Inside Track / Old lion, young lion
Sooner or later, if an agreement is not negotiated that will return the Golan and its slope to Syria in exchange for peace, there will be another war, after which the Golan and its slope will be return to Syria in exchange for peace.
Brigadier General (ret.) Yisrael Tal once related (in an interview to Mordecai Bar-On), that in September 1972, he was summoned for a conversation with defense minister Moshe Dayan, "because he wanted a functional solution, for annexing territories and not Arabs." Dayan needed the support of Tal, who was chief of the headquarters division in the Israel Defense Forces, second in importance to chief of staff David Elazar. At that time, a year before the dispute over the decision to evacuate Yamit, which convinced Egypt that Israel would not withdraw of its own free will to the international border, Dayan supported the building of the city Katzrin in the Golan.
Tal was opposed, warned against the aspiration to "create an irreversible fact" and proposed instead to make do with strengthening Kiryat Shmona, as the urban rear line of the north. "They won't concede," said Tal, speaking about "the Arabs" in general and in this context of the Syrians.
"Maybe you're right," replied Dayan, "but none of us can fix the situation, so let the Arabs come with guns and take the lands."
The Syrians, in coordination with the Egyptians (who had bluffed them and had informed the Americans in advance that they would agree to a separate peace with Israel, without waiting for Syria and Jordan), came with guns a year later. They took back a small part of their lands, including the provincial town of Quneitra, and while waiting for the next military or diplomatic round agreed to an international disengagement observer force, the deployment of which between a strong Arab country (Egypt or Syria, but not Lebanon) calms the line of contact between the armies but is no guarantee of perpetual serenity.
Dayan died 22 years ago yesterday, 10 days after the assassination of the Egyptian who thrust the Yom Kippur War on him and contributed to the resolution of the conflict with him from 1977 on. Neither of them lived to see the annexation of the Golan; had Egyptian president Anwar Sadat survived, prime minister Menachem Begin would never have dared to articulate this law, which endangered the peace with Egypt.
Last week, early in the morning of October 5, the Israeli Air Force was sent to attack a camp that is about as far from Damascus as Tsrifin is from Tel Aviv. Perhaps this was the opening shot of the next war. The operation was given an appropriate name, "Lion King," because in the operations division of the Israel Defense Forces, the government printing office of operation names, they know how to mix the past and the present. In the streets around the Kirya in Tel Aviv, where IDF command headquarters are located, there are posters marketing the video of Walt Disney's happy-sad cartoon of that name, and in the language of the enemy, Assad means lion. The fit is almost perfect.
But only almost, because in the original, in the tale from the Disney studios, the name of the aging king who is approaching his end, Mufasa, is in fact quite similar to the name of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's operations sergeant, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Back when he was still chief of staff in Sharon's previous government, the one in which the defense portfolio was held by the Labor Party and which was careful to avoid escalation on the northern border, Mofaz determined that Syria is "the main military threat to the State of Israel," and that the IDF's main effort is to be expected in the arena of battle against it. All the other arenas will be secondary and the IDF will defend itself there while acting to vanquish Syria quickly, within no more than a week or two.
Last year, before Iraq disappeared from the map of the eastern front and American forces replaced Saddam's, Mofaz's assessment was that the Syrian army was capable of attacking along the Golan Heights front to take all or part of it, and at the same time exert a secondary effort in Lebanon.
This assessment has various military derivatives. Among other things, that Syria will not initiate a ground attack on Israel - as opposed to launching ground-to-ground missiles on the Israeli home front when the IDF is deployed full force and denying it the element of surprise.
The significance of this is that, as in 1973, the General Staff is expecting Military Intelligence to give it sufficient warning to deploy the standing army and call up the reserves, and until these preparations are completed most of the burden will rest on the air force (the ground forces are three times more cumbersome).
The Syrian army is liable to act on its own, but also as "a major axis in a broader Arab effort," in IDF terms, to "aid the Palestinian people in its struggle" or following "a limited local deterioration that has strategic implications," such as the firing of long-range rockets from Lebanon or the infiltration of a Syrian commando with arms at the ready to join up with the Druze in the Golan, Syrian citizens who have been forced to accept Israeli identity cards.
The burden of weighing things will be passed to Israel, twice and thrice. The local, immediate dilemma is how to act if the Syrian response to IDF action changes from routine to emergency, and, if it does, whether to show restraint in face of the deployment of reinforcements from the Syrian Central Command and thus accept the emergence of what in the IDF is called "a reality that erodes evidentiary signs."
The warning space for forces at the front will shrink and Syria could embark on a two-dimensional attack, with missiles (aimed at military or civilian targets) and on land. If Israel does not hold back and chooses a pre-emptive attack, it could declare itself an aggressor and perhaps provide Syria with an excuse for a missile attack on the civilian home front.
The choice between the alternatives in this dilemma could influence the price of the war in lives and damage to the home front. But more important and prior to it is the basic dilemma: About what, in fact, are we fighting when no one the government or in the General Staff is envisioning a Syrian plan to destroy Israel or even to occupy territories to the west of the cease-fire lines?
The aim of a war with Syria, as even Mofaz has admitted, would be to create a lever for diplomatic negotiations. The Syrians will want to come to these negotiations from an advantageous position, on the basis of a gain on the ground - even a limited one - in the Golan Heights, or after they have struck fear into the Israeli home front with missiles that are perhaps armed with chemical warheads, and with the help of planes and special forces.
On the other side, the Israeli war aim will be to end the war as quickly as possible, to deploy "along a line that allows for influence in war and limited hostilities" and to create "an advantageous position for diplomatic negotiations" - that is, a mirror image of the Syrian aim.
If both sides want in advance to arrive in the end at diplomatic bargaining, the outcome of which is also clear, why have a war, and how many Israelis need to die for the sake of every meter northeast of the Sea of Galilee?
The IDF, in an approach that subverts Mofaz right under his nose, has already expressed doubts about the logic of the next war with Syria, the one in which the commanders are slated to be names that are unfamiliar to the public - Gershon Hacohen and Tal Russo, Yitzhak Harel and Yair Golan. Out of politeness, at the General Staff they have not dared to say explicitly that this will be a superfluous war and have only spoken about the necessity of avoiding "an intolerable price for the people of Israel and the IDF."
It is difficult for the old lions to fight the temptation to teach the impertinent Assad a lesson. For this common interest there will not be an administration more sympathetic to Israel in Washington: The Pentagon, in both its civilian and military elements, is itching for battle with Damascus and at the usually moderate State Department, the most belligerent official, John Bolton, heads the Bureau of Nonproliferation and the interface between unconventional weapons and regimes that support terror.
Spurred by Bolton, and after months during which marines and sailors of the Sixth Fleet have been practicing taking over ships carrying suspicious cargoes, an American-Syrian confrontation is approaching, which will begin with the interception of prohibited equipment on its way, by air or by sea, from North Korea or Iran. The Syrian counter-move will be a strengthening of its alliance with Iran, which is ahead of Syria in the sights of the administration of President George W. Bush.
The Jerusalem-Washington cooperation in face of Syria is real but transient. Its longevity is equal to the longevity of America's focus on Iraq, which Bush now sees as the be-all and end-all. If India wants to buy Arrow missiles now, against the Pakistani missiles and their nuclear warheads, this is the opportunity to get American permission, in exchange for agreement to deploy Indian forces in Iraq, even if two years ago Bush's major achievement was the enlistment of Pakistan against Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Alongside the Israelis, the Americans are against Muslim terror, from Baghdad to Gaza, but they will be on the Syrians' side in the diplomatic bargaining, once the gunpowder has settled, exactly as in the formula that brought the fathers of Bush and Assad to the Madrid conference.
Another war in the north will not increase Israel's gains and will not get the Syrians off the Golan, which clearly in any case will be returned. This will be another edition of a different disagreement between Tal and Dayan, towards the third week of the Yom Kippur War. Dayan (along with Elazar) wanted at that time to press on with the fighting until the cease-fire lines were improved and a military or diplomatic achievement by the Arabs was prevented.
"The war has to be stopped as quickly as possible," argued Tal, who was better than they were at reading the map of the region and the world. "It's a shame to kill another few hundred boys."