A photograph of President Bashar Assad
A photograph of President Bashar Assad is set on fire at a recent protest demonstration in Syria. The Israel Defense Forces has spent 30 years preparing for a war that now looks less likely. Photo by AFP
Text size

When Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States in 1992, he appointed Warren Christopher as his secretary of state. Israel's then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, sought negotiations with Syria. Christopher mediated languorously between Rabin and Syrian leader Hafez Assad with far lower levels of energy and sophistication than his predecessors, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. He missed his chance in the summer of 1993, diverting the disappointed Rabin to talks that the latter saw as secondary, with Yasser Arafat in Oslo. This missed moment seems especially unfortunate in the twilight of President Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus.

At the start of the 1990s, there was an opportune moment for Israel to reach an agreement with Syria and remove it from its camp of enemies. This was after the crushing defeat of Syria's hostile neighbor, Iraq. Syria had participated in the war, albeit passively, sending one of its divisions to Saudi Arabia to side with the Americans-Saudis-Egyptians. The war provided a purposeful display of the West's technological might (and, by implication, that of the Israel Defense Forces ), without Iranian patronage and in the absence of strategic backing from Moscow.

The Soviet policy at the end of Mikhail Gorbachev's era and the beginning of Boris Yeltsin's valued its presence in Syria - including anchorages reserved for the Russian navy in the ports of Tartus and Latakia - less than it had in previous eras, and less than it does now under President Vladimir Putin. Back in Rabin's day it would have been possible to reach a deal with the elder Assad, and with the support of chiefs of staff Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and Military Intelligence head Uri Saguy. There was also a chance at the end of Hafez Assad's time: in Ehud Barak's first and almost only year as prime minister, in 1999.

Bashar Assad's current desperate battle for survival rages as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is seriously ill and imprisoned. This is the shared fate for two regimes that arose together in the Middle East arena, changed it completely and also reached their end almost simultaneously. Bashar and Mubarak were the successors of Hafez Assad and Anwar Sadat, the direct beneficiaries of the "Black September" conflict between King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat's PLO in 1970.

Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had died, exhausted, in the midst of a failed attempt to mediate between Hussein and Arafat. Assad, the defense minister and air force commander in the government of Salah Jadid, prevented Jadid's tanks from invading Jordan to assist the PLO, and two months later deposed him. Three years later Sadat and the elder Assad embarked jointly on the Yom Kippur War, but then parted ways. Sadat initiated peace with Israel; Syria became its main enemy, or in the IDF definition, "the key hostile state." Accordingly, the Southern Command lost its preeminence, after three decades, to the Northern Command.

This was an important turning point in Syria's relative status in the Arab conflict with Israel. In the 1950s Syria was considered an annoying but trivial threat. It began to worry Israel when the Soviets jumped in there, over the northern tier of Turkey and Iraq (which was pro-Western until 1958 ), for the short-lived adventure of linking up with Nasser to establish a United Arab Republic.

Israel responded by teaming up with Turkey for joint military planning against Syria, with the aim of chopping it up into provinces. In Ben-Gurion's day they dreamed of occupying a southern Syrian strip that would become an independent Druze enclave and cut Syria off from Jordan. Syria has never embarked alone on a war against Israel. It recruited Egypt in 1967 and was recruited by Egypt in 1973. Since then, the altercations between Syria and Israel have occurred on the turf of their mutual and weak neighbor, Lebanon.

In one of them, in 1982, the air forces and armored forces of the two countries clashed. A year later, American naval, air and marine forces were drawn in at the price of killings and prisoners. In light of the peace with Egypt and Jordan, the IDF drew the picture of a large and armed Syrian scarecrow.

Maximum surprise

At the end of the 1980s, GOC Northern Command Yossi Peled, who is now doing nothing in particular in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, warned: "Syria is continuing to see Israel as a potential enemy of the first rank." In Peled's view, Syria had not come to terms with the independent existence of the state of Israel, because it considers the northern part of the Mandatory land of Israel to be a part of greater Syria. He believed Syria would start a war even without an alliance with other Arab countries, in the hope that they would join in at the appropriate time.

Peled feared that a Syrian attack would begin with the maximum amount of surprise after a decision made by Assad and a handful of advisers - a challenge for Military Intelligence, which is supposed to provide a warning long enough in advance to allow for a call-up of reserves for blocking the attack. This, of course, on the assumption that it would indeed be a land-based attack and not a barrage of ground-to-ground missiles secretly hidden in various places in the Syrian desert. These missiles, with the addition of chemical and biological warheads, provided the Assad regime with a considerable measure of deterrence against an initiated Israeli attack - with the exception of the September 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear installation purchased from North Korea.

Syria is characterized by a variety of topographical environments: mountainous, urban and a large desert expanse. In the Hermon area and the basalt lands there are few transportation routes, which constitutes a bottleneck for any army, both defending and attacking. The Syrian heartland is far from the front, and landing forces there is problematical.

The definition of the aim of a war with Syria - a rapid victory, removal of the threat for a long period, deterrence of a future military action - was vague because the Israeli governments usually preferred not to tell the General Staff explicitly that they were willing to trade the Golan Heights for peace. Therefore the IDF told itself the aim would be achieved by means of a combination of damage to the Syrian army and occupation of territories east and north of the Golan, but without knowing what would be done with these territories if the Syrians refused a truce - and all this even without Egypt signaling how it would react to an Israeli-Syrian war.

Israel's awareness of the missile, chemical and biological weaponry in Syria's hands has accompanied every crisis and all the tensions in recent years. It takes a lot of restraint to decide not to strike a preemptive blow against this weaponry.

The dispute between the eager-to-strike Defense Minister Barak and the previous and cautious IDF chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, also included a disagreement about a possible missile attack on arms shipments in the course of their transfer from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. One of the reasons for Barak's objections to appointing Ashkenazi's deputy, Benny Gantz, as chief of staff was Gantz's reluctance - as the chief of staff's stand-in during Ashkenazi's trips abroad - to circumvent Ashkenazi and agree to Barak's initiative for such an operation.

Yesterday's wars

Gantz, who during the past decade was GOC Northern Command at a time when Syria abandoned its 30 years of military involvement in Lebanon and pulled its forces out of the country, is continuing to build up the IDF mainly for the scenario of a war in the north - in Syria and Lebanon (primarily against Hezbollah but also against targets of the Lebanese government, that includes Hezbollah ). The significance of this is that many IDF divisions are training for combat in that arena, and the IDF is equipping and arming itself in accordance with an estimate of many days of fighting - more than were needed for the Six-Day War and fewer than were needed for the Yom Kippur War.

Those are yesterday's wars, to which the defense budget - some of which was wasted and some of which has helped the deterrence - has been devoted between 1982 and 2012. The chances that this will also be the next war are evaporating along with the Assad regime. It is more likely, even if this is not enough to retune the other scenarios and the expensive preparations for them, that the state of Israel, its citizens at home and abroad and its security forces - the IDF and the police, the Shin Bet and the Mossad - will become embroiled in a clash with Iran or substate elements like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaida. Burgas-type terror will not be an alternative to a war with Iran but rather a companion to it, for years.

One of the most accurate conclusions drawn by the IDF from previous intelligence and operational failure has been the need to strengthen the intelligence departments in the regional commands - perhaps above all in the Northern Command - and of the regular divisions. In the case of the north these are the Golan Division (36 ) and the Galilee Division (91 ). The intelligence officers at Mount Canaan, Camp Nafah and Biranit, with their intelligence-gathering and research departments, constitute focal points of knowledge and an counterweight to the Military Intelligence research division in Tel Aviv.

At Military Intelligence, they believe this development is more important than implementation of another of the Agranat Commission's recommendations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War: to strengthen the research bodies of the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry.

The attentiveness of all elements of Israeli intelligence is now necessarily focused in two complementary directions - Assad's clinging to the horns of the altar of his regime, including a possible desperate attack on Israel; and a crumbling of the centralized control in Syria of strategic weaponry and the outlying areas. This is a Pakistan-like scenario, of the sort that is terrifying American intelligence, which is following both nuclear weapons and terror organizations and is exceedingly alarmed by a possible combination of the two.

And there is also another element here - surveillance which is prohibited to Israeli intelligence but which also constitutes a danger: at the political level, in the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry. Toward the end of May 1982, two Israelis sat together in London: former Military Intelligence head Shlomo Gazit and Israel's Ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov. The conversation centered on the Oranim Plan for a war in Lebanon, which had recently been rejected in a vote by the government but was destined to come up again at a suitable moment. "It's interesting what incident will serve as the justification for the operation," said Shlomo G. to Shlomo A., or vice versa - two weeks before the assassination attempt on ambassador Argov in London provided the answer.