Why the Israel Defense Forces hit Syria—and why they believe that Assad won’t hit back
The Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz looks absolutely exhausted these days. Gantz, who was appointed to his job almost as an afterthought in February 2011, after a particularly poisonous battle within Israel’s military leadership, has never radiated a very lively aura. It may be a matter of character, or age, or just the fact that he had been called back into office after deciding to retire, but the IDF’s commander often seemed to be gliding through his term during the first two years in office. All this has changed: The man, it is rather clear, is not getting much sleep. His aides, well aware of this, try to enhance the boss’s alertness by providing him a constant supply of black coffee. Even the Israeli media had taken note. The result: a rather heated debate over the required rules of courtesy at the chief of staff’s office and whether those rules offend women officers.
Menachem Begin once famously maintained that “you do not ask a gentleman where he spent last night,” but Gantz’s chief reason for exhaustion is pretty clear: the deteriorating situation in Syria. While Israeli and American politicians pour clichés over the Iranian nuclear threat, the IDF is now more immediately worried about the dangers from Israel’s northern front—the implications of Syria’s civil war in particular. Publicly, Israel is deliberately keeping a very low profile. Even the last two Israeli air strikes (out of three, altogether) in Syria were initiated without any official response from Jerusalem (and since Israeli military censorship laws apply to Israeli journalists, I should add that these strikes only happened according to international sources).
It is reasonable to assume that Israel’s current operations in Syria are not limited to air strikes. Israel’s different intelligence agencies are believed to keep a very watchful eye on our northern neighbor, while various Arab media organizations have constantly claimed that Israel’s elite units frequently operate inside Syria. After Israel bombed the North Korean-made nuclear plant in northeast Syria in September 2007, several Western newspapers reported that Israeli commandos had secretly visited the site beforehand, taking ground samples in order to make sure that the site had indeed been what the intelligence claimed it was.
For decades, Syria had been considered Israel’s fiercest enemy—and also its most feared. Israeli POWs, returning from long periods in Syrian jails, told stories of very brutal methods of torture, a much more aggressive treatment than any experienced from Egyptian jailers. The trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 is still ingrained in Israeli collective memory. For years, the IDF units had prepared themselves for a repeat: Syrian tanks storming through the Golan Heights, threatening to reach the Sea of Galilee; Syrian commandos taking by surprise the IDF’s bases on Mount Hermon. In every war room at the northern command, there used to be a big poster, saying “War Tomorrow.” The IDF’s top brass had genuinely feared this scenario for years, but the concern also served to keep the army on its toes—and allowed the military to expand the defense budget after the relative failure in the war, to establish more divisions and brigades and to keep the reserve units well-trained. Tank crews and infantry units practiced for what was seen as an inevitable war with Syria, while military intelligence teams memorized the names and roles of Syrian division officers—preparing for a full-scale military confrontation that never materialized.
In reality, the Syrian army had long been deteriorating, as its tanks and fighter jets gradually rusted. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia refused to honor huge arms deals with Syria, since Damascus was not able to come up with the required cash. Hafez el-Assad’s original goal—to reach strategic parity with Israel—was eventually abandoned by the Syrian regime, and his son and successor, Bashar, came up with a new strategy. Since Syria could not equal Israel on the military front, it would find new ways to circumvent the IDF’s superiority. The Syrians began to concentrate on defensive weapons and methods that would make it extremely difficult for Israel to attack through the border in the Golan Heights—fortifications, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles—while pointing a massive armory of surface-to-surface missiles and rockets at Israel’s towns and cities. The threat, Assad Junior hoped, would be enough to prevent Israel from seeking a direct military confrontation with Syria. Meanwhile, both Assads continued to support Lebanese (Hezbollah) and Palestinian (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) organizations in their ongoing fight against Israel.
Although the new Syrian strategy did not push Israel to surrender the Golan Heights in peace negotiations, it did help to persuade the Israelis to initiate a full withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and helped Syria maintain its position among members of the radical anti-Israeli camp in the Arab World. Both sides of the Golan border upheld a rather constructive balance of deterrence: Each side remained careful not to appear to be publically provoking the other, and the Syrian border remained one of Israel’s calmest fronts for decades. Every few years, when Israel suspected that the Syrians went too far in supporting Palestinian terrorism, it sent a clear message—by sending fighter jets to fly very low over the presidential palace or by attacking a training camp near Damascus.
And when in 2007 Bashar Assad surprised the world by actually pursuing a nuclear project, the Israelis—according to American and European journalists—reacted by striking and destroying that site from the air. Israel never publicly claimed responsibility for the attack, a tactic that presumably helped Assad ignore it and kept the border calm for the next few years. The shadow war between the two countries has been quite frustrating for Israeli newsmen, who had read in George W. Bush’s and Condoleezza Rice’s memoirs very specific descriptions of this affair, but still cannot—to this day—contribute anything to the discussion.
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