December 10, 1996
Approaching the end of 1996, the Middle East may well be on the verge of a major regional war. Numerous sources in the region report that the supreme leaders -- both civilians and military -- in most Arab states, as well as in Iran and Pakistan are convinced that the present vulnerability of Israel is so great that there is a unique opportunity to, at the very least, begin the process leading to the destruction of Israel. These circumstances are considered to be a historic window of opportunity the Muslim World should not miss. Therefore, these Muslim leaders have finalized numerous strategies and tactical alliances heretofore non-existent in the region.
Toward this end, several Arab states, as well as Iran and Pakistan, have been engaged in a frantic military build-up and active preparations in the last few months. Indeed, this crisis is escalating even as all key players continue to reassert their commitment to the US-inspired "Peace Process". However, the slide to war is the real and dominant dynamics in the Near East because it represents the reaction of the Muslim World to the challenges of modernization -- petrification exacerbated and aggravated by the post-Gulf Crisis regional dynamics, and particularly the intrusion policy of the Clinton Administration toward the Hub of Islam.
In late November 1996, Na'il Mukhaybar, one of the most authoritative Arab commentators on Middle East affairs observed: "The question is no longer: Will the expected and planned war between Israel and Syria ever break out? It is rather: When will the war break out?" This is not a minority opinion. It is also shared by senior officials in the Arab Middle East.
For example, in late October, a senior Jordanian diplomat warned that "Syria is preparing for a surprise military attack on Israel in the coming weeks." This assessment was based on high-level contacts between Damascus and Amman, especially between senior officers of both armies, in which the military situation in the region was discussed. In these meetings the Syrians asked for passive and indirect support from the Jordanian military -- for Jordan to hold maneuvers near Israeli border in order to compel IDF to divert forces and hold them there.
Many other Arab and Iranian officials share the same view. There is a commonly shared firm belief among the senior experts serving Middle Eastern governments that the political-strategic dynamics in the Middle East have already reached a deadlock that makes a dramatic breakout inevitable. The strong commitment to such a dramatic breakout among most senior leaders is the key to understanding the present dangers. These leaders see no alternative to a dramatic breakout possible only through cataclysmic violence. The mere revival of the ongoing processes -- be it the peace process on the Arabs' terms or even the return to a region-wide state of war -- will no longer suffice to meet the strategic challenges from Islamic revivalism. Hence, the slide toward the resumption of violence -- ranging from spectacular terrorism to an all-out war -- between the Arabs and Israel. This is a very prudent and reasonable assessment given the overall regional dynamics over the last few months, particularly if examined in the context of the strategic regional dynamics of the last couple of years. Essentially, in their entirety, the tactical and military developments of recent months reinforce and confirm the earlier strategic posturing. Therefore, these military activities can, and should, be perceived as implementation of earlier grand designs. And this complementary relationship between the strategic and tactical dynamics is the key to the alarmist approach to interpreting the unfolding events.
When analyzing these unfolding developments, it is highly significant to recall the emerging mega-trends in the region:
Thus, the mega-trends in the Middle East are pushing toward a crisis environment. A dramatic breakout from the deadlock is virtually inevitable. The latest developments in the military threat to Israel fit perfectly into this overall trend.
Specific military moves at the national-strategic level suggesting active preparations for a possible war in the near future began in the spring of 1996. These activities range from highly irregular and highly significant military exercises to political and international agreements.
Concerning the political-strategic situation in Damascus, the Syrian briefing is consistent in its emphasis on the immediacy of war, but seemingly self-contradictory on the sources of this war. On the one hand, the Syrian briefing states that "the Syrian leadership now believes that the military option to liberate the Golan from the Israeli Army is a legitimate Syrian option. It also believes that Syria has the right to resort to this option any time it deems appropriate." This assertion virtually confirms the Syrian intention to initiate hostilities in order to break the deadlock in the region.
However, the section dealing with the military assessment of Syrian Intelligence emphasizes the possibility of an Israeli attack on Syria. Damascus now believes that "the Israeli Army will launch an imminent large-scale military operation against the Syrian Forces stationed adjacent to the Golan, in addition to the Syrian Forces that were relocated in Lebanon near the eastern Syrian border with Lebanon that extends to the Golan Heights." Presumably, this will be an Israeli preemptive strike given the extent of the Syrian preparations.
The Syrian briefing leaves no doubt that even under these circumstances, Damascus will pursue its own assertive war aims, not just repel the Israeli aggression. The Syrian briefing states that "the Syrian President instructed the command of the Syrian Forces stationed near the Golan to immediately retaliate against any attack by the Israeli Army." Moreover, Assad ordered his forces to immediately launch a deep strategic strike and, toward this end, "the Syrian Army placed its SCUD missile systems at maximum alert should war break out with Israel." These SSMs, Damascus argues, "can hit any target inside Israel."
Tehran takes this commitment very seriously, and, in the first week of December, dispatched Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati for urgent high-level consultations. Velayati arrived in Damascus carrying yet another extremely important message from Hashemi-Rafsanjani for Assad. He then conducted extensive discussions with Assad and other senior officials on regional issues. According to the Iranian media, "the latest regional and international developments as well as further promotion of Tehran-Damascus ties were discussed in the meetings."
Velayati's discussions with Assad and his immediate aides went far beyond that, addressing Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the imminent and possibly inevitable war. Iranian sources highlighted the discussions with Assad in which Velayati "referred to foreign pressures and the Zionist plots and underlined the need to strengthen cooperation between Iran and Syria. The Syrian President stressed this cooperation will help establishment of peace and tranquility in the whole region." Both Damascus and Tehran agree that there is going to be a lot of violence -- ranging from terrorism to war -- on the road to regional peace.
Iranian sources report that "the Syrian President stressed the need to support the Islamic resistance in south Lebanon to confront the Zionist aggressions and to defend the Lebanese territory." Velayati and Assad also expressed support and commitment to ensuring Iraq's territorial integrity -- a precondition for Saddam Hussein's support. Velayati also reiterated the Iranian long-standing support for "the aspiration of the Palestinian nation and the Islamic resistance in their struggle against the Zionist regime." He called for "a united action by the Islamic states to foil conspiracies of enemies." Velayati assured Assad that "the Tehran-Damascus close cooperation will lead to establishment of regional peace and tranquility." Velayati returned to Tehran carrying a most important message from Assad to Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
Starting mid August, the Syrian Armed Forces have conducted a series of redeployments and maneuvers that have direct implications for their ability to launch an attack on Israel. The concurrent activities of both the Iraqi Armed Forces and PLO forces in Lebanon also contribute to the enhancement of the Arab military capabilities against Israel.
In the first phase, in late August, mechanized units deployed from Bhamdun and Dahr al-Baydar in central Lebanon to forward positions very close to the Israeli-held security zone. These Syrian forces deployed in such a way that any Israeli retaliation against terrorists in south Lebanon will inevitably kill Syrian soldiers, thus creating the "excuse" for further escalation. In addition, two of the three regiments of 14th Special Forces/Commando Division deployed from the Biqaa to forward positions on the Syrian Hermon overlooking the Israeli key early warning station on Mt.Hermon from the north and east.
In the second phase, completed in mid September, units of the 10th Mechanized Division deployed from the Beirut area along the Beirut-Damascus Highway all the way to the Biqaa, replacing the units that had deployed to the south. The third regiment of the 14th Special Forces/Commando Division deployed from Beirut to forward positions in south-eastern Lebanon, overlooking the Israeli Mt.Hermon from the west.
The deployment of the 14th Special Forces/Commando Division enables it to strike Israel's key early warning station on a moment notice, thus harming, if not paralyzing Israel's ability to detect a major surprise attack.
Units of the Syrian internal police replaced the Syrian troops in Beirut. Moreover, Syrian Air Defense units -- both mobile SAM batteries and AAA -- deployed to forward positions on the Beirut-Damascus Highway very close to the Lebanese border, but still on Syrian territory.
In late September, the Syrian forces were in a position to instigate a provocation of strategic dimensions. Syrian forces deployed behind a thin layer of Lebanese Army units around the SLA-held Jezzine salient. Additional Lebanese Army forces, totaling three brigades, deployed along the Israeli- and SLA-held security zone in front of the Syrian forces. The Syrian operational plan calls for an assault, by the Lebanese Army with "support" from the Syrian Army, on Jezzine, and, should the need arise, also on sectors of the security zone. According to Lebanese sources, the Syrian High Command is convinced that Jezzine will fall within 12 hours, and a few segments in the security zone within 24 hours. Damascus knows that Israel will have to retaliate with massive ground forces, thus providing the "justification" for the Syrian launching of a major escalation and war.
Of unique importance within these military activities were the exercises involving SCUD SAMs. At the end of the summer exercises, a Syrian unit launched a SCUD-C under conditions of an offensive war. Since then, and particularly in the second half of October, Damascus began conducting "irregular movements" with its SCUD units. According to Lebanese and Syrian sources, these constant maneuvers are aimed to further complicate Israel's ability to neutralize the Syrian deep strike capabilities through a preemptive strike.
In late October, Syrian officials briefed their Lebanese counterparts that the Syrian Armed Forces were properly deployed and ready for a preemptive strike against Israel. "The Syrians are capable of preceding/preempting Netanyahu's strike by initiating the attack," reported Lebanese sources.
The nuclear factor has become a crucial element in any conflict in the Middle East. Iran has nuclear weapons, and so does Pakistan. The supreme leaders in Tehran are convinced that the numerous warheads purchased from the former Soviet Central Asia are operational. Irrespective of skeptic "expert opinion" in the West, they -- the decision-makers in Tehran -- operate on the basis of their own conviction that Iran has operational nuclear weapons. Moreover, there are indications of a Pakistani agreement, with Chinese consent, to "contribute" to the Muslim nuclear deterrence. And there is no doubt that Pakistan has operational nuclear weapons.
The Arabs have a well defined nuclear doctrine. Already in the late 1970s, the Syrians introduced the doctrinal tenet that since Israel cannot withstand even a few nuclear strikes while the Muslim World can prevail a massive nuclear attack of the magnitude attributed to Israel's capabilities, the nuclear factor is essentially irrelevant for as long as Arab leaders can hold their position in a strategic nuclear brinkmanship. While Tehran and Damascus are willing to gamble on such a brinkmanship, Jerusalem cannot afford to be wrong -- Israel will not survive as a viable country in the aftermath of a strike with the few tactical nuclear warheads Iran has. Therefore, the mere existence of a credible nuclear threat (on top of the known arsenals of chemical and biological weapons) in effect neutralizes Israel's "deterrence factor" at the very least for the strategically crucial initial period of war -- the time frame in which the Arab-Iranian forces manage their strategic grab, while the Israeli government agonizes over the decision how to react to the nuclear ultimatum and the sudden war. Moreover, Washington will be most reluctant to commit American forces and assets under conditions of possible exposure to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, particularly given the current Gulf Syndrome crisis. Hence, the Arabs and the Iranians can also deter an American cover for Israel.
The nuclear issue is not an theoretical academic or speculative issue. In the last days of November, Tehran "determined" that Israel already put its missiles on "atomic readiness". According to Iranian sources, Tehran did so in part on the basis of intelligence data (such satellite photographs and intercepts) acquired in Russia and Central Asia. On the basis of this "data" Tehran undertook the "appropriate countermeasures". And it is under this umbrella of nuclear uncertainty, that the Arab-Iranian non-nuclear war will be waged.
The Syrians and their allies have well defined contingency plans. The basic Syrian approach to a major war is based on the contingency plans prepared and exercised for the war that almost was in the Fall of 1992, while the plans for a strategic grab in a limited war are based on contingency plans prepared in 1994, and exercised since then.
Israeli security sources describe the 1994 contingency plan for a quick territorial grab on the Golan in the context of a limited war. The first step is the deployment of Commando forces to advance positions near the Israeli border. Then, once Damascus determines that hostilities are imminent, the Syrians will begin the moving around of SSMs inside Syria to reduce vulnerability to Israeli preemption or retaliation. The attack by the Commando forces on key objectives in the Israeli tactical depth will be followed immediately by an offensive surge of tank heavy forces. At the same time, other major Syrian units will be rushing toward the Golan in order to deter Israel from escalation and a massive counter-attack. Damascus intends to complete all these moves within 24-48 hours. Then, with Syrian forces still holding a small part of the Golan and a few Israeli POWs, Damascus and the Arab World will call for international pressure on Israel to impose cease fire, and to demonstrate "flexibility" and "realism" in negotiations with Syria.
Numerous Syrian, Iranian and Lebanese sources provided data that enables the reconstruction of the Syrian contingency plans for a major war. The first step will be a provocation launched from Lebanon -- a "Lebanese" attack on the SLA and/or a major HizbAllah operation against an Israeli strategic target and/or a spectacular terrorist strike at the heart of Israel. As planned, such a provocation is bound to instigate a major Israeli "response" in Lebanon. Since, because of the nature of the Syrian deployment in south Lebanon, Syrian troops will be killed in any such an Israeli retaliatory strike, Damascus will thus be in a position to call the Israeli actions an unacceptable aggression and threat to Damascus.
The Syrians will then have the "justification" to "retaliate" by launching a barrage of SSMs against Israeli cities and key military facilities. Meanwhile, in solidarity with Palestinian victims in south Lebanon, the PLO's 50,000 "police" and "auxiliaries" will launch a massive "intifadah" and a wave of terrorism from their safe-havens in the territories. Taken together, these activities will prove sufficient to prevent a timely deployment of Israeli reserves to the Golan.
By then, however, the Syrian Armed Forces will have already launched a surprise surge largely based on the 1994 contingency plan. Given the Israeli inability to react, the Syrian forces will succeed in securing limited grabs on the Golan. Then, Damascus and its allies are convinced, international pressure -- especially, if there are also oil embargo and Egyptian threat to intervene militarily -- will compel Israel to reach a political compromise on their terms.
Meanwhile, in case of an Israeli refusal to compromise, and hence a failure with the diplomatic initiative, the Syrians will be in position to impose a major escalation with the arrival of the main Syrian forces, as well as the sizeable Iraqi and Iranian expeditionary forces. Now surging also through Jordan, these forces will vastly expand and enlarge the Eastern front.
Given Badr-96, the mere war preparations in Egypt, will, at the very least, compel the IDF to keep forces on the southern border, just to be safe. Moreover, building pressure in the Arab/Muslim World for all governments and peoples to join the Jihad or face popular uprisings because of their "un-Islamic" posture will most likely entice such governments as Egypt's and Jordan's to join the war rather than risk overthrow. Meanwhile, led by Saudi Arabia, the Muslim World will declare oil embargo. There are sufficient Islamist terrorists all over the West to launch a wave of terrorism in Europe and the US in order to prevent (or delay) US assistance to Israel.
With the militarily debilitating winter weather coming very soon, this scenario is all the more tempting from a strategic point of view. Given the adverse opening conditions and initial period of war, as well as the sudden escalation of the Arab-Iranian offensive, it is safe to assume that it will take the IDF more than a few days to repel all the Arab-Iranian forces from Israeli territory. Damascus, Tehran, Cairo and Baghdad believe that it is not inconceivable that a marked deterioration in the weather will slow down the Israelis before their counter-attacks could evict the Arab-Iranian forces from the Golan Heights. The Arabs and Iranians are convinced that the consequent virtual pause in the mobile war and severe limitations on the use of the Israeli Air Force will create both an opportunity and an incentive for the international community to pressure Israel into capitulation before the spring weather creates proper conditions for the resumption of a major mobile war.
When dealing with the Third World, and particularly the Middle East, one should leave the Crystal Ball under lock and key. Given the dominant power of the personality of individual leaders as the source of decision-making -- based on these leaders' own reading of the situation on the basis of the information they have and believe in -- and given the penchant of these leaders for the "conspiracy" theories and susceptibility to the "straw factor" (a small and at time relatively insignificant input pushes the leader into a major decision he has been procrastinating on -- the straw that breaks the camel's back), it is virtually impossible to accurately predict what any of the dominant leaders involved in this crisis will ultimately do. However, it is possible to point out to emerging and dominant trends in the crisis management.
Starting the current crisis, the principal leaders may not have wanted war. At the least, they were wavering about it. Since the late 1980s, Arab leaders have been reluctant to embark on major undertakings against Israel. However, these Arab leaders are also convinced that a major brinkmanship crisis, the return to a no-war-no-peace tense situation, and even the resumption of limited clashes, are a must to their own survival. These leaders also know that any of these measures can quickly escalate into a major war. Hence, their undertaking these steps means that these Arab leaders are fully ready to meet the possibility of a major war.
One reason for the readiness to face war, as opposed to the reluctance shown previously, is the Muslim World's reading of Israel. Indeed, most senior leaders (especially in Damascus, Tehran, Baghdad and Cairo) are convinced that Israel is falling apart -- collapsing from within in a unique state of self-confusion, of having lost the WILL to fight and survive. Hence, the current crisis is unfolding in the context of a historical window of opportunity to resolve the Zionist menace once and for good. In this context, the extent of the populist power of Islam -- as reflected in the return to Islamic traditions in all aspects of life in the Hub of Islam, in the increasing Islamic profile of the supreme leaders -- over national security decisions is a major yet unquantifyable factor. There should be no doubt that the most important leaders are strongly influenced by their Islamic heritage and their own legacy and historical contribution to the Islamic "cause". Hence, the lure of the possibility to liberate al-Quds and destroy Israel may be a far stronger an input to their decision making process than what cold logic would have. Considering the building Islamist pressure to destroy Israel under any conditions, the Arab and Iranian leaders who are determined to hold to power may find these circumstances too tempting to be passed over.
Meanwhile, on a more pragmatic and realistic level, the fear of Israel's military might has shrunk. These leaders, particularly in Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran, are fully aware of the escalatory potential of their move -- the initiation of major brinkmanship and crisis. They know that a crisis of the magnitude and potential strategic impact they are instigating can easily escalate to a major regional war. But now, they have the nuclear umbrella. Arab strategic studies, as well as the unprecedented magnitude of development and acquisition of SSMs and all types of weapons of mass destruction, show that this factor is high on the leaders' mind. This newly found sense of self-confidence and the firm belief in the ability to succeed in the initial phase of a war create a new, and worrisome, framework within which these leaders examine the choices ahead of them.
Further more, at the higher political levels of the entire Arab World, and most significantly in Cairo, Amman and other capitals considered relatively supportive of the "peace process", there is a distinct and marked change in the attitude towards Israel. The present attitude is more hostile and confrontational, and the resort to force is no longer ruled out as being anathema in the era of a "peace process". This widespread acceptability of the possibility of war encourages these leaders who are committed to conflict. The Egyptians now talk about a state of "cold war" between Israel and its Arab partners to peace -- a fundamental change from the previous term of "cold peace". Other political-military forces in Egypt call for the pursuit of policies of "armed peace" and even "confrontational peace" toward Israel.
Taken together, the multitude of political, strategic and tactical moves leave no doubt that the key leaders in the Arab World and Iran have already determined to continue the escalatory brinkmanship even as the likelihood of war is growing. Moreover, the overall situation and dynamics in the Arab Middle East contribute to a self-reinforcing escalation. Hence, the three key leaderships in Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran, as well as Cairo and the Abdallah faction in Riyadh, are increasingly convinced that war is essentially inevitable. Consequently, there is already a clear shift in these leaders' deliberations and consultations. They are now preoccuppied mainly with strategic and military decisions -- that is, determining the optimal conditions for initiating the war, achieving surprise despite the protracted escalatory crisis and Israel's edginess, etc.
However, there is no hard evidence, yet, of a specific decision to start something on a fixed date. Presently, the prevailing mood among the political, military and security elites in the Arab World is that of an almost passive, though willing, acceptance of fate's course. As the region continues to deteriorate towards an eruption of violence, they are waiting for the inevitable spark to emerge and "compel" them into taking action. Among the supreme leaders that really count, the "straw" seems to be still missing. But for how long?
Vaughn S. Forrest
Posted here January 22, 1997
Web Page: http://www.aci.net/kalliste/