Syria's war, Israel's trap

The prospect of a chaotic endgame in Syria and more instability in Egypt is leading Israel further in the direction of a "fortress-state". This military entrenchment reflects not strength but vulnerability.

The worsening of the civil war in Syria is further diminishing the options open to Barack Obama's team. Neither side has much prospect of victory, and as the violence intensifies so do war crimes. International divisions, with the United States and Saudi Arabia wanting Bashar al-Assad's regime to fall and Iran and Russia continuing to support it, make the conflict even more intractable.

Amid the imbroglio, Washington has a particular problem: it is inhibited from supplying arms to Syria's rebels, which they need to have any chance of ending the Damascus regime, by the increasing power of Islamist factions within the opposition. Among the most significant of these are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, each of which has made considerable gains (the former in northern Syria, the latter in other areas of the country) (see Jeremy Binnie, “Islamist group grows into major force in Syria”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 20 February 2013).

The strength of both militias is aided by skilled commanders whose powers of leadership attracts other paramilitaries to their cause. The result is that jihadists are increasingly leading groups of mixed affiliations. This factor reinforces Washington's caution about supplying armaments: for the rise of jihadist groups makes it more likely that this current will wield substantial influence in post-Assad Syria, whether in a unified regime or amid a situation in Syria that resembles Lebanon during its civil war from 1975-90 (see Mark Landler & Michael R Gordon, “Options dwindle on easing Assad from power”, New York Times, 19 February 2013).

But if this outcome is worrying for the Americans, it is an even greater problem for the Israelis. The Syrian war has unfolded since 2011 at a time of subtle deterioration in Israel's security predicament, which is producing contradictory responses: strenuous efforts to make Israel even more of a "fortress-state", but also remarkable advocacy of serious negotiations with the Palestinians from some of the country's hawkish voices.

A border upgrade

Israel has two immediate and simultaneous concerns of its own: the prospect of Islamists gaining real influence in southern Syria, and Egypt being unwilling or unable to stem insecurity in the Sinai peninsula.

Israel, in the period before the Syrian conflict erupted, had no particular problems in dealing with Assad's regime - nor indeed with Jordan and Egypt's. In great part because these autocratic regimes recognised their own weaknesses in the face of Israel's conventional and nuclear superiority, Israel found them easy enough to handle.

Now, Syria poses a major difficulty for Israel. It worries that Damascus's chemical and biological weapons could be seized by radical Islamists or Hizbollah, and that the chaos of a post-Assad Syria could spill over into Lebanon. For the moment, Israel is strengthening its military forces adjacent to its borders with Lebanon and Syria, including a move of three batteries of the Iron Dome anti-missile system from the south (near to Gaza). It is also preparing for a war with Hizbollah, with plans for civilian evacuation from southern Lebanon being made (see Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israel Hones Contingency Plans for Lebanon War”, Defense News, 11 February 2013).

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) also anticipate the need to engage in more long-range special-force operations - certainly in Syria, possibly in Iran - and has established a new "depth Command" composed of reserve and active-duty personnel to facilitate this.  This, says Defense News, reports “…directly to Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Chief of Israel's General Staff, [and] the new organization has its own budget and will assume operational responsibilities for 'pinpoint missions' supported by the Israeli Air Force and all intelligence agencies…”.

“In emergency scenarios", a senior officer is quoted, "they will get all the necessary forces and the geographic area of responsibility to command pinpoint operations on behalf of the chief of staff.”

Israel's fortification of its borders is a crucial part of intense efforts to operate at a distance. The frontier with Jordan is to be further strengthened, even though it is already quite heavily protected, while that with Egypt is seeing major change. There, a 242-kilometre long fortification with multiple sensors is being constructed; called project Hourglass, it will be completed by May at a cost of $300 million. The physical barriers will be supported by a rapid expansion of missile defences; they include a $600-million funding request from Washington to finance more Iron Dome batteries, and another $100 million for the longer-range David's Sling and the development of the Arrow-3 missile.

The border defences are interesting also in terms of political psychology. The completion of the Hourglass barrier on the Sinai border means that Israel, for the first time in its history, will be completely enclosed within a gigantic open prison of its own making (and which encompasses the extensive secondary barriers around the West Bank). It is the world's largest complete "gated community" - even North Korea does not have such extensive barriers across its China border (see "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" [17 January 2009]; "Israel's security trap" [5 August 2010], and "Israel's security complex" [28 July 2011]).

The combination of barriers and missile defences, supplemented by Israel's capacity to strike at a distance, may make the country seem secure. But looked at another way, the reality is of an isolated fortress within the much greater region. The "security" this brings is of a wholly artificial kind. There appears to be some recognition of this in the surprising decision of the hawkish Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) - which has close links with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu - to urge a resumption of talks with the Palestinians (see Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israeli Experts: Palestinian Peace Plan Could Push Agenda for Region”, Defense News, 11 February 2013).

True, Israel's perceived need to gain diplomatic credence, not least with the Obama administration, is part of the reason for this move. Defense News says:

“Before Washington and the international community impose conditions on both parties - and in order to forestall new rounds of violence that will further inflame public opinion in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and other countries with a common interest in derailing Iran's nuclear weapons program - INSS experts urge the new Netanyahu government to present a reasonable plan to Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.”

There is something more than political calculation in the Israeli institute's analysis. The wider reality is that events are moving against Israel across the region. Indeed, the massive border defences are a clear indicator of this. Israel is now completely surrounded, and its treatment of the Palestinians both isolates it further and creates the potential for deeper instability. The INSS's move indicates that the depth of this predicament is understood by some among Israel's security elite, and no longer confined to critical analysts who have long pointed this out. So far, there is little sign that Netanyahu has got the message. But this shift in an Israeli think-tank's outlook gives some small cause for hope.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here