Leaving the home front out of range
From the inception of warfare until the start of the 20th century, military history has witnessed innumerable ways and forms of attacking the civilian home front.
One of the less agreeable legacies of the Second Lebanon War is what appears to be acceptance by the public - and worse than that, by the leadership - of considering civilian locales legitimate targets in a war. The idea is relatively simple and in the past was even considered part of legitimate warfare. It boils down to implementing two strategies at the disposal of the side doing the fighting. The first, direct strategy sees the other side's fighting forces or, in other words, its ability to fight, as the target for the military effort. The second, indirect strategy views the civilian home front and, by implication, its desire to fight and its support for the fighters at the front, as the target.
From the inception of warfare until the start of the 20th century, military history has witnessed innumerable ways and forms of attacking the civilian home front. The indiscriminate war waged by the French army against the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria was the swan song granting legitimacy to this type of warfare. Ever since then, this conception of civilians as a mass and random target has become unacceptable in the West. While it is accepted that there is a possibility that civilians might be harmed by a war, it has become unacceptable for them to be the object of attack.
The world still tends to consider the use of the indirect strategy - in the form of terror actions against concentrations of civilian populations by non-state entities - as acceptable. Thus, we found that our civilian locales were attacked in the summer of 2006, and thus we have been living with the reality that is Sderot for many years now. This indirect strategy employed by terror organizations facing a state that restricts itself to a direct strategy requires a new form of thinking that is suited to the times and the circumstances. A reality in which a blatant attack on civilian locales is no more than a routine news item must be confronted, both in terms of the strategy of the country being attacked and in international law.
This reality, and the perceptions that gave rise to and continue to feed it, forces us to examine possibilities to remove a possible conflict with Syria, a member of the United Nations, from the rules of the game that exist for the nonce when it comes to sub-state organizations. This past year has been characterized by reports of Syria's unprecedented arming with a wide variety of ground-to-ground missiles. Clearly, this comes at the expense of the air force and the armored corps and provides a good indication of the strategy Syria is likely to employ. This is the strategy used by Hezbollah in 2006, which in the Middle East is perceived as a winning strategy and therefore calls for imitation.
The Syrian rockets join the various sorts of Syrian ground-to-ground Scud missiles. Twice, Iraq used Scud missiles operationally on civilian targets - first against Iran and afterward, in the first Gulf War, against Israel. The world accepted, or so it seems, that there are countries for which the rule prohibiting a broad attack on civilian targets does not yet apply. The challenge facing Israel in case of a war is how to confine it to a military dimension and prevent it from spreading into an uncompromising and total war in which the civilians of both countries become unnecessary victims. The Israeli strategy in a war against Syria must be one whereby the outcome of the war will be determined in the smallest possible number of days. The determination, for the purposes of this article, will be when Syria is prepared to accept a cease-fire on terms that suit Israel. Presumably, it will be in Israel's interest not to be dragged into a war that develops slowly. It will be in Israel's interest to employ all the force at its disposal in order to bring the war to a swift, clear and decisive end in the shortest possible time.
The catch is that the more successful the implementation of this systemic idea, with Syria finding itself being defeated, the more the regime will begin to feel the earth shaking under its feet. This means that domestic pressure in Syria to include the Israeli home front in the total war picture will increase. One possible Israeli approach could be a relatively short war in which the home front will come under attack only once the Syrians begin to feel that the scales of war are tipping against them, at which point Israel will be able to absorb these attacks, since it has all the attack options.
A more skeptical Israeli approach would take into account that we do not have clear knowledge of the stage at which Syria will allow itself to attack civilian targets directly, and that this may not just come as a late response to a sense that the regime is threatened. If one adds to this the assessment that the Israeli home front will react badly to such a reality, then there is good reason to try to find ways to neutralize the threat to the home front.
One possibility is to make the outcome "indecisive." If a decisive outcome consists of creating a real threat to the regime, which will bring in its wake a legitimization for a Samson-like Syrian strategy, it is necessary to examine whether one can control the degree of the outcome's decisiveness, without leaving any doubt as to who has won, and how.
A second possibility is creating a mini-balance of deterrence, in which each side will have to concede, from the outset, some of the elements constituting its might: The Syrians will refrain entirely from attacking civilian targets and Israel will hold back on its ability for precise and destructive hits on targets that are the apple of the regime's eye. This would resemble a kind of conditional insurance policy for the presidential palace, the general staff building in Damascus, the parliament, the electricity grid, the central bank, the Ba'ath party offices and the rest of the regime's cornerstones. The continued existence of these edifices will be ensured - with the advance knowledge of Syria. That is, as long as the Israeli home front is not attacked.
This formula raises a number of questions: Do we really know which targets would cause the Syrian leadership to relinquish its ability to attack the home front if it were threatened? We have often tended to apply our own values and ways of thinking to the Arabs. It could be that today, too, we do not know the regime's political weak points for certain.
Who is going to publish the list of targets to be destroyed if Syria attacks the Israeli home front?
One possibility is to compile such a list by means of strategic research organizations, which will continue to develop the idea and leave it up to official Israel whether and when to implement this policy. If this approach is adopted, it is necessary to be aware that a situation of "too early" or "too late" could arise. Furthermore, in this scenario, the nature of the outbreak of war poses additional complications. Who initiated the war? To what degree was the other side surprised? Identifying the precise point in time at which the mechanism of the balance of mutual deterrence will kick in could turn out to be very difficult.
How will we know that the equation has been accepted by the other side? It is hard to imagine a situation in which red telephones connect the chiefs of staff of both countries, who will agree on rules of engagement before an outbreak of hostilities. This would require the preparation of a number of attack plans and defense scenarios, until the bilateral model of behavior emerges. In addition, even today there are channels of communication between Israel and Syria by means of third parties. They could prove to be the tool for the start of a secret bilateral dialogue on the issue.
Could there be a reversed situation in which the Syrians adopt the idea and apply it for their own needs? The Syrians can define for themselves a list of targets in their country that, if attacked, would unleash their rockets, intended for use against Israel's civilian home front. A situation could develop in which both sides identify each other's weak points and leverage these weaknesses to limit the other side's military capability. What about military targets located in the heart of civilian locales, far removed from the actual battle zone? What is the status of the Israeli General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv? And of its Syrian counterpart, located in the center of Damascus? And the navy base in Haifa? And the Syrian navy base at Tartus? Where will the line be drawn that separates those military targets that can legitimately be attacked - even if this results in civilian collateral damage - from those whose location eliminates them from the list of targets?
What would the approach be if, in parallel to the war with Syria, northern Israel is attacked by Hezbollah? Here the answer is relatively simple. From the moment Syria supplied Hezbollah with armaments, Hezbollah has been a part of the Syrian lineup. As such, it will be part of the balance of deterrence. Syria will have to know that an attack on Israel from Lebanon will free Israel of its commitment to refrain from attacking targets that are on the "don't touch" list.
The best case scenario would be to create a lack of legitimacy for attacking a civilian home front. The first step would have to be a prolonged effort in international forums, focusing on the unacceptable nature of an attack on civilian locales. In the current situation, and with the desire that a possible future war will not hurt civilians on either side, it is necessary to look for additional tools for containing hostilities. The idea of a mutual balance of deterrence has military importance, and is also crucial for the relations between Israel and Syria - especially since at present it is a matter of "a game against ourselves."
The author is a major general (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces and served as the military attache in Washington and as deputy commander of the air force.