah. Untested, in terms of dictating war maneuvers from inside bunkers; used by DRUG LORDS to transport (through tunnels) everything that turns to gold for them.

Iran is stymied at home. She has gas problems, galore. SHe can't drive a war because she has LOGISTICS deficits.

And, I'll guess the conscripts, poised to climb the Golan, would be exposed. They have to carry everything with them. IF the IDF takes them out by air attack, they fall back. And, they fall into the next group of canon fodder scheduled to go UP. It's not flat terrain. And, Assad's military is not necessarily that well trained. Nor do arab armies ever do well if you shoot their officers. They're not trained to carry on when a lot of dead bodies start to fall. Run and escape has happened before. In Eygpt, for instance. To mention one army, well dug in with RUSSIAN help. And, Arik SHaron's tanks routed them out of the Sinai. They couldn't run home fast enough.

Up ahead? An oppportunity for Nike to film a few ads.

By to hyperventilate threats? Seems like an activity doomed to fail. And, Olmert is saying "LONG DURATION." (While one Israeli blogger says what's striking is that the Israeli's aren't in a panic mode.)

Let alone what Assad has gotta make of PResident Bush's comment to Tony Blair. I think everyone is watching this, now.

Sorry that I'm not a professional in any way. But this is my opinion.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jul 18, 12:53:00 AM:

I should'a signed my name. CAROL HERMAN  

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