This is the summary of a briefing for journalists given by BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow Brig. Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog on Monday 23 July. It develops themes discussed in his recent policy paper, ‘Syria: How to advance transition to a post-Assad future’, published by BICOM earlier this month.
- The balance in Syria is tipping towards the insurgents but the conflict could continue in an increasingly sectarian form for some time, possibly many months, even if Assad is removed.
- Israel is preparing to act if it appears that strategic weapons, including chemical weapons and long-range missiles, are reaching Hezbollah, but would have to calculate very carefully before doing so.
- There is more the West can do to support the opposition. This would help prevent undesirable elements coming to the fore and overcome an impression in Syria that the West is not helping to get rid of Assad. It is important that when Assad is gone, Syrians believe that the West helped bring about this outcome.
- The fatal bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria is part of an ongoing shadow war between Iran and Hezbollah on the one hand and Israel on the other. Israeli intelligence prevented many previous attempted attacks over the last few years, but Hezbollah’s persistence paid off, and Israel will now have to decide how to respond.
Syrian insurgents gaining but conflict far from over
- Over the last few days the balance has been gradually tipping in favour of the insurgents and against the Assad regime. For the first time there is major fighting in the two most important cities of Damascus and Aleppo, as well as rebels taking over some positions on the borders with Iraq and Turkey. This follows a major blow to the regime with the assassination of key regime figures last week.
- Having lost control of significant parts of Syria, the regime is focussing on regaining control of Damascus and Aleppo, using the Fourth Armoured Division under the command of Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher.
- The civil war could continue for months, developing along sectarian lines. The defectors from the military are almost exclusively Sunni, whilst the mostly Alawite Fourth Armoured Division is still coherent.
- The longer the conflict continues the harder it will be to control the situation and stop a civil war, even if Assad is assassinated, deposed or decides to flee. He is currently still in Damascus and shows no sign of being ready to leave voluntarily.
Chemical weapons and missiles reaching Hezbollah is Israel’s chief concern
- There is huge concern about Syria’s substantial chemical stockpile on the part of Israel, the US, Europe and among other neighbours of Syria. Policy-makers are preparing contingency plans for several scenarios.
- One possibility is that the regime will use chemical weapons against civilians. Though Syrian officials say they will only use these weapons against external forces, one cannot rule out that they may resort to these weapons if the regime is about to fall.
- Another scenario is that the regime will lose control of these stockpiles and they will fall into the hands of insurgents or armed extremists. The biggest threat is that Hezbollah, which has activists in Syria, will acquire them. Israel is not just concerned about chemical weapons reaching Hezbollah, but other strategic weapons including long-range SCUD ground-to-ground missiles and advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Israel refers to such weapons as ‘tie breakers’, which could tip the balance of power between Hezbollah and Israel. There is a legacy for such a development, as Syria transferred SCUD missiles on Syrian soil to Hezbollah control in the last few years.
- Moving large quantities of chemical weapons undetected would be a challenge for Hezbollah, requiring technical expertise and running the risk of encountering insurgents or being spotted by Israel. However, the possibility that they will try cannot be ruled out, and needs to be prepared for.
- As Israeli ministers have said publicly this week, Israel is considering direct intervention if this happens. They will have to calculate very carefully when and how to act. Israel does not want to get drawn in to the Syrian conflict, and would also face operational challenges in destroying the threatening material.
- The military options are either to bomb from the air or send ground troops. The ground troops options would require thousands of troops and would be very difficult, especially for Israel. The viability and success of the aerial bombing option would require very high levels of intelligence. The military planners would need to know the exact location of targets and that the threat of chemical fallout could be averted. An alternative option is not to destroy the weapons but prevent access to them by destroying access points.
- A further scenario that Israel’s security establishment is considering is that the Assad regime will take action against Israel as a last ditch strike before they fall, in a ‘Samson-like’ act. Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak recently spoke about this threat publicly, and this possibility cannot be ruled out. Currently, however, it is not in Assad’s interests. Even though there may be a political interest to draw Israel in, it would be to Assad’s military disadvantage to engage Israel right now.
Western support for the opposition is growing but not enough
- The US are considering sending more personnel to the border areas around Syria and bolstering opposition elements with intelligence, communications gear and other types of non-lethal equipment. However, the US and Europeans should be more proactive in support for the opposition. By being selective about whom to support they could help to stop undesirable elements coming to the fore.
- It is important that when Assad is gone, Syrians believe that the West helped bring about this outcome. This is not the perception of the Syrian opposition currently.
Common interests create an opportunity to thaw Israel-Turkey relations
- There needs to be new creative thinking on how to do bring about reconciliation between Israel and Turkey, and there is a clear common interest in seeing a unified Syria without Assad. Whilst there is no prospect of returning to the strategic alliance of the past, there is a degree of will in Jerusalem and Ankara to mend some fences and at least move towards normalising relations. There are contacts behind the scenes but so far they have borne no fruit.
Bulgaria bombing part of Iran and Hezbollah’s shadow war with Israel
- The fatal attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last week was part of an ongoing shadow war in which Iran and Hezbollah are both motivated to act against Israel. Hezbollah would like to avenge the death of Imad Mughniya, their military commander whose assassination in 2008 they blame on Israel. Iran holds Israel responsible for the assassination of its nuclear scientists.
- Over the last few years Hezbollah have tried on around 20 previous occasions to launch ‘revenge’ attacks against Israeli targets across the globe. Until now, all these attempts were thwarted, which was a major success for Israeli intelligence. However, through persistence, Hezbollah eventually succeeded.
- This now poses a dilemma for Israel about how to respond. Israel does not want to act in a way that encourages Hezbollah to try more attacks, and create a slippery slope. Israeli policy-makers, therefore, will currently be weighing a difficult set of options on the question of what to do.