Are the Israeli premier’s domestic difficulties tempting him to go to war against Syria and Lebanon?
By Abdel Bari Atwan
To understand the state of panic currently afflicting the ruling elite in Israel, which has gone to the extent of openly threatening to bomb the presidential palace in Damascus and Iranian military formations in Syria, one need only refer to recent remarks made by Robert Ford.
Ford was the last US ambassador to Syria and is currently a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He has long been one of the most prominent proponents and supporters of the ‘Syrian revolution’ and the Western/Gulf-led effort to overthrow the regime in Damascus by force.
But in an interview with the English-language UAE daily The National this week, he conceded that President Bashar al-Asad has defeated the armed campaign that was launched seven years ago to topple him and his regime. ‘The war is winding down little by little’, he stated. ‘Assad has won and he will stay. He may never be held accountable, and Iran will be in Syria to stay. This is the new reality that we have to accept, and there isn’t much we can do about it.’
Ford was resigned to the idea that the regime would eventually reassert its full control over the entire country: ‘The Syrian government cannot and will not accept local administrations or decentralisation, despite the fact that the Russians keep talking about it’, he said. ‘It might take two or four years, but they can’t accept other governments – local or foreign – to control these places.’
And he warned that ‘the shift in the dynamic in Syria has made the situation worse for Israel’. He explained: ‘The Israelis used to fly with no worry over Syria, but now their whole calculus has changed.’
Perhaps this explains the extreme angst displayed by Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when he travelled to Sochi on 23 August to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged him stand by Israel’s side amid the strategic changes in Syria that have advanced the rise of Iran as a regional power.
What Netanyahu wants from Putin – as he repeated openly to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when he visited Tel Aviv earlier this week – is for Iran to be prevented from establishing its presence in Syria and setting up missile factories there and in Lebanon. Otherwise, Israeli officials warned, Israeli warplanes would attack the presidential palace in Damascus and sites where Iranian military experts are located in Syria.
According to various Israel press reports that were confirmed by Russian media, Putin found his Israeli guest to be in a state of agitation bordering on hysteria as he explained the apocalyptic consequences of Iran’s regional ascendancy. But the Russian president kept calm and replied that Iran was Russia’s strategic ally in the Middle East, the main counterweight to the Arab-Islamic variant of Nato which the US is trying to establish in the region, and that Moscow has no intention of abandoning it for Israel’s sake – nor of taking lectures from Israel on how it should make its policies in the region.
By what right does Netanyahu think he can demand that Russia and the US act to prevent Iran form building munitions plants in Syria and Lebanon, or oblige it to withdraw its forces from an allied country that has requested their presence? Does he expect Syria simply to agree to become a defenceless target which Israeli warplanes can bomb whenever and wherever they like? Syria and Iran never complained about Israel’s US taxpayer-funded Iron Dome and other missile systems, nor did Moscow object to its acquisition of F-35 warplanes, the most sophisticated in the US arsenal. For Netanyahu to demand Russian action against Iran is the height of impudence and arrogance, and Putin was right to slap him down. Unlike the US political establishment, Russia is not beholden to Israel nor prepared to take instructions from it, and with its extensive expertise in the region certainly does not need lessons from Netanyahu on how to operate in the region. Its priority is not to defend Israel’s interests but its own, and it cannot forget or ignore the fact that Israel is the US’ closest ally in the region and the world.
What is worrying is that the clearly threatening tone used by Netanyahu – both in Sochi and at his meeting with the UN chief – could be a prelude for Israel to launch a large-scale attack on Syria and/or Lebanon, on the pretext that it faces a security threat from Iran in both countries and is acting in self-defence.
This is made more likely by the many corruption charges that are closing in on Netanyahu, which could lead to his indictment and prosecution and force him out of office and into jail. He may be tempted to start a war to divert attention from these investigations and unite the country in a common cause – just as the embattled former premier Ehud Olmert did when he attacked Lebanon in July 2006.
Will Netanyahu do the same, and launch a bombing campaign against the Syrian leadership and Iranian forces in Syria? He can try. But he would be well advised to recall that the Decisive Storm bombing campaign launched two and a half years ago – using much the same American warplanes as his own – has failed to impose surrender on impoverished and exhausted Yemen, which is armed with weapons whose sell-by-date expired half a century ago.So can his warplanes impose surrender on Syria whose army has stood fast for the past seven years, or Iran with its arsenal of 200,000 missiles, along with Hezbollah and its 100,000-strong rocket arsenal?
Moreover, can Netanyahu name a single war in which his army emerged victorious in Lebanon? Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation ended in an ignominious unilateral withdrawal in 2000, as did its 2006 assault on the country.
It is not only sophisticated weapons that decide the outcomes of wars, but also the strength of the combatants’ convictions, their willingness to fight until martyrdom, and the capability of their commanders to manage the battles effectively – qualities that Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and their allies have proven to possess in abundance.