It sounds like a bad dream until you factor in two things. One, Assad has announced he has WMDs, chemical and biological, at his disposal and he's prepared to use them to thwart potential foreign intervenion. Two, Assad's days are probably numbered and it's possible those WMDs could fall right into the hands of Islamist radicals who might be all too willing to use them against Israel.
I don't ordinarily have much sympathy for Israel but this situation is one in which that state faces a plausible existential threat.
Perhaps the most ominous words uttered in recent months by Ehud Barak, the
influential Israeli defense minister, came in the form of a paradoxical
reassurance. "I believe and hope that there will be no war this summer, but that
is all that can be said at this time," he said in a televised interview on
Conventional wisdom has it that the louder the Israeli threats
of war, the less likely that a war is imminent - and, in certain situations such
as the present one, vice versa. Earlier this year, threats were flying - Barak
was talking about the Iranian nuclear program entering an "immunity zone" by the
end of the summer - but more recently this has changed dramatically. As Reuters
observed two months ago, Israeli officials have gone into anominous "lock down." Now comes Barak's statement.
question is, which war. From a narrow Israeli perspective, war may in fact be
avoidable and all the threats - Barak is certainly aware of the ripple effect of
his words - could be primarily defensive in nature. With the entire region in
flux and its home front underprepared (only 53% of Israelis, for example, are
equipped with gas masks), Israel might ideally prefer to save its shots.
From a broader regional perspective, the civil war in Syria is already a
fact, and it looks as if the violence, both there and elsewhere, can only
explode further. At some point in the near future, somebody will likely feel
compelled to intervene, if not against the Iranian nuclear program, then against
the Syrian chemical and biological weapons, if not through a full-scale attack
then by a "surgical strike". If not Israel, this would most likely be the United
States, though other regional players also stand ready to weigh in. In many
ways, it's a war of nerves as much as it is a diplomatic bazaar, and it is hard
to tell who will blink first and what deals will be struck.
...any Israeli intervention, save perhaps for a very brief and pointed strike,
could rally popular support behind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and thus
backfire spectacularly. Other Arab states might face public pressure to shift
their stance as well, and the coalition against Assad may come under strain.
(During the First Persian Gulf War, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sought
to exploit this dynamic by firing Scud missiles at Israel.)
Syria's response to an Israeli incursion could escalate much more quickly and to
much more gruesome levels than that against other aggressors. As the Syrian
foreign ministry spokesman put it on Monday, "These [chemical and biological]
weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct
supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression." It should be noted that the Syrian regime is almost as unlikely to use weapons
of mass destruction against another Muslim country as it is against its own
population, which leaves Israel the main target of its current threats.
There seems to be no way to predict what could happen but this is definitely a high stakes game, the biggest in the M.E. in a long, long time.