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    Middle East
     Jul 25, 2012

Israel stirs on the eve of Middle East war
By Victor Kotsev

Perhaps the most ominous words uttered in recent months by Ehud Barak, the influential Israeli defense minister, came in the form of a paradoxical reassurance. "I believe and hope that there will be no war this summer, but that is all that can be said at this time," he said in a televised interview on Friday.

Conventional wisdom has it that the louder the Israeli threats of war, the less likely that a war is imminent - and, in certain situations such as the present one, vice versa. Earlier this year, threats were flying - Barak was talking about the Iranian nuclear program entering an "immunity zone" by the end of the summer - but more recently this has changed dramatically. As Reuters observed two months ago, Israeli officials have gone into an


ominous "lock down." [1] Now comes Barak's statement.

The million-dollar question is, which war. From a narrow Israeli perspective, war may in fact be avoidable and all the threats - Barak is certainly aware of the ripple effect of his words - could be primarily defensive in nature. With the entire region in flux and its home front underprepared (only 53% of Israelis, for example, are equipped with gas masks), Israel might ideally prefer to save its shots.

From a broader regional perspective, the civil war in Syria is already a fact, and it looks as if the violence, both there and elsewhere, can only explode further. At some point in the near future, somebody will likely feel compelled to intervene, if not against the Iranian nuclear program, then against the Syrian chemical and biological weapons, if not through a full-scale attack then by a "surgical strike". If not Israel, this would most likely be the United States, though other regional players also stand ready to weigh in. In many ways, it's a war of nerves as much as it is a diplomatic bazaar, and it is hard to tell who will blink first and what deals will be struck.

Barak's words come at a particularly sensitive time, when the Israeli army is on high alert near the northern border and the Israeli leadership is reportedly preparing for a spillover of violence from the Syrian conflict. One scenario that is particularly worrisome and has attracted a lot of attention is that, as the Syrian regime collapses, some of its missiles tipped with chemical weapons could fall into the hands of either Sunni Muslim extremists or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This danger, of course, could be used for propaganda purposes, in order to justify a pre-emptive strike on Syria backed by the US and other Western powers; this is a tempting hypothesis, but it carries significant hidden risks and costs. Most importantly, any Israeli intervention, save perhaps for a very brief and pointed strike, could rally popular support behind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and thus backfire spectacularly. Other Arab states might face public pressure to shift their stance as well, and the coalition against Assad may come under strain. (During the First Persian Gulf War, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sought to exploit this dynamic by firing Scud missiles at Israel.)

Also, Syria's response to an Israeli incursion could escalate much more quickly and to much more gruesome levels than that against other aggressors. As the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman put it on Monday, "These [chemical and biological] weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression." [2] It should be noted that the Syrian regime is almost as unlikely to use weapons of mass destruction against another Muslim country as it is against its own population, which leaves Israel the main target of its current threats.

It is true that, among the regional countries, Israel is best equipped to deliver a blow to Syria - after all, it successfully deceived the Syrian air defenses in 2007, when it bombed an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor. By contrast, the other regional heavy weight, Turkey, lost a plane on a reconnaissance mission near the Syrian border this year.

It is also widely believed that among all Israeli politicians, Barak, in particular, is itching for action, and it is possible that some American officials would rather see him engaged in Syria than in Iran, particularly prior to the US presidential elections in November. It is easy to imagine, however, an outcome in which the negative consequences of such action far outweigh the positive ones.

Surprises are possible, and Saudi Arabia is one corner from which we can expect them. Recently, the kingdom made a remarkable choice of a new spy chief, in the face of the "peasant-prince" Bandar bin Sultan. He is a familiar personality in international diplomatic circles, having served for over two decades as the Saudi ambassador in Washington, but for a number of years he had been sidelined. John Hannah, writing for Foreign Policy Magazine, discussed his return to diplomacy last year, [3] and now, it seems, he has re-assumed his spot at the center of the action.

The prince's exploits are legendary - in the 1980s, for example, he reportedly arranged the delivery of Chinese medium-range missiles to Saudi Arabia under the nose of the US administration, sparking a diplomatic crisis. His resourcefulness is likely being put to use in Syria.

As a Saudi analyst told Reuters on Friday, "Bandar is quite aggressive, not at all like a typical cautious Saudi diplomat. If the aim is to bring [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] down quick and fast, he will have a free hand to do what he thinks necessary. He likes to receive an order and implement it as he sees fit." [4]

Yet, while coordinating a surprise move with the Israeli "enemy" may well be within Bandar bin Sultan's (and Saudi Arabia's) repertoire, it is hard to imagine that the Saudis would be comfortable with an Israeli intervention in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. In fact, Prince Bandar is known as a hawk on Israel, and his earlier diplomatic downfall is rumored to have been caused in part by his aggressive support for the Palestinians during the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising).

A damning 2002 quote, which is widely attributed to him and slams the US policy of supporting the Jewish State, goes:
It is a mistake to think that our people will not do what is necessary to survive, and if that means we move to the right of [late al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden, so be it; to the left of [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi, so be it; or fly to Baghdad and embrace Saddam like a brother, so be it. It's damned lonely in our part of the world, and we can no longer defend our relationship to our people.
Syria, similarly to the Palestinian territories, might be unpalatable for the Saudis as a target for an Israeli intervention, but Shi'ite Iran is a different matter altogether. In fact, for several years now credible rumors have circulated about the alleged Saudi-Israeli cooperation against the Iranian nuclear program, even claiming that Saudi Arabia has offered its air space as an attack route to the Israelis.

As a side note, this year the Iranians chose to start the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on a different date than Saudi Arabia, in a fresh affront to Riyadh.

For Israel, too, Iran is a much more urgent target than Syria (the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah also likely ranks higher than Syria, though not as high as Iran). In fact, since the start of the unrest in their northern neighbor the Israelis have generally preferred as much stability in their immediate neighborhood as possible, and have been skeptical about the Syrian rebels' ability to guarantee that. In the Iranian nuclear program, on the other hand, they see an urgent threat accompanied by the long-term danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Right now, Israel seems content to wait as tensions in the Persian Gulf rise by the day, both in order to increase international pressure on Iran and in hopes that the US might get drawn into the fray. Most recently, over half of the Iranian parliament reportedly backed a bill calling on the military to block the Strait of Hormuz. This is a red line for the US, yet the move is mostly symbolic, since final authority over the matter rests with the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

At the same time, however, an aide to Khamenei reportedly threatened that Iran would increase uranium enrichment levels to over 50% fissile material in response to the international pressure, while a computer virus that is attributed to the Islamic Republic has been making rounds in the Middle East. The code, dubbed "Mahdi," is believed to be Iran's response to cyber warfare waged against it by the West, and has reportedly infected a number of computers in Israel and other countries. [5]

Finally, both Israel and the US pointed a finger at Iran for the terror attack which claimed five Israeli lives in Bulgaria last week, as well as for a similar plot foiled in Cyprus earlier this month. Both are doing their best to sell their narrative to the international community, and to prepare world public opinion for hostilities.

The main difference is in their time frames, and a long string of top American visitors in Jerusalem (Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in the last couple of weeks) is widely interpreted as an ongoing American campaign to restrain Israel for another few months. The Israelis, however, are growing increasingly restless, as are the Saudis. Barring substantial progress against Iran and its allies soon, the Americans might not get their wishes.

Some analysts have speculated that an American-led campaign in Syria might postpone an Israeli strike on Iran, not least because the Assad regime is a key element of Iran's influence on the Levant. [6] However, in order for this strategy to work (assuming it would), the Americans would need to assume responsibility for Syria themselves.

This is where the bargaining gets really tricky. Both the Israelis and the Americans would prefer to do as little of the heavy lifting themselves, and to reap as many of the benefits as possible. Each country has a different calculus of its goals and capabilities, and each may find itself compelled to act under different circumstances. Needless to say, the actions of each influence the other.

On the Israeli side, domestic political considerations also weigh in. Last week, the largest party in the Israeli Knesset (parliament), Kadima, left the coalition, which it had joined barely two months ago. While this was due to a domestic intrigue, it will most likely lead to elections early next year, and will put pressure on Barak and his ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to deliver on their promises to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Moreover, the exit from the top decision-making panel of Kadima's head, Shaul Mofaz, can be seen as conducive to rash military action. Mofaz, a Persian Jew born in Iran and a former chief of staff of the Israeli army, was widely perceived as a moderating influence when it comes to Iran.

Overall, it is hard not to agree with the acclaimed economist Nouriel Roubini, who predicted earlier this month that a "perfect [economic] storm scenario" was "unfolding," in part due to the high likelihood of large-scale violence in the Middle East. While it is not yet completely clear who the main actors would be - and whether Israel would be directly involved - the likelihood that the various diplomatic negotiations will succeed grows slimmer with each day that passes. Conversely, the danger of a regional war increases.

1. Iran attack decision nears, Israeli elite locks down, Reuters, May 17, 2012
2. Syria says could use chemical arms against foreign intervention, Reuters, July 23, 2012
3. Bandar's return, Foreign Policy, April 22, 2011
4. Saudi Prince Bandar: a flamboyant, hawkish spy chief, Reuters, July 20, 2012
5. 'Mahdi' virus stole data on national infrastructure, Jerusalem Post, July 19, 2012
6. The Real Reason to Intervene in Syria, Foreign Policy, June 4, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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