Syria should be Israel’s target

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

‘WE ARE walking with open eyes into our next war.”

The pessimism of a senior Israeli official who made that comment on Aug. 13 was striking because he had just finished telling a group of security analysts brought to Israel by the American Jewish Committee that the United Nations-brokered cease-fire had achieved many of Israel’s goals. But he had no illusions that this would represent anything more than a temporary halt in the fight between Israel and the Quartet of Evil seeking to dominate the Middle East -- Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The war wasn’t a total loss for Israel. But it was far from a victory. Hezbollah lost more than 500 fighters as well as most of its medium- and long-range missiles and its bunker network in southern Lebanon, while inflicting scant damage on Israel. Israeli intelligence analysts are convinced that Tehran isn’t happy about this turn of events because it was holding Hezbollah’s rockets in reserve for a possible retaliatory strike if Israel or the U.S. hit Iran’s nuclear weapons complex.

But rockets are easily replaced, and Iran and Syria will now undertake a massive effort to make good Hezbollah’s losses, and then some.


From the perspective of the Quartet of Evil, this conflict demonstrated the power of their rockets to blunt Israel’s military superiority. Antitank missiles inflicted substantial losses on Israeli armor and infantry. A cruise missile badly damaged an Israeli warship that didn’t have its defensive systems turned on. And Hezbollah was able to keep firing hundreds of Katyusha rockets a day into northern Israeli right up until the cease-fire.

Israel had managed to defeat the terrorists’ previous wonder-weapon, the suicide bomber, by walling off the Gaza Strip and West Bank. But a fence won’t stop missiles. Israel will now be loath to retreat any further from the West Bank. Hamas, for its part, will have strong incentive to stockpile rockets in its Gaza redoubt and launch a “third intifada,” as suggested by a columnist in the Hamas newspaper Al Risala.

Israel had hoped that this conflict would reestablish its deterrence, but, if anything, the unsatisfactory outcome will only embolden its enemies. The problem is that wars of attrition against fanatical jihadists who do not fear death and who hide among civilians negate to some extent the Israeli Defense Forces’ superior firepower. Additionally, Iran, the ultimate source of terrorist money and arms, is too far away for effective Israeli retaliation.

Syria, however, is a weak link in the quartet.

Syria’s importance as an advance base for Iran -- the two countries concluded a formal alliance on June 16 -- cannot be exaggerated. It is the go-between for most of the munitions flowing to Hezbollah. It is the sanctuary of Hamas honcho Khaled Meshaal. It is also, according to Israeli intelligence sources, the home of a new Iranian-Syrian intelligence center that tracks Israeli military movements and relays that information to terrorist proxies.

State Department optimists dream that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad can be weaned from Iran through concessions from the United States and Israel, such as the return of the Golan Heights. But since the early 1990s, the United States has tried repeatedly to strike a deal with Syria and never gotten anywhere. More economic pressure, especially from Europe, would be helpful, but it could probably be offset by increased subsidies from Iran.

History suggests that only force, or the threat of force, can win substantial concessions from Syria. In 1998, Turkey threatened military action unless Syria stopped supporting Kurdish terrorists. Damascus promptly complied. Israel may have no choice but to follow the Turkish example.

Indeed, Shlomo Avineri, a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, argues that his country fought the wrong war: Instead of targeting Lebanon, it should have gone after Syria. The Syrian armed forces are less motivated than Hezbollah, and they offer many more targets for Israeli airpower.

It is, of course, hard for a liberal democracy such as Israel to contemplate war if it hasn’t been attacked directly -- and Syria has been careful to avoid direct attacks on Israel. (It prefers to fight to the last Lebanese.) Israelis naturally prefer peace. But the choice they face isn’t between war and peace. It is between war sooner and on their own terms, or war later and on the enemy’s terms. Ignoring the threat and hoping that it goes away isn’t a serious option. That’s the mistake Israel made with Hezbollah over the last six years.