Syria: Israeli Views and Analysis

Sep 4, 2013

Syria: Israeli Views and Analysis

Update from AIJAC

September 04, 2013
Number 09/13 #01

With intense debate still raging about Syria – especially in the wake of the decision by US President Obama to seek congressional approval on Sept. 9 before moving ahead with the possibility of US-led military strikes in response to the large-scale chemical weapons attack there – this Update brings together some Israeli expert perspectives on the situation.

First up is an authoritative delineation of Israel national interests in the current Syria crisis written by former senior Israeli general Amos Yadlin, together with Avner Golov, a colleague from Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (which Yadlin now heads). Yadlin and Golov divide Israeli interests in the situation into short term and long-term. Among the former are maintaining the norm against use of chemical weapons, strengthening US strategic influence in the Middle East, a quiet border with Syria, and how Obama’s action might affect the nuclear decision-making of the Iranian regime. The longer-term interests that the two note primarily relate to not allowing the Iran-Syrian axis to win the Syrian civil war, and not allowing al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria to become more than a localised threat. For all the vital details, CLICK HERE. Yadlin and other former Israeli generals discuss whether the US Administration’s plan to delay any strike to wait for congressional authorisation is or is not problematic here. Another former Israeli general offering analysis of the significance of chemical weapons use and the sort of response in Syria that Israel would prefer is Shlomo Brom.

Next, another former Israeli general turned civilian strategic analyst, Michael Herzog, explores the lessons of Israeli experience to offer some advice about using military strikes to achieve political objectives in the Middle East. He notes that the key is to have clear and realistic goals and prepare the military planning, timing and messaging around those objectives. He also notes that Israel’s experience indicates that the Assad regime is rational and deterrable, and that therefore US efforts to craft a campaign which will effectively deter any escalation following the strikes can succeed. For the rest of his advice, CLICK HERE . More advice on planning a successful series of military strikes in Syria comes from Washington Institute military experts Chandler P. Atwood and Michael Knights.

Finally, Dr. Jonathan Spyer, the British-born Israeli academic analyst who has garnered considerable attention for his visits to Syrian rebel held-areas, takes on a question which has repeatedly arisen in the debates over a response to the Syrian chemical weapons attacks – why would the Assad regime launch such attacks? Contrary to the claims of some analysts, Spyer sees nothing surprising or implausible with the regime carrying out the chemical weapon attack in East Ghouta, saying it is actually “of a piece with the observable pattern of regime behaviour over the course of this year.” He bases this conclusions on detailed discussion of what is actually occurring in the Syrian civil war, correcting some conventional wisdom one often hears, such as that Assad was already “winning” the war and thus would not have needed to launch such an attack. For this must read survey of what is really happening inside Syria, explaining the context for the chemical weapons strike, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

A United States Attack on Syria: Implications for Israel

Yadlin, Amos and Golov, Avner

 INSS Insight No. 460, September 1, 2013
On Wednesday, August 28, 2013, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron affirmed that a chemical weapons attack had taken place in Syria the previous week and “there was no doubt that the Assad regime was responsible.” Despite the decision by the British Parliament not to take part in an attack on Syria, President Obama announced on Saturday, August 31, 2013 that he had decided to take limited military action in Syria and although not required to do so, was requesting Congressional approval. Washington continues to deliberate with its allies the strategic objectives of an attack and consider the military option that will achieve the most benefit at the lowest cost and with the fewest risks. Of several options for strategic objectives, it appears that the United States has chosen punishment for the sake of deterrence.

Israel is not directly involved in the civil war in Syria or in a potential US strike. However, the threats from Syria, Iran, and Hizbollah demand that an American attack be analyzed as to what it means for Israel’s national security. This article will analyze two scenarios for an American attack and what they mean for Israel’s short term and long term interests in the Syrian context. The first is the anticipated limited attack intended as punishment, and the second is a broader attack aimed at toppling the Assad regime.

Israel’s Short Term Interests

a. The most important Israeli interest in the context of an American attack is the unequivocal clarification that there is a high price to pay for the use of nonconventional weapons. This interest is important for deterring any Middle East leader considering the possible use of nonconventional weapons against Israel.

b. From a broader perspective, it is important for Israel that the United States reestablish its strategic influence in the Middle East and improve its credibility and deterrence in the region, including against conventional behavior by its adversaries. US credibility and deterrence have eroded over the past three years during the Arab uprisings, and public statements by senior administration officials have called for a reduction in American involvement in the region and even a change of strategic focus in the direction of East Asia. Restoring American deterrent power would strengthen the standing of the United States and that of its allies, including Israel, in the struggle between the region’s moderates and radicals.

c. Israel has a supreme interest in maintaining quiet on its borders and preserving a calm security situation with Lebanon and Syria. Maintaining a normal routine as much as possible is a moral, security, and economic interest. To the extent possible, Israel must avoid getting dragged into the Syrian civil war. If Israel is attacked, the decision on an Israeli response must not be automatic, and as long as there is no significant damage to Israel, the attack can be contained.

d.  A related Israeli interest has to do with the issue of Iran’s military nuclear program. Iran is watching events in Syria closely and examining the American response. It is very important for Israel that when Tehran considers its policy toward President Obama’s red lines on Iran, i.e., preventing Iran’s military nuclearization, Iran sees that Washington is determined to uphold the President’s promises. President Obama’s actions and the cooperation he achieves with Western and regional allies will have implications for the Iranian nuclear issue.

Israel’s Long Term Interests

a. In the long term view, it is very important to Israel that the fighting in Syria not end in a victory for the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbollah alliance. A victory by Assad would strengthen Israel’s enemies in the region, mainly Hizbollah, and would encourage Hamas, currently isolated, to minister once again to its Iranian patron. Israel has a clear interest in maintaining the trend toward weakening these terrorist organizations.

b. When the civil war in Syria ends, it is important for Israel that a liberal, pro-Western state be established that abandons the Iranian patron and ceases its support for terrorist organizations. Israel has in the past considered returning parts of the Golan Heights in order to ensure the latter component. The civil war provides a strategic opportunity for a similar result without Israel’s having to pay an immediate price in territory.

c. If jihadi organizations such as al-Nusra grow stronger to the point where they have freedom of action in the Golan Heights, Israel’s interest will be to ensure that the terrorist threat remains a local and not a strategic threat, even if it cannot ensure total success in preventing a terrorist attack.

Israel’s Interests and US Strategic Options

These sets of interests can be assessed against the two alternate US strategic objectives and the military action required to realize them. An American attack that seeks to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons and demonstrate US determination to respond to a crossed red line would include a pinpoint strike on several military targets or regime assets. On Wednesday, August 28, 2013, the New York Times wrote that the American plan includes a two-day attack on fifty military targets connected to the units that took part in the chemical attack. Since this is symbolic punishment, success is critical for conveying the American message. A limited but successful attack that is backed up by US determination to prevent the use of nonconventional weapons would restore some American deterrent power against the use of chemical weapons and to a certain extent would enhance American standing in the region. Such an attack could also influence decision making in Tehran. Thus, the expected scenario regarding an American attack would promote some of Israel’s interests, especially those connected with US deterrent power in the region, albeit to a limited extent only.

On the other hand, an unsuccessful American attack, such as that in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in 1983, or the Tomahawk missile attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, could weaken American deterrence against the use of nonconventional weapons and cause even further damage to US standing in the region. Assad will see that the price for using chemical weapons is small, even when the United States is pushed to act, and will have no reason to hesitate to continue using these weapons for local needs. An ineffective American strike could encourage jihadi rebel organizations to gain control of chemical weapons in order to improve the balance of power with Assad’s army. Such weapons in the possession of terrorist organizations would be a direct threat to Israel. Other Middle East leaders too, including those in Iran, would understand that the strongest superpower in the world is fearful of using its power to promote its interests.

The danger to Israel from this scenario is minimal. Assad will be guided in his response by the issue of regime survival and his ambition to continue to keep the conflict with the opposition an internal conflict. By expanding the conflict to Israel, Assad would risk his regime, and therefore it is likely that he would not respond. Even with the attacks on Syria attributed to Israel in 2007 and 2013, Assad did not respond for the same reason: regime survival.
If in the punishment scenario Assad reasons that there is little danger to him or to his regime and that he can focus on a war against the rebels, in the event of a US attack intended to incapacitate the ruler, Assad’s confidence would be shaken. In this scenario, the United States would attack regime assets and seek to destroy Syria’s strategic military capabilities in order to leave Assad without forces to protect him. In such a scenario, the United States would restore its deterrent power and its status in the region. Such a move would also be a serious blow to the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut alliance and would convey a clear message of American determination to Tehran.

At the same time, such a move involves two main risks for Israel. The first and immediate risk is that Assad might decide to launch ground-to-ground missiles at Israel, and perhaps even arm them with chemical weapons. However, given Israel’s deterrent power and the limited effectiveness of chemical weapons, there is little likelihood of this scenario taking place, although it is more likely here than in the punishment scenario described above. Moreover, despite the low probability, its severity requires that the Israeli government prevent such an attack, or if it fails, that it limit its consequences.

The second threat if the Assad regime is weakened or disappears is that the terrorist threat to Israel from Syria will intensify. Since the terrorist organizations in Syria, which are funded mainly by Qatar, are the strongest and most organized part of the rebel organizations, there is a high probability that they would exploit the damage to Assad in order to take control over areas in the country and strengthen their power in Syrian society. In such a situation, they could operate freely against Israel. If the United States fails to act in cooperation with its allies in order to create a strong, pragmatic alternative, Syria could become a failed state controlled by terrorist organizations, which would be a threat to Israel.


“What happened in Syria is a tragedy and a terrible crime,” declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the August 25, 2013 cabinet meeting. Although the moral obligation of a state may sometimes not match its interests, this is not the case for Israel vis-à-vis Syria. Stopping the slaughter in Syria and the use of nonconventional weapons, reconstruction of the country, and establishment of a regime controlled by the people are basic moral demands that match Israeli interests. However, the major risk to Israel is that in an extreme scenario, Assad would use chemical weapons against Israel as well.

Israel has the power to cope with the potential challenges discussed above, and in particular, the nonconventional threat and the threat of terrorism from Syria. To this end, Israel should adhere to a policy in which it is not a party to the turmoil in Syria and does not plan to intervene in the civil war. The government of Israel has maintained this posture thus far, and it is very important that this continue, even if there is some provocation on the northern border. If Israel is required to respond to provocations, moderation, an emphasis on defense and prevention, and an attempt to avoid escalation into all-out war should dictate the nature of the response.

In addition, Israel should continue to declare that Assad must be punished for using chemical weapons in order to restore deterrence and strengthen the taboo on the use of such weapons. In addition, there is a critical need for Jerusalem and Washington to continue to coordinate their actions on Syria from an overall perspective of a joint strategy for stopping the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, the recent developments in Syria may also be seen as an opportunity in regard to Iran.

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Striking Syria: Lessons from the Israeli Experience

Michael Herzog


PolicyWatch 2128, August 30, 2013

Israel’s lessons from numerous strikes in Syria show that Assad can be deterred, particularly if he loses significant assets in a strike marked by clear, realistic objectives, careful planning, and credible deterrent messages after the fact.

Israel is watching closely as the United States lays the ground for a potential strike in Syria. Despite assessing that a major Syrian military response against Israel is unlikely, officials are still preparing for any eventuality and issuing public statements intended to deter Bashar al-Assad. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared this week, “We are not part of the civil war in Syria, but if we detect any attempt whatsoever to harm us…we will respond fiercely.”

While Israel is taking care not to appear involved in the crisis, it quietly expects Washington to take meaningful action. Beyond the humanitarian and normative dimensions, Israelis believe that U.S. credibility among local and international actors is at stake, especially in Iran. Erosion of American deterrence would be bad for Israel as well as Washington. Policymakers and military planners may therefore benefit from looking back at Israel’s long experience with strikes against Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other regional actors.


Since Bashar assumed power in 2000, Israel has carried out several surgical airstrikes in Syria. From 2001 to 2005, when the Syrian military was still occupying Lebanon, Israeli strikes were designed to pressure the regime into restraining terrorist attacks by its proxies. In July 2001, for example, Israeli air forces destroyed a Syrian radar installation in eastern Lebanon in a (failed) bid to deter Hezbollah. And an October 2003 strike on a Palestinian terrorist training camp near Damascus was launched in response to a suicide bombing in Israel carried out under guidance from headquarters in Syria. More recent strikes have reportedly aimed to prevent Syria and its proxies from upgrading their strategic capabilities. In 2007, Israel reportedly destroyed a nuclear reactor in eastern Syria. And on more than one occasion this year, it has reportedly targeted (in a standoff manner) convoys attempting to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

To be sure, there are obvious differences between Israel and the United States, among them the fact that Israel is not a superpower and must therefore respond to many situations alone and in a deniable manner. Nevertheless, Washington can glean several lessons — some learned the hard way — from Israel’s previous confrontations in Syria.

Strike the right balance when timing a strike.

Although it is important to make proper military preparations and build the legal, political, and media cases for a strike, waiting too long can create problems. In addition to decontextualizing the attack from its original trigger, delay may give the targeted party and its allies valuable time to prepare defensive and counter-measures. This may already be happening in Syria.

Clearly define the objective.

When planning a strike, one must carefully define its objectives, reconciling desired goals with what is achievable and designing means to meet those ends. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, Israel initially set some unrealistic objectives (e.g., retrieving abducted soldiers) and was compelled to adjust them in the face of challenging realities. The result was an incoherent political-military strategy and an unsatisfactory outcome.

Given its overarching goal of enhancing U.S. credibility and deterrence, Washington could set either a limited objective or a broader strategic objective. The limited option would likely consist of deterring the Syrian regime from further use of chemical weapons by exacting a punitive price. This may include destroying some of Assad’s abilities to use chemicals. A broader strategic approach could aim to alter the balance of power in Syria (thus weakening the Iranian-led radical axis), which would require higher-intensity strikes and additional measures to assist certain rebel groups or topple Assad entirely. Whichever objective is chosen, Washington should make it as clear as possible, thereby improving the chances that Assad will internalize it and the outside world will interpret it correctly.

As Israel’s experience shows, in many cases it is impossible to achieve even a well-defined objective with a single strike. If Washington opts for a single, contained strike (President Obama’s clear preference), then a limited objective would be in order. This does not necessarily mean a feeble, symbolic operation, however — by choosing the right targets and conducting the attack in the right way, the United States could achieve significant objectives without further escalation.  

Strike a balance between effectiveness and containment.

To be effective, even a limited strike must destroy some of Assad’s significant assets, and Syria has plenty of chemical, military, command-and-control, and regime targets of this nature. Crippling Assad’s slim air force, for example, could fit a limited option. Yet there is a certain point beyond which Assad may feel compelled to escalate, even against his own interest. In choosing targets, Washington would need to pay careful attention to the psychological and symbolic impact of any actions against leadership targets (unless it opts to decapitate Assad). In June 2006, Israeli planes produced a supersonic boom over Assad’s palace near Latakia after Syrian-supported Palestinian factions in Gaza abducted an Israeli soldier. Yet beyond humiliating Assad, it is doubtful whether this show of force had any real impact on his policies.

Consider the consequences.

Thorough calculation of a strike’s consequences is critical, particularly in terms of estimating Assad’s response (and that of his allies), preparing a counter-response, and placing all of these actions in the context of an exit strategy. As in chess, the key is to plan a few steps ahead. Israel failed to do so in the 2006 Lebanon war — what was originally intended as a single, decisive blow became a prolonged asymmetric war with an incoherent exit strategy. In Syria, one must consider not only the direct regime response to a strike (including against Arab neighbors such as Jordan), but also the more likely scenario of an indirect response through Syrian and Iranian proxies.

Mitigate the risk of escalation.

Various deterrent actions can help prevent escalation, including clear messaging as well as visible military deployments and preparedness. Israel’s reported 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor was followed by messages warning Assad against any retaliatory response. Public warnings have also followed this year’s reported Israeli strikes against strategic arms transfers. Israel did not claim responsibility for any of these strikes, presumably to allow Assad to save face and exercise restraint. In the end, Damascus did not retaliate, despite blaming Israel and issuing threats against it. Sometimes quiet messages can be more effective than public ones, while exaggerated messages may prove counterproductive.

In Israel’s experience, Assad has proven to be a rational (if ruthless) actor. He was deterred from responding to recent and past strikes because he did not want to invite the consequences of Israeli military might. Therefore, the United States has a good chance of deterring him as well. To do so, however, Washington should be prepared to revisit Syria militarily if Assad escalates following an initial U.S. strike. Assad must believe that he will pay a more painful price — including wider U.S. measures that would endanger his rule — if he does not heed deterrent messages. In other words, an effective, limited military strike requires one to play chicken, and in this case, there is a good chance Assad would blink first.

Expect the unexpected.

As with any use of force, one should always prepare for unintended consequences such as civilian casualties or miscalculation. For example, in April 1996, an Israeli artillery battery accidentally killed over 100 civilians in the southern Lebanese village of Qana during Operation Grapes of Wrath, a campaign intended to end Hezbollah rocket fire from Lebanon. In addition to making a tragic mistake, Israel was forced to halt the campaign earlier than planned.

When considering the use of military force, one must therefore acknowledge the risk of things developing the wrong way and getting out of hand. Yet Israel’s experience with strikes in Syria shows that careful, comprehensive analysis and preparation can make these risks more navigable.

Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, IDF (Res.), is The Washington Institute’s Milton Fine International Fellow, based in Israel. He formerly served as head of strategic planning for the Israel Defense Forces and senior military aide and chief of staff to four ministers of defense.

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Chemical Assad

Jerusalem Post, 30/8/13

As US and western forces prepare for what looks like imminent action in Syria, the debate over the chemical strike in Damascus continues. Why, opponents of intervention argue, would Assad have carried out a strike of this kind when he was anyway making headway in his war against the rebels? And why might he have done so at a time when UN chemical weapons inspectors were in the country?

But whatever the advisability of a western strike on Syria, the notion that a regime attack using chemical weapons on eastern Ghouta is in any way implausible or outlandish is entirely incorrect.

To understand why, it is necessary to observe both the regime’s general strategy for prosecuting the war, and the previous, officially verified instances of its use of chemical weapons.

Regarding regime strategy, it is a misrepresentation to claim that Assad is ‘winning’ the war against the rebellion. The regime has certainly rallied, since the moment late last year when it looked like the rebel assault on Damascus was about to commence.

But recent Assad victories in al-Qusayr and Khaldiyeh in the west do not represent a general change in the fortunes of the war. Nowhere in the country is the regime re-conquering vast swathes of rebel held territory. Rather, the Qusayr and Khaldiyeh battles were about regime consolidation of the lines of control, transport and communication around the roughly 40% of Syrian territory over which it rules. This process is an ongoing, uncompleted one.

The rebels, meanwhile, have been carrying out a similar consolidation process of their own in recent weeks. The most significant development in this regard was their capture of Minnagh air base in largely rebel-held Aleppo province this month.

In this context, the notion that Assad’s army might choose the rebel held suburbs of eastern Ghouta as the next battle to be fought is entirely plausible. Largely un-noted by western media, the rebels have been engaged in an offensive from the eastern suburbs of Damascus city, of which eastern Ghouta forms a part, since July 24th.

As a well-connected Syrian rebel source described to this reporter last week, the rebels were making slow headway pushing from eastern Ghouta further into regime controlled areas of the city. Assad’s attempts to hit back had proved insufficient. Jobar, the area of eastern Ghouta where the chemical attack took place, is referred to by both sides as the ‘key to Damascus’, control of which is of crucial importance.

With the Khaldiyeh battle concluded successfully, it would make perfect sense for Assad to then proceed to the next order of business – namely, a concerted attempt to drive the rebels out of eastern Ghouta and away from Damascus.

The chemical attack on eastern Ghouta appears to have formed part of the opening move of this offensive. Given the scale of the loss of life, some form of miscalculation may have been made, as is now suggested by the latest revelations of intercepted conversations of Syrian officials following the attack.

But the scale aside, it is important to remember that on a number of verified occasions over the last year, the Syrian regime has employed chemical weaponry as a tool of tactical combat.

Sterling reporting work by two Le Monde reporters who spent two months in the eastern Ghouta area in April and May of this year revealed several earlier instances of attacks using chemical agents in the area during this period.

The French government tested materials brought by the reporters out of the country, at the French government’s Du Bouchet facility. In all, 14 samples were tested. 13 of these came from the Damascus area. An additional sample came from a chemical attack in Saraqeb, in Idleb Province.

French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius concluded following these tests that there was now ‘no doubt’ that the regime and its accomplices had ‘used sarin.’

Britain, too, has drawn similar conclusions. Journalists from the Times working in the Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood of Aleppo and the Afrin hospital near the Turkish border in April this year also observed the apparent effects of chemical weapons use. Items smuggled out of the country and tested at the British government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down similarly confirmed that sarin had been used.

All this shows that the attack in eastern Ghouta on August 21st did not represent a departure from previous confirmed tactics employed by the Assad regime, except in the scale of the attack. It made sense from the point of view of its own strategy and that of the rebels for Assad’s army to begin an assault on eastern Ghouta at that time. Previous evidence confirmed by the laboratories of two key western countries – the UK and France – shows that the regime has used chemical weapons in the past.

So whatever the rights and wrongs of action against the Syrian regime, the attack on Jobar in eastern Ghouta was of a piece with the observable pattern of regime behavior over the course of this year. That’s to say: Assad has been using his chemical weapons capability to kill his own civilians for quite a while now.

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