War on the Horizon?

The war drums are sounding louder in the Mideast and America could be drawn into the coming conflict.  The Bush administration can either ignore the warnings and abandon the region or engage the antagonists.  But America’s options and credibility are limited.

The US military is stretched perilously thin and America is not viewed as an honest broker by many.  But “We’re living under a volcano,” argues Mustata Alam, director of security studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.  A study by his organization concludes that “an accidental war” that might escalate to include the US is “high.”

The US is ill-prepared militarily to participate in “an accidental war” if it requires ground forces beyond those already committed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  US military action to support Israel against potential antagonists Syria, Iran or Iran’s proxy Hezbollah (Party of God) would be limited to air and naval forces. Given the nature of the threat, however, that may be inadequate.

Syria is beating the loudest war drums and appears to be the geographical lynchpin to any near-term conflict with Israel.  Syrian President Bashar Assad says his military is preparing for that war.  “We have begun preparations within the framework of our options,” Assad told the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Anba.

Syria has significant armed forces totaling more than 380,000 men, with another 130,000 troops in reserve. Its arsenal includes approximately 3,700 tanks and some 510 combat aircraft.  Most of Assad’s military equipment, however, consists of relics from the former Soviet Union. 

Syria has recently taken some war-preparatory moves to include modernizing its military.

• On Sept 25, Syria practiced a nation-wide emergency drill to prepare its home front for possible states of emergency that could include a war with Israel.

• Syria added a division along the Golan Heights and positioned thousands of medium and long-range rockets capable of striking most of Israel.

• Syria is also preparing chemical weapons.  On July 26, it was reported that Syrian and Iranian engineers had a deadly accident while trying to arm a Scud-C missile with a mustard gas warhead.  Jane’s Defence Weekly reports that Syria manufactures several hundred tons of chemical warfare agents like VX and Sarin annually.

• Syria is buying sophisticated Russian weapons. This year Syria took delivery of MIG-31E interceptors capable of simultaneously shooting several targets more than 110 miles away and the Pantsyr-S1E self-propelled anti-aircraft gun and missile system.

In addition, Syria’s relationship with rogues Iran and North Korea as well as Hezbollah have earned her special status as the newest member of the axis of evil. 

In 2005, Syria signed a mutual defense pact with Iran.  Syria’s defense minister, Hassan Turkmani, explained “We can have a common front against Israel’s threats.”  Iran assists Syria in developing chemical weapons and has been permitted to base long-range Shabab ballistic missiles on Syrian soil.  Recently, an Iranian news web site boasted that "Iran will shoot 600 missiles at Israel if it is attacked."

Iran uses Syria as a conduit to resupply Hezbollah.  After the 2006 34-day war, Tehran rearmed and financed Hezbollah through Syrian middlemen to prepare the terror group for the next battle with Israel.  Those preparations appear to be nearing completion.

An Iranian-funded Lebanese road has been built on the Litani River’s northern bank.  The area south of the river to the Israeli border – 12 miles – is patrolled by United Nations peacekeeping forces sent there after the 2006 war, allegedly to disarm Hezbollah. 

Most of the land north of the road has been purchased by Shia businessmen with Tehran’s help.  Numerous small villages protected by guards toting AK-47s are being built along the road.  It’s believed that these villages include extensive tunnels, fortifications and rocket launcher sites like those installed in the villages south of the Litani prior to the 2006 war. 

Hezbollah’s general secretary Sheik Hassan Nasrallah admits that Hezbollah is “transporting weapons to the front” and, he boasts “We have weapons of all kinds and quantities.”  “We are certain that we can reach” Tel Aviv with these weapons, Nasrallah said.

North Korea, Syria’s partner, helps by directing the construction of silos and tunnels near the cities of Hama and Aleppo, by selling Syria sophisticated rockets, providing chemical weapons know-how, and, possibly, selling nuclear technology to Syria.

On August 14, North Korean minister of foreign trade Rim Kyong Man signed a protocol with Syria on “cooperation in trade and science and technology.”  Syrian rocket engineers have frequently visited Pyongyang reportedly to acquire missile technology such as the telemetry – i.e., targeting – -data to help Syria develop a sophisticated class of Scud missiles with sufficient range to reach all Israel. 

The US worries that North Korea may be transferring nuclear technologies to countries like Syria.  On October 9, 2006, hours after the Kim Jong-il regime tested its first nuclear device, President Bush warned Pyongyang against the “transfer of nuclear weapons or material …. Such transfers would be considered a grave threat to the United States….”  A May 2006 US report confirmed that Pakistani supplier A. Q. Khan had already “offered nuclear technology and hardware to Syria.”

Bush’s warning may explain Israel’s September 6 bombing of a Syrian facility north of Raqqa.  Although no details are available, many governments confirm that Israeli fighters bombed the facility. 

One possible reason for the attack is that North Korea shipped nuclear equipment to Syria which was then transported to Raqqa. While the facts are unclear, the Washington Post reported the US knew about the attack beforehand and may have provided confirming intelligence. 

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave us a glimpse under the veil of secrecy surrounding the incident saying Israel did in fact attack targets in Syria. His top adviser, Mossad veteran Uzi Arad, said: "I do know what happened, and when it comes out it will stun everyone." 

The Jerusalem Post confirmed that the raid was against a North Korean-supplied nuclear installation.  Israel’s commander of military intelligence Maj. Gen. Amos Vadlin claims the attack restored Israel’s deterrent posture which was weakened by the 2006 Lebanon war.

It may be a bit optimistic to expect a single attack to turn back the clock to the days when Israel’s neighbors were spell-bound by Israel’s military might.  That view was shattered by the inconclusive war with Hezbollah.

The Bush administration will host peace talks this fall to address the ongoing Palestinian issue and Syria is expected to participate.  Those talks ought to extend beyond the Israeli-Palestinian crises to confront the deafening war drums shaking Mideast peace.  Those talks should set security, diplomatic and economic courses of action that prevent the region from stumbling into “an accidental war” created by the Mideast’s new axis of evil.