Bashar Asad Asma Romania AP
Syrian president Bashar Assad and his wife Asma during a visit to Romania. Photo by AP
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Speaking in New York last week, International Atomic Energy Agency director general Yukiya Amano said the organization had the authority to send inspectors to sites in Syria where there is a suspicion that prohibited nuclear activities have taken place. Amano was referring mainly to the nuclear facility manufactured by the North Koreans at Deir ez-Zur, which foreign sources said Israel bombed in September 2007. The Syrians apparently had been sloppy in their efforts to erase evidence of what had taken place there, and IAEA inspectors found traces of uranium when they visited in June 2008.

Since then, Syria has refused all IAEA requests to conduct a second inspection at Deir ez-Zur and other sites - including military bases and a compound next to Damascus - which Western officials suspect are linked to the country's nuclear program.

"We found that [there were] particles of man-made uranium. But up to today we cannot identify what is the origin," said Amano, regarding Deir ez-Zur, at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York on November 9. "Judging from the information that we have, we think that it is possible, or quite possible, that it was a reactor," he added.

Amano cautioned that "special inspection is of course one of the options" the IAEA has in Syria. This was his second comment on the subject within two months, following a highly critical report on Syria's refusal to cooperate with IAEA inspectors. Damascus has announced it will block inspections, which might prompt the agency to recommend that the Security Council impose sanctions on Syria. The U.S. representative to the IAEA, Glyn Davies, stated earlier this month that Washington was encouraging the agency to declare a special inspection of the Syrian sites, potentially on short notice. "We are rapidly approaching a situation where the [IAEA] board [of governors] and secretariat must consider all available measures and authorities" in regard to Syria, Davies said.

For the past two years, Syria has been playing a complex game, one not devoid of risk. Besides its protracted evasiveness on the nuclear question, Damascus has tightened its alliance with Iran and engaged in massive arms smuggling to Hezbollah, while supporting the Shi'ite organization during the international investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

As far as is known, there has been no true breakthrough in the contacts to forge an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty in recent months. Indeed, Damascus has indicated to would-be mediators that it will not give up its involvement in Lebanon or its strategic ties with Tehran in order to sign a treaty with Israel.

Next month the UN's special international tribunal is expected to charge a number of senior Hezbollah officials with the 2005 murder of Hariri. According to a report in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akbar, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said in a closed meeting that his group has several options, including "taking a step that will bring about a major political change, with all that this entails." That explicit threat to topple the regime came one day after Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said during a visit to Canada that Hezbollah is liable to seize power in Lebanon in the wake of indictments in the Hariri investigation.

Arms smuggling from Iran and Syria to Lebanon has continued uninterrupted since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In his farewell meeting with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, outgoing Military Intelligence director Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin said he was concerned about the Syrians' improved antiaircraft capability. Yadlin was referring to Russian-made missile systems Damascus had received.

Israel's primary concern is that these weapons will reach Hezbollah, hampering Israel Air Force activity over Lebanon. Israel has informed Syria on several occasions that it will not accept advanced antiaircraft missiles entering Lebanon - that this is a "red line," and crossing it will draw Israeli intervention. In practice, this would mean attacking weapons convoys from Syria into Lebanon, presuming that MI provides the necessary information in time.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has not yet responded to three mysterious incidents that he called acts of Israeli aggression on Syrian soil: the bombing of the reactor, the assassination of senior Hezbollah agent Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, and the assassination of Syrian general Muhammad Suleimani (both of the latter two in 2008 ). There is no guarantee that Assad will maintain this restraint if he suffers another humiliation.

However, the most urgent problem Assad now faces is in Vienna, where the IAEA board of governors is scheduled to meet next month. Amano has taken a completely different line from his predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, of Egypt. Amano might accept an American initiative to increase pressure on Syria, including dispatching inspectors and placing Syria on the agency's special-inspection list.

The U.S. policy regarding the Deir ez-Zur episode and the Iranian nuclear project are related. A tough stance toward Damascus might go hand in hand with increasing pressure on Tehran, which the Obama administration says is starting to feel the implications of the harsher sanctions imposed in June. The question is whether the Americans will also recruit European support for this kind of move against Damascus.

The current assessment by Israeli intelligence is that Syria is not interested in a direct confrontation with Israel. However, it is not clear what Damascus will do if one of its partners triggers a confrontation - whether it is Iran, in response to a move against its nuclear program, or Hezbollah, for its own reasons.

Since the 2006 war, the Syrian army, like the Israel Defense Forces, has been upgrading. The Syrian military has drawn some of its ideas from the Hezbollah model of specializing in commando and antitank forces, together with considerable expansion of its steep-trajectory weapons program. Israel is likely to face broad-based coordination between the missile- and rocket-launching systems of Syria and Lebanon in the event of a regional clash.

Israel's response to these threats will depend partly on its interception systems. Much has been written about the Iron Dome, which is intended for interception of short-range rockets and was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (after years of dithering by the country's leaders ). This week, Channel 10 broadcast impressive footage of the latest Iron Dome test in the Negev, in which the flights of a Katyusha rocket, a Qassam and a mortar shell were thwarted.

Still, that test actually took place a few months ago. In practice, only two prototypes of the system have so far been manufactured and neither has been declared operational, though both have been supplied to the air force. It will apparently take another few months until they are fit for use, and, as reported in Haaretz, the IDF does not intend to deploy them in the Negev but to leave them on an air force base and await developments.

Six months ago, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. would grant Israel $205 million to purchase seven more Iron Dome batteries. However, bureaucratic obstacles have so far blocked the fund transfer. Israel also has not allocated matching funds for the project, as Washington expects it to do.

Cruel choice

In the background a trenchant debate of principle is being waged, whose echoes have reached the security cabinet and two subcommittees of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by Avi Dichter (Kadima ) and Amir Peretz (Labor ), respectively. Dichter and Peretz, the first a former Shin Bet security service chief, the second a former defense minister, are pressing for a larger procurement budget and for speeding up deployment.

This, at least declaratively, is also Defense Minister Ehud Barak's position. Barak is urging the consolidation of a multilayer intercept system (Iron Dome, Magic Wand - still being developed by Rafael - and Arrow ) as a response to the missile threat. Furthermore, the defense minister is talking about purchasing many thousands of intercept missiles. In contrast, though, IDF officers are not enthusiastic about this sort of thinking, certainly not if the funds have to come out of their budget. The army traditionally prefers offensive solutions and does not appreciate civilians telling it how to wage war.

Under the IDF approach, which is not always presented in full publicly, missile defense systems cannot protect the entire country simultaneously. Proper defense will instead depend on protective armoring (security rooms and shelters ), the public's strict obedience to instructions, and an improved warning system (radar, sirens and sophisticated analysis of the missiles' probable landing sites ). All of this will help reduce the number of civilian deaths, though it will not help in the event of direct hits.

In light of the cruel choice it has to make, the IDF will first deploy missile batteries to protect strategic sites, such as air force bases (to ensure that planes can take off on attack sorties without interference ), airports and sea ports, power stations and hospitals. In addition to Iron Dome, a more point-specific intercept system, now under development by Israel Military Industries, may also be considered.

The advocates of large-scale procurement argue that instead of calculating how much Iron Dome and its missiles will cost, one must consider how much damage they will help Israel to avert. About NIS 10 billion was invested in the separation fence, but it helped stop the wave of suicide bombers entering from the West Bank. One day of fighting (on a limited scale ) in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead cost the economy about NIS 1 billion, without taking into account the repercussions of the Goldstone report and the damage Israel suffered internationally. Diverting a relatively small part of the surplus taxes collected in 2010 would be enough to advance the intercept missile project considerably.

Speaking at the International Aerospace Conference and Exhibition held this week in Jerusalem, the missile engineer Uzi Rubin expressed some disturbing thoughts. Rubin, who formerly headed the Homa (Wall ) project for the manufacture of the Arrow system, talked about would-be targets in the next war against Israel. The enemy's goal, he said, will be to attack the populace and not the IDF. By using powerful precision munitions, the other side will seek to achieve "air superiority without an air force." Some of the missiles and rockets have an average strike range of 200 meters from the target. Rubin estimates there are now about 13,000 warheads aimed at most of Israel's populated areas, from Acre to the Negev. Some 1,500 warheads could hit Tel Aviv, a potential 1,400 tons of explosives.

Rubin quoted a speech by Nasrallah delivered over the Al-Manar TV network last February: "If you hit Dahiya [the Shi'ite neighborhood in southern Beirut], we will hit Tel Aviv; if you attack the martyr Hariri airport in Beirut [named for the person Hezbollah will soon be accused of martyring], we will attack Ben-Gurion airport. Strike at our oil refineries and our power stations and we will strike at yours."

Rubin presented a map showing the possible consequences of 10 M-600 rockets aimed at the Kirya defense establishment compound in the heart of Tel Aviv, with a dispersal average of 500 meters. Such volleys, he said, are liable to disrupt Israel's military capability, inflict serious damage and kill many civilians. The Israeli response emphasizes offensive operations, and places less importance on defense. Senior IDF officers admit that "the civilian rear will get a thrashing in the war." It might be a good idea to rethink our doctrine, Rubin politely concluded.