Iraq-1991,Syria-2013 and Israel-comparisons and lessons

Here we are again, as the US threatens to attack an Arab state, and this state threatens to
retaliate by attacking Israel. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and the Syrian civil war
starting in March 2011 have had nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with internal Arab conflicts, those
inside states themselves, and those between states. Also,american intervention in both conflicts is not a result
or in consideration of Israeli pressures and/or interests.
Two completely American administrations , acting under totally different circumstances, and representing very different
ideological approaches to American foreign policy in general, and the US role in the Middle East in particular, have decided
to responded militarily to challenges to the American view of world politics, posed by two different Arab regimes, and yet
Israel ended up in the receiving end of Iraq in 1991 and MAY end up in the receiving end of Syria in 2013, that is if the American
threats against the Assad regime will finally lead to an armed conflict.

The reason for this situation is the sense of Saddam then and Assad now, that the best way to gain popularity in
the Arab Middle East, when confronting a threat from the West, is by turning Arab attention towards the
traditional scapegoat of Arab politics, I.E Israel. An old ploy, a much-worn out one and already
irrelevant and possibly counter-productive. Saddam fired 42 missiles at Israel, hoping for an Israeli response which will
enable him to show his Arab”brothers”, that their rulers took part in a war orchestrated by the US , in order
to promote the interests of Israel. P.M Shamir did not play the Saddam game, there was no response from Israel,
Saddam survived that war, but not the later one in 2003, and is now history.
Prior to the beginning of the war, P.M Shamir ordered the chief Israeli spokespersons to say on every possible occasion, and
there were so many of those, that were Israel to be attacked, it would retaliate forcefully and immediately.
When the instructions were made, both P.M and spokespersons knew that they would NOT be adhered to. The reason was an understanding between
Shamir and President G.H.W Bush, according to which , Israel would consult with the US if attacked, so that no retaliation would be automatic,and
Israel would maintain complete cooperation with the US, so the pro-American Arab coalition would not be under
any internal pressures. In return, Israel received a very generous package of American goodies, including money and advanced
technology, both civilian and military as well as hardware.. Only one person died in Israel as a result of the missiles attacks, and contrary to
arguments put forward by more hawkish members of Shamir cabinet, particularly Defense Minister Arens, Israel’s power
of deterrence was NOT damaged. Power of deterrence is NOT just military power, it is that , but much more, including
economic power and friendship with a superpower, surely the US was then and still is a superpower.
Still, in order to get the fullest picture of 1991, two more factors need to be emphasized.
First, the Iraqi missiles were really ineffective, somewhat primitive and Israel was almost out of
their range.
Second, Israel did make it clear, that were Saddam to use chemical warheads, as was considered likely, Israel would act
in a way which would exact the maximum price from him, and Israel had then the capacity to do exactly that.

And with that we can turn the page to the current Syrian situation.
The Assad regime tried way back, after some months of civil war , to turn attention towards Israel.
Palestinians from the Yarmuk camp in Damascus were organized and ordered to march towards the Israeli border
and claim the ”right of return”. The incident ended with the IDF opening fire, as it had to, against the infiltrators, killing 14.
Contrary to the expectations of Assad and his henchmen, no excitement was felt in the Arab world. Moreover,
the Palestinians held the Syrians responsible to what happened, and since then, tension has existed between the
dwellers of the Yarmuk camp and the regime. Today, the camp is half-ruined as a result of shelling
and bombing by the Syrian army…
Since then, the Syrian regime tried on occasions to implicate Israel with all kinds of shadowy
plots and conspiracies, but for no avail. The Alawite regime is the monster nowadays, not Israel.
The old goods have no buyers anymore, that is if we exclude the Sh’iite coalition
of Iran-Iraq-Hizballah.
Old habits though die hard, and now, in his moment of despair, the Syrian dictator invokes the
old gene, but again, for no avail. The Israeli gene has been long out of the bottle, and
the Arab world is preoccupied with Assad,but not with Israel.

So, what is going to happen? it seems that the American-led effort will be in the name of international
legitimacy, and it will be a coalition , not just the US. Possible participation of Turkey
and Arab countries, such as Saudi-Arabia and Jordan, means that yet again the Americans
will expect Israel to coordinate with them before any Israeli action.
The rational for that will not be different than what it was in 1991, but this time, there are altogether
different circumstances, and so the Israeli calculus will be different.

Syria has much better missiles than what Iraq had, with an effective range. A Syrian attack on Israel,
even without the use of chemical warheads could therefore claim many lives and cause havoc.
Syria will not attack Israel if the American strike will be moderate, and will not be
aimed at Assad himself, in order to bring down his regime in a matter of few days.
However, if the Syrians may think that this is the American goal, they will this time be tempted to attack Israel, trying ,at least,
to fire some missiles. It is still very doubtful that the Hizballah will join by attacking Israel from Lebanon. Surely , the
Syrians may wish to operate ”sleeping terror cells”, possibly in Israel, also abroad, but this is not so likely.
Chemical warheads will be used only if the regime figures that it may be heading towards total and immediate collapse.
Even then, it is not a sure thing.
P.M Netanyahu will be under immense pressure to retaliate immediately after ANY missile falling in Israel. But let us remember
1991, statements and actions are two different things. Casualties in Israel will lead to a measured reaction,
and the intensity of the reaction will be determined by the number of casualties.
Use of chemicals against Israel however will be the end for Bashar Assad. All hell will break loose, and the
Israeli reaction will be EXTREMELY lethal!
For Bashar to do that, will be to act kamikaze-like, not his typical pattern of behavior, but in times of
extreme pressure, who can safely bet?…

All this can and may happen, and after it does, Israel will remain strong and powerful. Bashar Assad
however may be a man of the past…a piece of inglorious history.
Another potential casualty of any of these scenarios will be the nascent Israeli-Palestinian talks,
even if Hamas will stay put in Gaza.
I , for one, happen to believe that very few Israelis will expect Israel to
make significant concessions to the Palestinians after another round of missiles
falling on Israeli civilian targets.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina