War games on two fronts
Israel's plans to prevent a nuclear Iran remain opaque, but Syria's attacks on the rebel city of Homs have sent a clear message to the world.
Now we have seen evidence of the catastrophe unfolding in Syria and considered the scenarios of future terror in Iran, other recent stories - fascinating as they may be - seem less significant. The bloodbath at the soccer game in the Egyptian city of Port Said has been forgotten as if it never happened (74 people died during the disturbance ). And the declaration of the establishment of a joint Palestinian government is barely a blip on the radar - even the Netanyahu government found only a minute or two to condemn the Palestinian Authority's capitulation to Hamas before returning to its threat of military action against Iran.
Last week, Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi made his debut public appearance at the Herzliya Conference. About half his 40-minute address was devoted to an analysis of the shake-ups in the Arab world. In the rest of his speech, Kochavi focused on only two countries - Iran and Syria. The Palestinians were nothing more than a footnote.
In these two arenas, Israel faces probable imminent danger. The Iranian nuclear program is liable to reach fruition before the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU have any real effect. And strategic weaponry, mainly stockpiles of chemical weapons and long-range missiles, could trickle into the hands of terror groups, primarily Hezbollah, as the Syrian regime disintegrates.
An airborne Israeli attack on Iran, at the height of the most stringent sanctions ever imposed, will not gain international legitimacy. The bombing of arms convoys, on either side of the Syria-Lebanon border, is liable to provide the Assad regime with an excuse to divert its fire to a conflict with Israel (in an attempt to forestall regime collapse ). Conversely, restraint could become a risk Israel would be hard pressed to take, most certainly in the Syrian case, which could end up being the most pressing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been ridiculed for the Churchillian tone he adopts in his speeches about Iran, but it is really Defense Minister Ehud Barak - who in the past used to say Tehran does not constitute an existential threat to Israel - now expressing himself in critical historical terms. At Herzliya, Barak compared the current period to the War of Independence, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. "It requires a profound understanding of the historic and strategic picture, along with full control of the details; sobriety - at times merciless; good judgment; the courage to take decisions and the strength to carry them out," he opined.
Does the merciless sobriety reflect an Israeli decision - which has essentially already been made - to attack? Or is it merely a desire to display a bombing threat before the eyes of the international community, in order to ensure that sanctions on Iran will be further tightened? In a televised interview this week on the eve of the Super Bowl, President Obama said Israel had still not decided to attack. This seems to be the correct explanation.
Obama's spokesmen were meant to slightly dim the impression left by his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, who had been quoted a few days earlier - in the Washington Post - as having assessed that Israel had already opted in favor of an attack.
Netanyahu, as well, made an effort this week to turn down the heat, directing his cabinet ministers and senior Israel Defense Forces commanders to restrain themselves in commenting on the Iran situation. Based on past experience, it can be surmised that this new directive will be honored for, at most, two weeks, and that the first to violate it will be Netanyahu and Barak themselves.
The hysteria over Iran is being fanned by media reports on both sides of the globe. Aside from Panetta's gut feelings, the most prominent example of this, earlier this month, was an overblown analysis of the appointment of the new commander of the Israel Air Force. There must be other enlightened countries in which the press relates with such sanctified anxiety to high-level military appointments. Iran and North Korea, for instance.
A similar approach was characterized by the flustered quotes about the "Israeli plan of attack," as presented by NBC. The report stated, in explicit terms, that the assault would be executed with a combination of warplanes, commando forces and ground-to-ground missiles - highly valuable information for anyone who until now believed it would rely mainly on the Petah Tikva police.
In the space of a three-day period at the beginning of March, the following developments can be expected: elections to the Iranian parliament; another meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA ) in Vienna, where an interim report on the status of the Iranian nuclear program will be discussed; and Benjamin Netanyahu's conference speech at the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby in Washington.
The elections in Iran will be a significant litmus test for a regime that is groaning beneath the weight of the sanctions and is still paying the price for fabricating the results of the June 2009 presidential elections and suppressing the protests in their wake. The IAEA report is expected to air new details, more worrisome than in the past, on progress in the "weapons channel" - Iran's attempts to manufacture nuclear warheads for missiles. Meanwhile, aside from a round of applause from 11,000 enthusiastic Jewish activists at the conference, Netanyahu is expected to sit down with President Obama for a private meeting.
If the meeting is accompanied by a joint public appearance of the two leaders, it will be minus the distinct signs of tension that were discernible in their previous encounter last May. Obama, in the throes of an election year, will embrace Netanyahu. In a televised interview this week, the President emphasized that intelligence and military consultations between the two countries are closer than ever, and went on to describe America's concern for Israel's security as an extremely high priority for his administration.
Officials in Israel are now halfheartedly admitting that the sanctions are having an effect. Kochavi told the Herzliya conference that they have started damaging the Iranian economy, and that "they have the potential to cause the regime, which is concerned about its own survival, to reconsider its positions."
One intelligence veteran, who has spent years watching the Iranian nuclear program, said this week: "We saw it happening in 2003, under the threat of the American attack in Iraq. After the [heavy bombing] demonstration of 'Shock and Awe' in Baghdad, the leadership in Tehran blinked and halted its advances on the military channel. The ayatollahs are more pragmatic and sophisticated than we imagine. If they sense a genuine risk they will stop, for a limited period of time."
Israel is again adjusting the tone of its pronouncements, in order to create new pressure in advance of the IAEA gathering in Vienna, with the hope of achieving additional sanctions. This follows the declaration of a European oil embargo (that comes into effect in July ) and the presidential order signed by Barack Obama this week, which gives greater teeth to the trade sanctions with Iran's central bank. Russia and China, however, are continuing to place obstacles in the path of the United States, which seeks to form a wider global consensus on sanctions. Saudi Arabia has promised to keep oil prices below $100 a barrel (they are currently $97 ), should a drop in Iranian exports have an effect.
Iran is still holding onto the dangerous option of closing the Strait of Hormuz, and disrupting the supply of oil from the Gulf Emirates, should international pressure increase. The rising tension offers broad leeway for mistakes and mutual misunderstandings. What's more, the region is seeing a significant increase in naval forces, including American aircraft carriers and British and French warships.
'Business as usual' in Syria
It is difficult to determine which of this week's pictures from Syria had the most effect on global public opinion: the sight of civilian corpses piled in a school yard in the Baba Amr quarter of Homs; or the convoy of Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who was received in Damascus by tens of thousands of enthusiastic Syrians, flooding the streets on the orders of the regime. It would seem that the contradiction between the "business as usual" atmosphere that President Bashar Assad is trying to broadcast from Damascus - with the kind assistance of Moscow - and the terrible reality in the rest of the country has never been more blatant.
Russia supplies the official international umbrella to Iran and Syria, while the Arab world is furious with it. Sunni imams are issuing fatwas (Islamic legal rulings ) that forbid trade with Moscow, and Russian flags are being burned in the streets of Qatar and Cairo - a gesture that has, until now, been reserved for the flags of the U.S. and Israel. Russia's choice of Assad will come at the cost of the rising hostility of Sunni states in the coming years.
Aside from the Baba Amr quarter in Homs, the Syrian army also shelled the Khaldiyeh, Baida and Inshaat neighborhoods this week. Video footage broadcast on the Arab television channels showed destroyed homes, burning alleyways and dozens of victims left without medical attention. The number of dead in the city this past week is estimated at several hundred.
The Al Arabiya news network reported Wednesday on difficulties in burying the dead due to the constant shelling. That day, Syrian army tanks entered the hospital compound in Inshaat, firing shells indiscriminately. The rebel forces looked like a disorganized gang, hard pressed to contend with the army's firepower and seemingly reliant on the mercies of Allah.
Their situation reminds one of the opposition groups in Libya, in the middle of last year, when it seemed Muammar Gadhafi's forces were about to defeat them. In the military sphere, despite the desertions and low morale, the Syrian army is incomparably better organized and armed than the rebels.
Without urgent external military assistance for opponents of the regime, similar to what happened in Libya, Assad is liable to continue his seemingly carefree massacre of his people for the foreseeable future. This week's call by Republican Senator John McCain for the Administration to consider the transfer of military equipment to the Syrian opposition was immediately greeted with a negative response from White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said the U.S. would only consider sending humanitarian aid.
And in spite of the real shock caused by the scenes in the streets of Homs in the Arab world, this has so far done nothing to budge Assad from his seat. Conversely, it also seems Assad has gone too far to be able to stay in power forever.
Not Tehran's puppet
Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah vehemently charged this week, in another speech from the bunker, that a deep probe by his organization revealed that "nothing has happened in Homs." And still, it is clear that Nasrallah has broken into a sweat, given Assad's state of distress. Evidence of this may be found in his unusual response to what is happening in the Persian Gulf.
In a speech delivered to mark the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, Nasrallah said his organization was not Tehran's puppet, and that if Israel attacked the nuclear sites, Hezbollah would make its own decision on whether to intervene in the conflict. Yet the Iranians did not spend millions of dollars to supply tens of thousand of rockets to Hezbollah so that such a decision would be left to the discretion of the Lebanese organization.
Nasrallah's pronouncement reflects the Catch-22 in which Hezbollah finds itself. With Iran under siege and Syria torn apart in a civil war, Nasrallah must underscore the Lebanese character of his organization so as not to incense the country's other ethnic communities.
Hamas suffered a serious blow this week, when the group's leadership in the Gaza Strip publicly challenged the decision of the head of the foreign leadership, Khaled Meshal, to sign the Doha accord. The deal aims to establish a temporary unity government with the Palestinian Authority.
This is the first time the organization's internal crisis has been so visibly on display for the outside world to see. Meshal, who has already fled Damascus, seeks reconciliation with the PA, with the aim of avoiding a popular uprising against Hamas in Gaza. He is joining the more moderate axis led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. But Hamas' prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, is outflanking him and exchanging the pragmatic line that has characterized him in the past with an overture to the Iranians. Haniyeh went to Tehran on Friday, meeting Iranian vice president Mohammad Reza Rahimi during a three-day visit.