Gather Over the Golan
by Martin van Creveld
Reproduced with permission from
Copyright 2007, The Forward
Friday, March 9, 2007
While the world’s attention is riveted on the
conflict in Iraq and a possible American attack on Iran, Syrian
dictator Bashar al-Assad may be quietly preparing for a war against
From the mid-1950s until the end of the Cold War, what made Syria’s
aggression against Israel possible was the fact that Damascus got
its military hardware almost for free from the Soviet Union. With
the collapse of communism, this arrangement came to an end, leaving
late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad with a debt of well over $10
billion. Since he did not have the money to pay, most procurement
was brought to a halt.
Equipped only with the weapons they had been provided in the wake of
the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Syrian armed forces were
allowed to decay until much of their equipment was fit only for the
junkyards. Now, however, the balance seems again to be tilting
The first step was taken in January 2005. In an apparent effort to
reassert Moscow’s power in the Middle East, Russian President
Vladimir Putin forgave Damascus three quarters of its debt; the
rest, it seems, has now been paid by Iran. This agreement enabled
the Syrians to start rebuilding their armed forces.
Damascus began by completing the large array of surface-to-surface
Scud missiles that, with North Korean help, they had been building
throughout the 1990s. As a result, they now have several hundred
such missiles. Some are armed with chemical warheads, and some are
capable of reaching just about any target inside Israel.
Of late, the Syrians have gone on a real shopping spree. They have
bought Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles and
anti-ship missiles capable of being launched either by sea or by
land. The equipment in question is modern and extremely
sophisticated. Some of it has yet to even enter service in Russia
itself — and much of it is as good as, if not better than, anything
found in the West.
Meanwhile, the Syrian High Command has also been studying the
lessons of the recent war in Lebanon. From the little that has
leaked out, it is possible to put together the following picture:
Seen from Damascus, Israel’s strategic deterrent has proved
irrelevant, and it can, provided some limits are observed, be safely
ignored. During this past summer’s hostilities with Hezbollah, the
only part of the Israeli military that performed credibly was the
To be sure, excellent intelligence and superb command and control
enabled the air force to knock out every single Hezbollah-owned
surface-to-surface missile launcher either before it could come into
action or immediately after it had done so. The Israelis, however,
had an easy task, since their fighter-bombers were facing
practically no opposition; even so, fearing casualties, they hardly
dared use their helicopters. Moreover, the air force failed to stop
the short-range rockets raining down on northern Israel.
The Israeli air force could wreak much destruction, but it could not
force a decision.
At sea and on land, Israel did much worse. Following a successful
Hezbollah missile strike that hit, but did not sink, one of Israel’s
ships, the navy was forced to stay well away from the Lebanese
shore. It blockaded Lebanon’s ports but was unable to do much to
influence the battle.
The ground forces, both conscripts and reservists, proved heavy
handed, hesitant, slow, ill trained and ill motivated. In part, they
were also badly commanded; too many senior officers, instead of
leading their men as they used to do, stayed behind their computers
well in the rear. Overall there was precious little to show that
these were the same forces that as recently as 1982 had taken just
one week to reach Beirut.
Considering these demonstrated shortcomings on the Israeli side, the
outline of a possible Syrian plan of attack is not hard to guess. In
contrast to Syria’s launching of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, there
will be no large-scale offensive action either in the air — expect,
perhaps, by commando forces — or on the ground.
Instead, some incident will be generated and used as an excuse for
opening rocket fire on the Golan Heights and the Galilee. Once that
happens, Hezbollah will most likely be induced to join in. The
United Nations forces in Lebanon will, as usual, prove to be a
Should the Israelis respond by sending in their heavy armor, the
Syrians will stay on the defensive, relying on their newly acquired
anti-tank missiles to break the assault. Should the Israelis send in
their air force, the Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries will be
waiting for them.
To deter the Israelis from escalating the struggle and smashing
Syria’s infrastructure, as they did in Lebanon, the Syrians will
rely on their missiles. The overall goal will be to draw out the
conflict and inflict casualties, civilian as well as military, until
Jerusalem finally throws in the towel.
To be sure, the Syrian plan is not without risk. One problem facing
the Syrians is that the terrain on and east of the Golan Heights,
unlike southern Lebanon, provides scope for the kind of armored
maneuver warfare that, long ago, used to be Israel’s forte.
Damascus, therefore, will have to start by creating a vast array of
artificial obstacles capable of trapping the Israeli tanks; indeed,
for some time now they have been doing just that.
Second, relying on chemical warheads to balance the Israeli air
force’s ability to strike at Syria may be extremely dangerous, given
both Jews’ aversion to gas and the widespread belief that Israel
possesses nuclear weapons. Such, however, are the hazards of war,
and experience suggests that they may be contained. Given Israel’s
reluctance to take casualties and its lack of fighting spirit — as
demonstrated all too clearly this past summer in Lebanon — overall
the emerging Syrian plan is a good one with a reasonable chance of
When will the Syrians go to war? Obviously, much will depend on what
happens in Iraq and Iran. A short, successful American offensive in
Iran may persuade Assad that the Israelis, much of whose hardware is
either American or American-derived, cannot be countered, especially
in the air. Conversely, an American withdrawal from Iraq, combined
with an American-Iranian stalemate in the Persian Gulf, will go a
long way toward untying Assad’s hands.
In any case, the Syrian forces will need time to prepare. By a rough
guess, absorbing the new weapons may take more than a year, but
almost certainly less than the three or four years that some Israeli
intelligence sources, seeking to reassure their own people, say are
On the other hand, Damascus surely will not make the mistake of
waiting until the Israeli anti-missile weapons, which are now under
development, become operational and enter service. Finally, the
season must be selected in such a way as to make the weather work
against the Israelis as much as possible. Fog, cloud, rain and snow
impede air operations and make a ground offensive difficult.
Hence, everything considered, October 2008 does not seem like a bad
choice. The fact that the Americans will be busy with their
elections, and that time must pass before a new administration finds
its feet, could count as a bonus.
What steps can Israel take? In part, it can continue doing what it
has been doing for a long time — namely, gather as much intelligence
as possible on Syria’s surface-to-surface missiles and preparing to
launch a devastating air strike against them if necessary. In
addition, ways and means, either technical or tactical, must be
found to counter the new Syrian surface-to-air and anti-tank
In that context, it might be a good idea to have Mossad buy or steal
some of those missiles’ warheads. Back in the early 1970s, that is
how Israel learned the secrets of the French-made Exocet sea-to-sea
missile, which was then in Arab hands. Once the way that the
electronics work is understood in detail, countermeasures should not
be too difficult to devise.
Above all, Israel must rebuild its ground forces, where the bulk of
its conscripts and reservists serve. As has happened in other
advanced countries, those forces have had their morale undermined by
social developments. This includes an aging population and declining
fertility, both of which have made the nation less willing to take
casualties. It also includes the spread of feminism, which has given
women a considerably greater role in the armed forces and
consequently made military service less attractive to men, while at
the same time driving home the impression that Israeli troops are
nothing but a bunch of sexual predators.
Furthermore, the ground forces have borne the main burden of
fighting the Palestinian intifada over the past 20 years. Doing so
has weakened their morale almost to the vanishing point; in some
cases, crybabies have taken the place of soldiers. One is reminded
of the Argentinean troops who, after years of fighting their own
civilian population, ran away when confronted by a British force
one-third their size in the Falklands in 1982.
Of all the problems afflicting the Israelis, this is the worst. So
long as the occupation of the Palestinian territories lasts, it is
anybody’s guess whether the men’s former willingness to fight and
die can be restored.
Finally, Israel could try to forestall another war by reaching a
peace agreement with Syria. As we now know, under Ariel Sharon
secret Israeli-Syrian talks went on for two years.
No sooner had last summer’s hostilities in Lebanon ended — a war
that was probably launched by Hezbollah without any consultation
with Damascus — than leading Syrian personalities started saying
they were interested in resuming negotiations and bringing them to a
conclusion. But in the fall, Israel went out of its way to reject
Syria’s overtures, partly because it wanted Damascus to stop
assisting Hezbollah and the Palestinians and partly owing to
Now, however, the Americans themselves are about to talk to
Damascus, as well as to Tehran. Where the master leads, the follower
cannot be far away — or else, Israel had better be prepared to take
on the consequences.
Martin van Creveld, professor of military history at the
University of Jerusalem, is the author of some 19 books on
history and military strategy including such classics as Fighting
Power, Command in War, and The Transformation of War.
His next book, The Changing Face of
War: Lessons of Combat From the Marne to Iraq, was
published by Presidio Press in February 2007. Order now from
Barnes & Noble.
Other articles by Martin van Creveld
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