Saul Mangel
Saul Mangel

What If It’s Not A Bluff?

In a few short weeks, Israelis and Jews throughout the world will celebrate the 50th Jerusalem Day, marking the liberation of our ancient, and current, capital. I for one, could not be more excited to be taking the bus to Jerusalem for the celebrations. While today it is common knowledge that Israel is stronger than all of her neighbors, in 1967 it was no certainty that she would emerge victorious. That war, an extremely costly one for Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, also brought the Golan Heights under Israeli control, and ended 19 years of Syrians shooting at Israelis in the Galilee. It is in the skies above and near the Golan where kindling for a potential 7th Arab-Israeli, or 4th Syrian-Israeli, war could ignite the region.

You don’t need official claims to know that Israel sometimes bombs weapons depots, convoys, or terrorists in Syria. As is Israel’s right, she takes action whenever there is information of weapons transfers from Iran, via Syria, to Hezbollah. That said, in the past few weeks, the strikes have not only increased, they have become more pronounced ever since Israel’s Arrow Missile system shot down a Syrian SAM. This prompted Syrian officials to lie and say they shot down an IAF plane, and Defense Minister Lieberman to threaten to destroy Syria’s entire anti-air system.

But then, something new happened. Syria threatened to launch Scud missiles next time Israel bombs targets in Syria. To many Israelis, this brought back memories of 1991 when Saddam Hussein targeted Israel with Scuds. To my parents back in the States, it gave them a heart attack knowing I’m here in Israel, well within Scud range. Many experts concluded Assad is bluffing, a way to project power. While I don’t claim to know more than experts, they can be wrong (looking at you, 2016 election experts). What if Assad isn’t bluffing? As this is the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, one not need look far to see what can happen when Arab leaders make bellicose threats.

Let’s not forget that many historians believe that Nasser didn’t want to start a war when he expelled the UN from Sinai, put 100,000 troops on Israel’s border, and closed the Straits of Tiran. Goaded on by Syria’s leaders, trying to be the most anti-Israel Arab leader, and the Arab Street pushing for a “war of annihilation”, Nasser wanted to scare Israel into backing down, winning a war without even firing a shot. Things got out of hand, Israel didn’t back down, and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan lost their Air Forces, a huge number of soldiers and material, and immense areas of land. So what if Assad’s newest threat isn’t a bluff?   Or, what if the bluff quickly spirals out of control like Nasser’s gamble?  Would Assad follow through on a Scud strike? What would happen?

We can safely assume Assad will be in power when the shooting stops in Syria. Protected by Russia and Iran, Syrian troops have mopped up most of the opposition. Could it be that Assad feels protected enough by Iran to shoot missiles at Israel, knowing a response would ignite war with Hezbollah also? Would Assad even need to launch the missile, or could he let Hezbollah do that, leaving them to face the awesome Israeli response? Here’s the problem, to what extent will Assad be indebted to Hezbollah and Iran when his own war stops, and if Assad owes them too much, will he target Haifa with rockets? Assad didn’t win his war on his own, he needed Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian help to do so.

Imagine, if just for a second, someone in Syria’s High Command decided to fire that Scud. As sirens throughout Israel went off, people rushed to their bomb shelters, praying that our anti-missile systems shot down whatever was launched while some strapped on gas masks. IAF jets begin to scramble within minutes, and pilots are updated with strike coordinates. Within an hour, whether the Scud hit its mark or was shot down, and after the IAF devastates Syria or Lebanon, while ground forces keep Hamas at bay, we’re at war, the likes of which the region hasn’t seen since 1973. Compounding all of this, is a President in Washington that is not only lacking knowledge on the region, but is so inept with foreign policy that he will not be able to reign in Israel, Syria, or Russia’s protection of Syria.

In a rational world, Assad or Hezbollah wouldn’t dare take on the IDF, let alone launch Scud missiles into Israel. They would know that doing so would ignite a devastating war. However, this is the Middle East, where rationality goes out the window because terrorists rarely think along those lines. On top of that, it would be impossible to attribute the quality of “rational thinking” to a dictator who has killed half a million of his own people. If Israel keeps bombing targets in Syria, which they will, Assad might have to make good on his threat, lest he upset his masters in Tehran, and therein we have the tinderbox for the next regional war. So, what if Assad’s latest threat isn’t a bluff? If he has to project strength against the strongest actor in the region, how does that situation end?

About the Author
Saul Mangel, a writer based in Netanya, specializes in international relations, the defense industry, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Originally from Philadelphia, Mr. Mangel holds a bachelor's degree in political science. While working at a leading intelligence firm in Israel, Mr. Mangel will continue to contribute to the Times of Israel.