The bellicose statements issued by senior defense officials regarding Syria in the last three days are not accidental. This time, it seems, it is not a case of too many public appearances by the defense minister and army chiefs, whose rhetoric is ratcheted up a notch by sheer force of accumulation. The statements made by Moshe Ya’alon, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Air Force Commander Amir Eshel were an intentional public diplomacy offensive aimed to forestall a war from breaking out due to Bashar Assad’s mistaken reading of the situation.
The gist of the message is: “Don’t push us. Acts such as ramping up tensions along the Golan Heights border fence, transferring advanced weaponry to Hezbollah or transferring chemical weapons into foreign hands will all be met with a quick and aggressive Israeli response which will deal a serious blow, perhaps a fatal one, to you and the Alawite regime.
In order to lend validity to the warnings, all three officials chose to highlight IDF’s readiness to issue such a response, at a short notice and on a full scale once the need arises.
Moreover, Israel understands it stands to sustain heavy damage in an all-out war with Syria, but nevertheless it will not be deterred from full-scale aggressive action, as it is not willing to be drawn into a lengthy war of attrition in which the civilian home front will be hit with tens of thousands rockets and missiles. The Israeli public, too, was also given a general warning to the effect that the current instability could escalate into a full-scale war, an event for which it should brace itself physically and mentally.
The immediate cause for the warnings by the security trio is the feeling that Assad is not reading the situation correctly and is bound to make critical mistakes in assessing Israel’s intentions. Western intelligence sources say members of Assad’s near coterie keep him in the dark on what is really going on in his country, making him believe he possesses greater freedom of action and staying power than he actually does. As a result, Assad has gained confidence and is willing to push the envelope with Israel further than ever before.
Assad, intelligence sources say, tends to heed the advice of a few of his senior officials, as well as that of Iran and Hezbollah. All those tell him he has nothing to lose by provoking Israel and responding with full force to any future action in Syria. According to them, Israel is already working toward overthrowing the regime and helping the rebels seize power, and will continue to do so.
Why did Israel step down from the fence it was perched upon and decided to intervene in the civil war? Because the US demanded it do so. Barak Obama cannot operate in Syria for reasons of domestic politicy, thus he unleashed the Israeli attack dog on Assad. Israel, in turn, will reap its dividends in the Iranian context.
Therefore, Assad’s advisors hold the solution lies in creating a double counter in order to deter Israel: the threats to the Israeli residents of the Golan Heights, and of missiles and rockets landing deep in the Israeli home front respectively. To this the Russians add a threat of their own: a shipment of new weapon systems to Syria.
Israel sees all this, which is why it chose to issue the public, direct and detailed message that might reach Assad without the middle men. The current situation in Syria renders the old-fashioned secret diplomacy impossible. There is simply no reliable Western diplomatic presence in Damascus today.
The Russians represented the only viable option to communicate a message to Assad – indeed, Netanyahu rushing to meet with President Vladimir Putin earlier this month would suggest as much. However, the inability of Russian diplomats to transfer a message without coating it in thick layers of self-serving spin is well known in diplomatic circles.
What is, then, Russia’s vested interest? Exaggerating the threat looming upon its trade partner in order to increase its dependence on Russia’s shipments of weaponry and diplomatic patronage. It was thus during the Cold War with Assad senior, and it is the case with his son today. Thus Russia is anything but a reliable messenger.
Israeli leadership is likely of this opinion too, as a “senior Israeli official” telephoned the New York Times’ chief political correspondent telling him with an emphatic directness Israel has no intentions of attacking Syria; yet should Syria continue transferring advanced munitions to Hezbollah, Israel would try to prevent it. The correspondent told Channel 10 News the official (most probably Israel’s ambassador to the US) spoke to Netanyahu before speaking to him.
A conclusion suggests itself that one of the most important messages the Israeli prime minister relayed to Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Sochi, and which he hoped would reach Damascus, was not transmitted. Or rather it was, but it reached its addressees gravely distorted. In those circumstances Israel had no choice but to ditch traditional diplomacy in favor of the public variety. At least this way it can be sure the Damascus Butcher hears the message from Jerusalem clearly and with no additional layers of interpretation place upon it.