On May 1, 2013, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In his comments to cadets, he described in general terms Israel’s position on various Middle Eastern policy issues. He emphasized Israel’s desire to continue promoting the conciliation process with its neighbors and the Palestinians. When asked about Israel’s position regarding Syria’s unconventional weapons, the ambassador stated that Israel would not allow a situation in which forces hostile to Israel took possession of these weapons. The short, but clear answer provided a glimpse into the major factors that have shaped Israel’s approach to Syria in the last few decades as well as during the current crisis. It also reflected Israel’s concerns with the growing strength of existing sub-state entities like Lebanese Hizb Allah and newer entities such as the al-Qa`ida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

These developments raise a series of interesting questions. Why did Israel tolerate the Syrian government’s possession of chemical weapons given its hostility to Israel, but is willing to use extreme measures to prevent sub-state groups from taking possession of those same weapons? Is there a strategic rationale behind the recent Israeli military strikes in Syria? Why does it appear that the Israeli leadership is ambivalent about the potential end-state of the ongoing civil war in Syria?

To answer these questions, this article introduces the major foundations of Israel’s security doctrine and its relevancy to the civil war in Syria, and it analyzes Israel’s actions and policies in response to the Syrian crisis. It finds that the crisis in Syria represents a “lose-lose” outcome for Israel as it serves as a breeding ground for new emerging threats and provides growing opportunities for existing hostile actors.

Israel’s National Security Doctrine    
Israel’s national security doctrine was mainly developed by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who together with a small number of military and political leaders established its main principles as early as the 1950s. Most of these principles are still accepted today within the Israeli political and security realms and include: 1) the presumption that Israel faces a continuous existential threat, which demands an active security approach; b) the extreme imbalance between Israel and its neighbors in terms of population compels Israel to construct its army as a militia-style force, where almost the entire relevant population can be enlisted in case of a crisis (via reserve units), while in times of peace the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), based on compulsory service, sustain most of the security burden; c) the use of reserve forces may impact the small Israeli economy severely, thus Israel must aspire to achieve quick and decisive results in its military campaigns; d) decisive victories are required to deter Israel’s enemies, and deterrence is essential for a country without real strategic depth; e) Israel’s lack of strategic depth means that combat must take place on enemy territory.[1]

The final component of Israel’s doctrine has led not just to an emphasis on the importance of early warning, but also Israel’s preference to attack first, even at the cost of directly violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries and accusations of unprovoked aggression. Most aspects of this doctrine are clearly evident in the current Syrian crisis.

Syria: An Existential Threat?
Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, Israel’s conventional military superiority has become increasingly apparent. During this period, a growing number of non-Israeli sources also indicated that Israel was able to develop a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons.[2] The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s (at that time the most important sponsor of Israel’s main rivals in the region) further solidified the asymmetry between Israel and its neighboring countries. Considering these changes in the security environment and the declining probability of conventional wars, the Israeli security establishment started to pay closer attention to the efforts of some Arab countries to compensate their disadvantage in terms of conventional and unconventional power by developing unconventional weapons programs. The Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility near Baghdad in June 1981 was a first sign of Israel’s determination to address actively these new developments.[3] Ongoing Israeli efforts against the Iranian nuclear program are another example. Thus, the superiority of Israel’s conventional power has not led to abandoning the idea that Israel is under existential threat. Rather, the Israeli security establishment gradually modified the concept to prevent neighboring countries from developing unconventional weapons systems.

While the most acute concern for Israel is still Iran, Syria was always a close second with its ongoing investment in, and development of, a ballistic missiles program to achieve what former Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad termed “strategic parity” with Israel.[4] In the early 1980s, Syria was successful in acquiring Scud-C missiles (with an operational range of 320-370 miles) from North Korea as well as the Soviet Union.[5] Later that decade, these were supplemented with the more advanced Soviet OTR-21 (120-mile range) and OTR-23 (310-mile range) missiles.[6] An important step for the Syrian program was the construction of the first two Syrian missile complexes in Aleppo and Hama in the 1990s, as well as the recent development of its Scud-D program, using technologies provided from North Korea, Iran and possibly Russia.[7]

While expanding its arsenal of ballistic missiles, Syria also stepped up its chemical weapons production. According to Israeli sources, Syria experimented with an indigenous chemical production capability already in the early 1970s (mainly at the Scientific Studies and Research Center, a facility near Damascus).[8] Nonetheless, a more systematic production of nerve agents likely began in the 1980s, including the installation of a chemical warhead-fitting in the Aleppo complex.[9] By the early 1990s, both the international news media and statements by U.S. officials indicated that Syria had converted several agrochemical factories into sarin gas production facilities in places such as Homs, Latakia and Palmyra.[10] Today, it is believed that Syria holds one of the largest arsenals of chemical weapons, while experimenting with various chemical substances, including mustard gas, sarin gas and the more toxic (nerve gas) V series.[11]

The Israeli Response
Until recently, Israel showed limited interest in actively countering Syria’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. To begin with, the Syrian focus on chemical weapons, which, despite their potential for causing mass fatalities are not comparable to the potential harm from nuclear weapons, contributed to a more patient approach by Israel, especially since for many years it was unclear how much progress the Syrian regime really made in fitting chemical agents to ballistic warheads. Second, the vast Israeli investment in defensive measures during the first Gulf War (e.g., equipping the entire population with gas masks and the formation of the IDF’s Home Front Command) provided more leverage in responding to this threat and may have contributed to the limited public demand to act against Syria’s efforts to develop chemical weapons. Third, the proximity between the countries, combined with Israel’s military superiority, enabled in the eyes of Israeli policymakers effective deterrence that lowered significantly the chances of Syria using these weapons against Israel. Finally, the significant progress in the conciliation process between Israel and other Arab entities (Egypt, Jordan, the Oslo Accords) during the 1990s and 2000s, including several phases of negotiations between Israel and Syria, did not facilitate a sense of urgency regarding Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Several developments, however, led to changes in the status quo and eventually to a more aggressive approach by Israel. The first was the decision of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2001 to utilize his close relations with North Korea to construct a nuclear facility in northeastern Syria.[12] The Israeli establishment was shocked when Mossad agents copied the hard disk of a member of the Syrian atomic committee and discovered evidence of a Syrian nuclear facility in mid-2007.[13] For Israel, Syria’s shift into the nuclear realm signaled a severe escalation. Similar to the case of Iraq in 1981, and today with Iran, Israel’s military and political class were united in their opposition to a hostile polity acquiring nuclear capabilities. When on July 13, 2007, President George W. Bush reportedly informed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the United States would not use military force to eliminate the facility, Israel decided to act alone.[14] It is important to note that the decision to bomb the Syrian reactor in September 2007 came despite the fact that there were significant concerns within the Israeli establishment about possible retaliation by Syria and the potential for the outbreak of war.[15] Yet the bombing of the Syrian facility may not have been the only Israeli response. On August 1, 2008, Syrian Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, one of al-Assad’s close associates and the figure allegedly responsible for managing the Syrian nuclear program, was shot dead at his chalet in the Rimal al-Zahabiya resort area nine miles north of the port city of Tartus.[16] While some sources indicate that his death was a result of an “inside job,” other sources are confident that snipers of the IDF’s elite “Shayetet 13” unit were responsible for his assassination.[17] While the repercussions of General Suleiman’s death are difficult to discern, if reports about his expertise and role in managing the facility are accurate, then his assassination likely made potential efforts to reconstruct the nuclear program more difficult.

The Israeli leadership confronted a new set of challenges with the outbreak of civil war in Syria that further pushed it to adopt a more aggressive approach. The first is the potential for Lebanese Hizb Allah and other actors to acquire advanced weapons systems from Syria, including surface-to-air missiles, ballistic missiles and chemical warheads. Israel maximized its intelligence and operational capabilities to ensure that WMDs would not spill over to hostile non-state actors. Although the picture is still unclear, since the beginning of the civil war in Syria Israel has attacked a shipment of surface-to-surface missiles traveling from Iran to Hizb Allah near al-Hamah on January 29, 2013,[18] a shipment of sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry (probably Iran’s Fateh-110) that was stationed in a warehouse at Damascus International Airport and was intended for Hizb Allah on May 3, 2013,[19] and Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center near Damascus on May 5, 2013, a facility possibly involved in the development of biological and chemical weapons.[20]

These attacks were not just intended to prevent militant actors from acquiring strategic weapons that could undermine Israel’s ability to maintain the status quo on the Lebanese and Syrian borders, but they also reflected Israel’s concerns about implementing its security doctrine. In other words, these new weapons would have allowed Hizb Allah (and potentially other actors) to speed up processes that started to take shape in the last two decades, including: a) the growing inability of Israel to prevent the war in Syria from spilling into the Israeli home front, a development that has severe implications on Israel’s ability to mobilize reserve units effectively in case of crises, as well as on the Israeli public’s resiliency; b) growing difficulties (as seen also during the 2006 war in Lebanon) to achieve a “decisive victory” in the traditional sense of the term of “eliminating” the military capabilities of the enemy; c) the latter impacts the ability to achieve effective deterrence, hence further narrowing military options in the future; d) these developments may lead to Israel’s inability to control the volume and expansion of future conflicts, increasing unpredictability, and thus the Israeli inclination to be even more vigilant and proactive in initiating preliminary attacks.

Israel is also concerned about the end state of the war in Syria. On the one hand, there is a risk that a militant Islamist regime will replace al-Assad’s government. In the eyes of the Israeli security establishment, the effectiveness of conventional deterrence against such a regime is in doubt, thus the chances of escalation and that regime’s usage of WMD is higher. Moreover, an “Islamic republic” in Syria may provide violent Salafist groups another platform to engage in militant activities against Israel (in addition to the Gaza Strip). These concerns are reflected in the IDF’s plans to form a new regional compulsory division that will be responsible for the protection of the Golan Heights from infiltration of hostile forces, as well as developing response mechanisms against artillery attacks on Israeli population centers in the region. On the other hand, a victory for al-Assad’s forces does not mean a return to the pre-war status quo. A weak al-Assad regime, highly dependent on Iran and Hizb Allah, will become a severe liability, further solidify an eastern front against Israel, and provide Hizb Allah more resources that eventually may lead to the resumption of violence in Lebanon.

For Israel, the crisis in Syria represents a “lose-lose” situation. Yet there are already low expectations that a more pragmatic regime will emerge following the current war. Moreover, Israel is highly concerned about the potential eruption of a war of attrition in the Golan Heights that will challenge Israel across three fronts—the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.

In all these arenas, Israel has limited capabilities to project its superior conventional capabilities and to implement the fundamental principles of its security doctrine. Therefore, it is not surprising that voices from Israel, while somewhat inconsistent regarding preferred outcomes of the war, are all indicating growing concern that as bad as the situation is now, it will likely only become worse.

Dr. Arie Perliger is the Class of 1977 Director of Terrorism Studies at the Combating Terrorism Center and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

[1] Arie Perliger, “Democracy in an Ongoing Conflict: The Politics of Defence in Israel,” in James Forest and Isaiah Wilson eds., Defence Politics: International and Comparative Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 293-307.

[2] David Stout, “Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal Vexed Nixon,” New York Times, November 29, 2007.

[3] David K. Shipler, “Israeli Jets Destroy Iraqi Atomic Reactor; Attack Condemned by U.S. and Arab Nations,” New York Times, June 9, 1981.

[4] Michael Eisenstadt, Arming for Peace: Syria’s Elusive Quest for Strategic Parity (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1992).

[5] See the “Missile” listing on the Syria country profile published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, available at www.nti.org/country-profiles/syria/delivery-systems.

[6] Magnus Normak et al., “Syria and WMD Incentives and Capabilities,” Swedish Defense Research Agency, June 2004, p. 69.

[7] Angelo M. Codevilla, “Missiles, Defense and Israel,” in Arieh Stav ed., The Threat of Ballistic Missiles in the Middle East (Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2004) p. 61.

[8] David Eshel, “Syria’s Chemical Weapons Proliferation Hydra,” Defense Update News Analysis, September 23, 2007. Israel bombed this facility in January and May 2013.

[9] Anthony H. Cordesman, “Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Overview,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2, 2008.

[10] “Special Weapons Facilities,” Global Security, undated, available at www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/syria/facility.htm.

[11] “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions for the Period 1 January to 30 June 2002,” U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2002, p. 4.

[12] True Faces, Channel 10, Israel, August 26, 2012.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. These comments were made by Elliott Abrams during the True Faces interview.

[15] David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, “Israel Struck Syrian Nuclear Project, Analysts Say,” New York Times, October 14, 2007.

[16] Nicholas Blanford, “The Mystery Behind a Syrian Murder,” Time Magazine, August 7, 2008.

[17] True Faces; “The Long Road to Syria,” Yedioth Ahronoth, August 26, 2010.

[18] Isabel Kershner and Michael R. Gordon. “Israeli Airstrike in Syria Targets Arms Convoy, U.S. Says,” New York Times, January 30, 2013.

[19] Liz Sly and Suzan Haidamous, “Israel Bombs Outskirts of Damascus for Second Time in Recent Days,” Washington Post, May 4, 2013.

[20] Dominic Evans and Oliver Holmes, “Israel Strikes Syria, Says Targeting Hezbollah Arms,” Reuters, May 5, 2013; Alexander Marquardt, “Israel Tries to Cool Tension With Syria After Missile Attacks,” ABC News, May 6, 2013. Israel also attacked the facility on January 30, 2013.

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