How the Next Middle East War Could Start
The three most plausible scenarios all involve Iran.
By RONEN BERGMAN
This May, Israel will celebrate its 62nd Independence Day. And barring the unexpected, the country will have good reason to celebrate. This will have been the safest year in a decade and a half for Israeli civilians—the year with the fewest fatalities in acts of war or terror.
Ironically, Israel's most bitter foes are responsible for this achievement. The leadership of both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have imposed a temporary policy of nonconfrontation on their respective followers, as well as on other armed groups operating within the territories they control. They are now part of the administration and don't want to be blamed for igniting another war in the region. As a result, the once almost daily rocket attacks on civilian targets in the north and south of Israel have been reduced to a trickle.
This is as good as it gets in this part of the world. But the truth is that the Middle East remains as ever on the brink of war. One careless move by any party, and the now dormant volcano could erupt once again.
Israel is certainly aware of this volatility, and it is preparing for the worst. In late February the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conducted a secret war game, code-named Firestone 12, which simulated a general conflict in the region. Under the scenario used in the exercise, Iran instructs its Hezbollah proxies to initiate military action against Israel in order to divert attention from the Iranian nuclear project. Israel responds with massive force against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which draws Syria and Hamas into the conflict.
The exercise was supposed to conclude with the mobilization of a large number of reserves. But because military and political tensions were running high, the army decided not to call up the additional units.
Until recently, the most plausible scenario for the outbreak of the next war would have begun with an Israeli aerial assault on Iranian nuclear installations. This would lead to a response by members of the group that the Israeli intelligence community refers to as the "radical front": Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But for now, this scenario is regarded as somewhat less likely, since it appears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will go along with the U.S. demand that Israel allow time for sanctions to achieve their purpose.
Yet there are other scenarios that create a very real danger of war breaking out.
Scenario I: Hamas attacks in order to break the impasse. These are hard times for Hamas. It sustained a military defeat at the hands of Israel in late 2008 and is now engaged in a bitter confrontation with Egypt over a barrier Egypt is constructing to prevent smuggling from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza. Various sources, including IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who briefed parliament on Tuesday, have suggested that Hamas may try to break the impasse by instigating a military operation to upset the balance of forces in the region. In addition, the organization's desire to avenge the assassination of senior commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh last January in Dubai has only increased its motivation to act.
Scenario II: Hezbollah avenges Imad Mughniyeh's assassination. Hezbollah believes that the Mossad was behind the assassination of the organization's military commander two years ago. Mughniyeh was the most wanted terrorist on the FBI's list before Sept. 11, 2001, and he was in charge of the suicide attacks on the American Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982/1983. Mossad and the CIA tried to catch or kill him numerous times in the past.
In order to avenge Mughniyeh's death, Hezbollah attempted to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Azerbaijan, attack Israeli tourists in the Sinai, and abduct Israeli businessmen in Africa. Yet these failures have not blunted its resolve. Any successful act of revenge—especially if it is a spectacular operation such as killing a large number of Israelis or Jews outside Israel, or assassinating a prominent figure inside Israel—would lead to considerable public pressure on the Israeli government to take action against Hezbollah inside Lebanon.
Scenario III: Syria supplies Hezbollah with "equilibrium-breaking" weapons. Today Syria is Hezbollah's chief supplier of arms. Many Iranian-developed weapons are manufactured in Syria and transported to Lebanon where they are delivered to the Shiite organization. Syria possesses a number of weapons systems, mainly various types of long-range missiles and anti-aircraft and antinaval missiles, that Israel regards as "equilibrium-breaking" (i.e., systems that in the hands of Hezbollah would threaten Israel's ability to operate with impunity in Lebanon's airspace and along its coastline).
The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, was recently summoned to the State Department, where he was informed that the U.S. expects Syria to cease arming Hezbollah because of the very real risk of war. This meeting took place after Israel came close to attacking a Syrian arms convoy, deciding not to at the last moment.
This final scenario is perhaps the most dangerous. Syrian President Bashar Assad has taken significant risks in the past, most recently when he embarked on the joint Syrian-Iranian-North Korean nuclear project knowing full well that Israel would not be able to allow it to reach completion. If Mr. Netanyahu shows less restraint than he has so far and orders an attack on a Syrian military convoy, the high number of Syrian casualties that would likely ensue could force Mr. Assad's hand.
What these three scenarios all have in common is the centrality of Iran: It is arming Hamas, it effectively controls Hezbollah, and it is doing its best to involve Syria in open confrontation with Israel. To date, these attempts have been unsuccessful. But only the U.S. has the ability to take decisive steps to prevent a general conflagration in the region.
Mr. Bergman, senior military and intelligence analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily, is the author of "The Secret War With Iran" (Free Press, 2008).
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