By YAAKOV KATZ
Security and Defense: In event of foreign military intervention in Syria, IDF is concerned Syrian president might decide to attack the Jewish state.
Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
President Barack Obama made this statement on March 28 in an address to the National Defense University, during which he explained America’s rationale for approving a military campaign to stop Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s violent crackdown on protesters.
The war in Libya is almost three months old and seems to be continuing, but one question that remains unanswered is why the above policy of not turning a blind eye to atrocities doesn’t apply to other countries in the Middle East – like Syria, for example.
By Thursday, the death toll in Syria was believed to have already reached over 1,500 people, but the international community, led by the US, could not even find itself in agreement over the language of a resolution censuring Syria that some countries in Europe wanted to push through the Security Council.
So why the difference? In a word: Israel.
Israel does not share a border with Libya, but it does share one with Syria, and there are fears in the IDF that in the event of foreign military intervention there, Israel would feel the brunt of Bashar Assad’s retaliation.
While Assad is already believed to be trying to divert attention from his lethal crackdown on protesters by encouraging Palestinians to raid the Israeli border, as occurred this past Sunday, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what Syria can do.
One intelligence assessment speaks of the possibility that, under extreme pressure – caused politically or militarily – Assad might decide to attack Israel with more than just angry Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.
Instead, he would have available the thousands of ballistic missiles Syria has manufactured over the years, as well as an extensive chemical arsenal, bolstered as a replacement for the nuclear reactor Israel destroyed in 2007.
For this reason, Jerusalem is quietly warning about the potential consequences of Western military action aimed at toppling Assad. This does not mean, of course, that Israel wants Assad to remain in power; in reality, the opposite is true. But the concern cannot be ignored; what will happen the day after Assad falls, and into whose hands will the ballistic missiles and chemical weapons fall?
At the same time, senior IDF officers believe that there is no turning back for Assad and that after killing some 1,500 of his own people, he will not be able to rule again as he once did. What this means practically is still unclear, but the hope is that it will ultimately lead to a larger break in the Iranian axis that connects Tehran, Damascus and Beirut, and will further isolate Iran and cut off supplies to Hezbollah.
Syria’s close allies – Hezbollah and Iran – are also extremely concerned with the ongoing demonstrations in Syria and the potential impact on them.
Western intelligence agencies have raised the possibility that Hezbollah is trying to transfer advanced weaponry it reportedly maintains on Syrian soil to Lebanon due to the ongoing turmoil in the country.
The group is believed to have stored advanced arms in Syria – including longrange Scud missiles- as part of its logistical deployment along Israel’s northern border.
Iran is also not waiting for Assad, and just this week – in the midst of the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East – announced that it was implementing plans to triple its production of uranium. It also said that the secret nuclear facility it was caught covertly building near the city of Qom in 2009 would no longer remain empty and would be equipped with advanced centrifuges for the enrichment of higher-grade uranium.
The Iranian announcement came just two days after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano said the nuclear watchdog had obtained information that “seems to point to the existence” of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.
Amano’s announcement came just a few weeks after the IAEA released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program, pointing to a significant increase in the enrichment of uranium – up from 133 kilograms per month to 156 kg. – with a total of just over 4 tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU), enough for at least two nuclear weapons if enriched again to higher military-grade levels.
While Iran is still encountering some technological difficulties, overall it seems to have overcome the setback caused last year by Stuxnet, the virus that attacked its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and is believed to have destroyed over 1,000 centrifuges.
In simpler terms, Iran is taking advantage of the current shift in the world’s focus from its illicit nuclear activities to the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East, and is moving forward with enriching uranium. The decision on Tuesday to send submarines to the Red Sea is another indication of Iran’s growing confidence and its belief that it will not pay a price for any of these provocations.
There are a number of reasons for the confidence. While the current sanctions in place against Iran have had some effect, they are overshadowed and undermined by the increase in the price of oil. In addition, while other tyrants in the Middle East are battling for survival, in Iran the protests have waned and almost disappeared.
According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Iran wants to wait until it has enough fissionable material to produce an arsenal of nuclear weapons, which means it will need several more tons of low-enriched uranium. From the stage when it decides to break out and begin enriching uranium at military levels, until the point that it has a testable nuclear device, it will likely be a year.
Iran’s confidence also appears to have received a boost from the recent media mayhem in Israel over former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s comments about Jerusalem’s military option vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear issue. Dagan said it was a “stupid idea” to attack Iran, and pointed out the “impossible” regional challenge Israel would face following such an attack.
For Tehran, these comments fell on welcoming ears. For years, the Iranians have questioned Israel’s military capabilities. Now here comes Dagan – their archnemesis – and gives them a reason to. Dagan’s justification for doing this – his concern with Israel’s current political leadership – might be genuine, even though it was done with the awareness that it would eat away at the deterrence Jerusalem has tried for years to create in the face of the Iranian threat.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon has long spoken about the importance of creating a “credible military option” for Iran’s nuclear program. According to Ya’alon, it is not enough to speak about the option; it is also necessary to show the Iranians that it is real, viable and effective.
“They need to fear that the military option is real and can be used,” Ya’alon has said in the past.
To back up this argument, Ya’alon has referred to Tehran’s 2003 decision to suspend its enrichment of uranium and weapons program. That move was based on fear that after the US invasion of Iraq, it was next in line. President George W. Bush had already listed Iran has part of the “Axis of Evil” mentioned in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Judging by its recent decisions, Iran no longer feels threatened. As it continues to provoke the world without paying a price, there is unfortunately no reason it should.