Politics: A little more complex than usual

So remember that case of an Israeli plane having to jettison its bombs over Syrian airspace about two weeks ago? It’s been becoming clear over the past week that there was a good deal more to it. The Washington Post is now reporting as straight news (not rumor) that this was a concerted Israeli attack against a suspected Syrian nuclear site, constructed with North Korean assistance, and the attack staged after conferring with the US.

So there are quite a few pretty explosive statements in that last sentence.

(1) Syrian nuclear site — this is the first mention of Syria trying to get the Bomb. I’m quite sure that they want it, but it wasn’t at all clear that they’d made any steps towards getting one. I’m still not 100% convinced that this was really a nuke facility — but it was some kind of extremely-high-value military target, the sort of thing that you risk a sneak attack in the dead of night for.

(2) Maybe the most interesting thing about this attack is what didn’t happen. Has anyone heard any Arab government making loud warnings about the consequences of Israeli aggression? Or the Saudis arranging for broad denunciations of Israel on pan-Arabic television stations? Or for that matter, has anyone even heard the Syrians complaining about the fact that they just got bombed?

Nope. Me neither. There’s been a deafening silence.

Tehran has been making some veiled threats (their assistant minister of defense making statements about how the military has contingency plans to bomb Israel if Iran is attacked), but even that’s been pretty quiet.

My read on this: First of all, I appear to have grossly overestimated how well Bashar al-Assad is doing. If he’s in such a weak plae that he doesn’t feel that he can loudly complain and get sympathy from the Arab world, then he knows that the Arab world doesn’t care if he lives or dies, and that he knows that the threat of an Israeli attack against Syria proper is very severe.

This makes some other things make more sense. For one thing, there’s been this planned war. I can see how Hamas and Hezbollah would come out ahead from it – but Syria? If Syria were to try to get into a war with Israel, it would be defeated almost immediately. Its military capabilities have been deteriorating since the Soviet Union fell apart, and they weren’t all that great even then. al-Assad isn’t backing this war, he’s trying to figure out ways to make sure it happens way the hell away from him.

It also means that a coup against al-Assad is still a very real possibility. He’s never been popular at home. (Nor was his father, really. Not a nice fellow.) His habit of establishing Syrian influence in Lebanon by assassinating opposing politicians (another one was killed in a car bomb just last week) makes neighboring countries nervous. And frankly, trying to build a nuclear facility (or anything else similarly likely to bring down unpleasant foreign interest) in that area is just plain stupid — the western Islamic world is trying to get the situation to calm down, so that they can try to contain Iran, and doing something like that could trigger another massive military “event” in the region. Or even worse, he could actually get the Bomb, and start to lord it over other Arab states, which they frankly would like a lot less than Israel doing the same. At least they know that Israel isn’t going to try to destabilize their regimes or take over.

Anyway, while all this is happening the situation in Gaza is continuing to get tenser. The Israeli government has referred to the regime in Gaza as a hostile one, and the border continues to be completely closed; Gaza’s economy has pretty much shut down. Hamas continues its low-level fighting with Israel.

My expectations for the immediate future: There will be further Israeli actions to shut down Hamas’ military capability in Gaza, especially focused on shutting down their arms supplies via the Philadelphi Corridor. (Along the Gaza/Egypt border) Most of these operations will be secretive, but a few may be loud and public. At the same time, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation going on to try to head off a war; but several factions are trying to sieze power in Lebanon, Syria is trying to get involved in that, and there could be a coup in Syria at any time. (Or none) Both Syria and Lebanon are on the brink of civil war, and if that war gets serious enough Hezbollah is going to have too many problems at home to start exporting trouble. Israel is going to have elections soon, (probably the government will dissolve in a few months; public confidence in Olmert is extremely low) but policy probably won’t change too radically no matter who is elected.

So we’re looking at a period of quiet fighting and delicate manoeuvering, with a chance for localized all-out conflagrations.

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Published in: on September 20, 2007 at 22:47  Comments (8)  
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8 Comments

  1. Arms Control Wonk has excellent sources and suggests that the “nuclear” angle is bogus, and that Syria has been stockpiling SCUDs instead. The Scud is non-nuclear, very short range, very imprecise – maybe three generations better than a German V-2. It still implies that Syria is planning a war, but Syria has been known to have Scuds for as long as I’ve been studying ballistic missiles.
    The assassination in Lebanon last week of yet another political figure connected to the anti-Syria movement is a bad sign though.

  2. Arms Control Wonk has excellent sources and suggests that the “nuclear” angle is bogus, and that Syria has been stockpiling SCUDs instead. The Scud is non-nuclear, very short range, very imprecise – maybe three generations better than a German V-2. It still implies that Syria is planning a war, but Syria has been known to have Scuds for as long as I’ve been studying ballistic missiles.
    The assassination in Lebanon last week of yet another political figure connected to the anti-Syria movement is a bad sign though.

  3. Yeah, I’d believe SCUDs a lot more easily than nukes as well. In which case this bombing could have just been a quick move to cut off their ballistic weapons supply in the event of a coming war.

  4. Yeah, I’d believe SCUDs a lot more easily than nukes as well. In which case this bombing could have just been a quick move to cut off their ballistic weapons supply in the event of a coming war.

  5. Assuming a shred of truth from the N. Korean side of things (man this situation has gotten weird) the silence from the rest of the Arab world could be due to their dislike of SCUDs, and intense revulsion at the thought of “dirty” scuds.
    Remember how little cred Saddam got for firing scuds at Israel in Gulf War 1.0, much of the criticism from the Arab world was that scuds are such pieces of shit that firing them at a nation as small and densely packed as Israel could have cost more Muslim lives than Jewish lives.
    I need to read more before I come to any conclusions. I think it is entirely possible that the sortie served the dual purpose of destroying some ballistics, but also served the meta-purpose of demonstrating to Syria (and Iran) just how dangerous Israeli air supremacy is to them.

  6. Assuming a shred of truth from the N. Korean side of things (man this situation has gotten weird) the silence from the rest of the Arab world could be due to their dislike of SCUDs, and intense revulsion at the thought of “dirty” scuds.
    Remember how little cred Saddam got for firing scuds at Israel in Gulf War 1.0, much of the criticism from the Arab world was that scuds are such pieces of shit that firing them at a nation as small and densely packed as Israel could have cost more Muslim lives than Jewish lives.
    I need to read more before I come to any conclusions. I think it is entirely possible that the sortie served the dual purpose of destroying some ballistics, but also served the meta-purpose of demonstrating to Syria (and Iran) just how dangerous Israeli air supremacy is to them.

  7. That sounds like the right meta-purpose to me, too. A nasty little reminder to Syria, and a warning to Iran.

  8. That sounds like the right meta-purpose to me, too. A nasty little reminder to Syria, and a warning to Iran.


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