It’s highly doubtful that the thousands of Israelis who descend on the north in the coming days are cognizant of just how deceptive the quiet is in this area. Indeed, the border with Lebanon and Syria has been tranquil for a number of years now, but the potential for conflagration is significant, and menacing. An assault on Iran is just one possible trigger for an escalation, but it is not the only one. A large-scale terrorist attack or the transfer of strategic weapons from Syria to Hezbollah is liable to ignite a full-blown war, says the IDF's GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yair Golan.
The army is operating amid the underlying tension separating the present calm from the escalation that could very well materialize. The challenges which Golan faces are enormous, larger than those currently faced on any other front.
From his office at Northern Command HQ in Safed, Golan prepares for the post-Assad period in Syria and the next clash in Lebanon, where he will be asked to act quickly and forcefully, not just to restore calm along the border but also to minimize the damage inflicted on Israel's central region, which is expected to come under massive rocket attack.
Golan, 50, came up through the paratroopers and was wounded in the late 1990s while serving as the commander of the Lebanon coordinating unit’s Eastern Division. He is married to Ruti, with whom he has five children. His resume includes a stint as Nahal Brigade commander, the commander of the Galilee Formation, and the commander of the Judea and Samaria Division. He took over the Northern Command after concluding a stint as the GOC Home Front Command.
In an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, the first interview he has agreed to since being named GOC Northern Command, Golan revealed that advanced weaponry has made its way into Hezbollah's hands in Lebanon. He also predicts that Bashar Assad will not be deposed in the near future. “A lot of blood will be spilled before that happens,” he said. “It will take many months. Last October, we said it would take 18 months, and I think that we underestimated the situation. In my view, it will take even longer.”
In other words, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Assad survives 2012 in office?
“I believe so, and I think this will continue into 2013. On the one hand, it’s hard to put down the rioting there, which is wider and bloodier than what Hafez Assad [Bashar's father] had to deal with in the 70s and 80s. But even back then, the uprising kept Hafez preoccupied for six years. On the other hand, the opposition today is having a very difficult time coming together. Ultimately, Assad will be toppled due to the increasing number of defections and draft-dodging, his country's economic difficulties, and the eroding influence of the senior political leadership. But these are processes that don’t happen overnight.”
Who is advising him? To whom will he listen?
“The traditional leadership surrounding him remains intact. You have to remember that this is an aging group of leaders whose best years are well behind it. While it is very experienced, it is doubtful whether it has the energy necessary to withstand a challenge of this scale. Here, too, I make the comparison with what Assad senior had available to him.
"Not only does the father appear to have been a more impressive figure than the son, but he also had much younger people, much more energetic people around him, people who carried themselves with a revolutionary fervor. So I think that the probability this rebellion will end just like the one that was suppressed in 1982 is not high.”
How deeply involved are Iran and Hezbollah with what is taking place in Syria?
“They’re up to their necks with what is happening there. When we use the term ‘axis of evil,’ people look at it as some kind of literary expression, as some kind of image conjured up by the poetic mind of whoever is saying it. It’s not that. When we talk about the axis of evil, it is in the most down-to-earth sense possible.”
Are Hezbollah fighters active in Syria?
“Certainly. There are military trainers, instructors, and, to the best of my knowledge, combatants as well. They are involved up to their necks.”
Is Iran providing weapons to Syria?
“All the time. This is a continuing, constant development. The Iranians are saying to Assad, ‘Listen, you are dear to us,’ and they are supporting him enthusiastically. Part of the Syrian regime’s resoluteness stems from Assad’s sense that he still has support from his immediate environment, from overseas, and from relevant global powers. In other words, when Assad takes a look outside, he sees Hezbollah, which is helping. He has the Iranians who are supporting him, and in the background are Russia and China, two countries that are not exactly thrilled with the trend that has taken hold in the West of condemning, isolating, and advocating rapid regime change. So from an international standpoint, Assad can take solace. If those guys in the Arab League want to condemn him, let them condemn.”
Has Assad convinced himself that he will remain president?
“I have no doubt that in his mind he sees the situation as containable. He believes in the combination of brutal military measures, shrewd political maneuvers on the domestic front, and an awareness of the need to avoid angering the international community too much and to play the diplomatic game in some way or another, all in order to survive.”
Are there many deserters from his army? And is this significant?
“This is very significant, but not on the level of whether this or that brigade can preserve its fighting capability. There have already been thousands of desertions, and there is no doubt that it is having an effect.”
Are senior officers also deserting?
“There are a number of brigadier generals who have deserted, and there are also lieutenant colonels and majors and junior officers as well. It isn’t just one or two officers, but dozens, and in my view this is just another aspect of the disintegration taking place there.”
“The weapons smuggling continues”
Under the present circumstances, what is particularly disturbing to the IDF is the prospect of Syria becoming a failed state. This would mean that the quietest border that Israel has had for the last 40 years could very well turn into a border rife with terror. “A failed state is a state in which terrorism thrives,” Golan said. “When I see these terror attacks by Al-Qaida in Aleppo and Damascus, I understand that from a law-and-order standpoint something is amiss. Today it is happening within the context of a civil war, but tomorrow it could be on our border. So, yes, on the one hand the challenge posed by the standing Syrian army could disappear, but it could be replaced by the challenge of terrorism.”
Ostensibly, Golan is not concerned solely with terrorism, but with the stockpiles of strategic weapons that are in Syria. “Long-range missiles and advanced rockets, unmanned aerial drones, surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated underwater projectiles, and, above all else, the world’s largest stockpile of chemical weapons,” he said. “From our standpoint, all of these items are a source of concern.”
Are they under control as of today?
“As of now, we are not seeing any leakage of any of these arms into the hands of irresponsible or unofficial actors, but one does not need a wild imagination in this regard. The Syrians routinely provide arms to Hezbollah, not just any arms, but almost everything in their arsenal. And Hezbollah has all the reasons in the world to procure advanced weapons at bargain prices. From its standpoint, it now has the opportunity to do so.”
Will things spin out of control the more the regime in Damascus loses its grip on power?
“This is what we think, and this is just an assessment. There are certain assessments where one can attribute to pure speculation. In this case, we don’t have an instance of pure speculation. Here we have seen a years-long supply of Syrian arms to Hezbollah, and these deliveries persist to this day. So there isn’t even a question mark in my view.”
Are any of the strategic items changing hands?
“Over the long haul, strategic weapons have also made their way from Syria to Hezbollah. Let’s be modest and say that we don’t know all the details, so I believe that more weapons have passed than we think.”
Is any of this a cause for serious concern?
“The only element that I can finger as one that would change the situation is chemical weapons.”
And these haven’t been transferred?
“To the best of our knowledge, no. The other weapons, which vary in terms of their level of sophistication, have been transferred.”
Would the handing over of any of these weapons be a cassus belli?
“There is no mechanism for an automatic response and we would not do anything without first holding a situational assessment, but there is no doubt that we are living in a reality more fragile than it has ever been. I think the most dramatic change which in my view should be talked about more is that we once spoke of a large war taking place every decade, and we thought in terms of strategic deterrence. Today we are in a situation where the clashes are less comprehensive, but the home front is part of the equation and this happens like a lightning strike on a clear day. A decade ago, when we sat at the Seder table, I never imagined that on the day after I’d be in Ramallah. And when we woke up on July 12, 2006 nobody in Israel or in Hezbollah predicted that by the evening we would be engaged in war.”
What conclusions do you draw from this?
“The lesson to be learned is to maintain a state of readiness, and that our state of preparedness and training for crisis situations that suddenly unfold – situational surprises, not strategic ones – should be at its maximum, because an incident that sets the whole thing ablaze could take place any second.”
There are many possible scenarios. Do you believe that any information which indicates that Hezbollah has come into possession of chemical weapons from Syria is just cause to upset the apple cart?
“I think that this is the most severe thing that can happen, and it’s something that I feel we won’t be able to ignore. We will have to do something about this. We will not be able to sit idly by and just watch this happen.”
Maj. Gen. Golan has a pinpoint understanding of why Assad doesn’t involve Israel in the war and deflect the attention away from the predicament in which he finds himself. “Assad understands very well that drawing in Israel would weaken his regime, since it would result in damage to the army which is his primary crutch,” he said. “Assad understands that it is far from certain whether [attacking Israel] would help, and on this matter I think that he is demonstrating a very rational mode of thought.”
Is that why he prevented demonstrators from reaching the border on Land Day this year?
“Last year it seemed to him that [sending protesters to the border on] Nakba Day was a fantastic idea. At the time, we were barely two months after the start of the rioting, and he tried. But then he realized that it wasn’t such a good deal for him because he absorbed many casualties. Aside from arousing the anger of Palestinians in Syria, he failed to make any regional or international impact that would’ve scored some points for Syria.”
The massacre which Assad is perpetrating against his own people prompts a natural wish to see him quickly deposed, but the experts believe that from a selfish standpoint Israel should prefer to see Assad remain in power since without him Syria could descend into dangerous anarchy. Golan is aware of these opinions and of the risks. Still, he says that “in this world, there are times when we have to take moral values into consideration, some kind of anchor or compass. I would be very happy to see Assad go, no question about it.”
And this is good for us?
“This would mean a number of things. First of all, it would mean that we would not have to deal with the threat of Syria surprising us like it did on Yom Kippur. And there is also hope, not just dark forecasts as to what will happen in the future. And I think we mustn’t lose hope on this issue.”
What will happen to Hezbollah in the post-Assad period?
“If a Sunni regime comes to power in Syria, then it would be enough to break the link that ties the axis of evil comprised of Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. At that point, we would already have a new situation on our hands. From Hezbollah’s standpoint, it would mean the blockage of a conduit used to acquire weapons and the closing down of weapons manufacturing sites. It would also realize that it is much more isolated given that Iran is 1,000 kilometers away to the east.”
“Hezbollah is a terrorist organization”
In the past, when anyone wanted information on Syria, it sufficed to concentrate on the president, his inner circle, and senior officials in his regime while studying the capabilities of his armed forces, all in order to prepare for war. The upheavals in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, have made this intelligence challenge even more daunting. “If you would interview the head of Military Intelligence, he would tell you what kind of revolution is taking place today, since his sources of information and the subjects of his research are changing dramatically in a very short period of time,” he said.
“Think about these rebels, how they’re unorganized and devoid of a clear, hierarchical structure, and now you need to understand what is going on there,” he said. “I think it’s premature to ascertain to what extent we are succeeding, but there is no doubt that our intelligence-gathering on Syria and the manner in which we are assessing the situation in Syria has changed dramatically in the last few months.”
For years, we said that Syria was a rock of stability and Hezbollah was unstable. Now everything has turned upside down. Syria has become dangerous and Hezbollah is stable.
“That’s right, even though it’s an unstable stability, because you need to remember that Hezbollah is an actor with a far different degree of responsibility. The best indicator of this is the attempted attack that recently took place in Bangkok.”
Apparently Hezbollah believed it would not lead to a Third Lebanon War.
“When such an organization manufactures a terror attack, say, in a Bangkok restaurant patronized by many Israelis, and between 20 to 30 Israelis are blown up, then the chances of such an organization miscalculating are quite high.”
Despite what happened in 2006?
“Despite 2006. It’s a fact.”
Even though the Iranians are making sure that Hezbollah doesn’t go crazy when it doesn’t suit their interests?
“An organization that engages in terrorism is invariably in a situation where it straddles the edge all the time. It is true that Hezbollah of today does not resemble the Hezbollah of the 80s, but to infer from this that it is a ‘responsible’ organization is somewhat far-fetched. At the end of the day, this is a terrorist organization that is committed to pursuing armed struggle, and it is constantly looking for ways to implement this goal.”
Does Hezbollah possess weapons that would cause us to lose sleep knowing that it has them?
“What this organization possesses today causes me to lose sleep. I don’t know what else you would need.”
Why does a terrorist organization need Scud missiles capable of reaching Eilat?
“I don’t think it’s a question of the efficacy of the weaponry. A terror organization is also battling for hearts and minds. When Nasrallah says ‘We’ll bomb deep, deep, deep inside Israel,’ he wants to say that this ‘deep’ is the furthest point on the map within Israel. Besides, this allows him to deploy his weapons from deep inside Lebanon in a manner that dovetails with his strategy – scattering the weapons as much as possible so that Israeli firepower would be less effective against them.”
Does an attack on Iran necessarily mean a war with Hezbollah?
“I don’t think this is a conditioned reflex. I have no intention of discussing an attack on Iran, but we need to responsibly prepare for any scenario, including this one.
Is Nasrallah’s rationale a Lebanese one, an Iranian one, or a combination of the two?
“It’s important for Nasrallah to be perceived as a Lebanese player, but he can’t deny his ties with Iran, nor does he want to deny them, and he needs to take them into consideration. It is very difficult to predict which policy he will adopt if he will be asked to address difficult situations that involve a clash of interests, but we as a responsible army must be prepared for the most difficult situations.”
“I trust the nation”
When Maj. Gen. Golan speaks of the major lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War, he says: “First of all, we should remember that despite the feeling that we missed an opportunity from an operational standpoint, Israel scored some significant strategic achievements. There is quiet in the north the likes of which hasn’t been experienced since the end of the 1960s. Still, the major lesson is that next time, if we will be called upon to wage a large-scale operation in Lebanon, we will have to remove the threat against the home front as quickly as possible, and in order to do that we need to unleash the full force of the IDF, which is exactly what we intend to do.”
And this means?
“This means bringing what the professional jargon refers to as ‘asymmetrical warfare.’ Oddly enough, asymmetrical warfare is viewed as a disadvantage for organized states. I claim the opposite is true. There is total asymmetry between us and Hezbollah, and our job is to demonstrate to Hezbollah our might in action in the most muscular way possible.”
In that situation, are Nasrallah and the Hezbollah leadership legitimate targets?
“Certainly. No question about it.”
“Like any army that is fighting and analyzing the system that is at the enemy’s disposal while searching for the enemy’s weak points, it is our obligation to try and hit these weak points with the strongest blow possible, and no element in Hezbollah’s capability structure will be exempt from this principle, and that includes its means as well as its manpower.”
What lesson that you learned during your previous post as home front commander will you take with you to the next war?
“I think that the citizens of Israel need to know that the IDF will remove the threat that is hanging over their heads as quickly as possible. This is what we are promising the citizens, and at the same time we expect them to show some fortitude. I think this needs to be said out loud. One needs to look at the citizen as a fighter, and say to him, ‘You’re important to me, you’re part of the state of Israel’s might.’ There is no difference here between home front and battlefront. We must all be strong, and we must all do our jobs proficiently.”
The next war means rockets on Tel Aviv.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. All of Israel’s population needs to know how to live under the threat, to know how to go about a routine in an emergency situation, a routine of maintaining a productive day while in an emergency situation. We have no other alternative. We did it in the past, and we did it very well. There’s no reason why we can’t do it again in the future. Irrespective of this, the army needs to remove the threat quickly.”
And you’re convinced that the home front will give this to you?
“The tendency is to be pessimistic and to predict doom, to say that the civilians are wretched and defenseless, not fighters, that they have neither the means nor the knowledge. This is a very misguided approach. Why go this far? I look at my family, at my mother. She’s not a young woman anymore. She’s approaching 80 years of age, but she’s a fighter. She has lived through everything. She even remembers Italian warplanes bombing our cities during the Second World War, and there are thousands like her. You want to tell her to leave her home? That’s not happening.”
Where does she live?
“In Rishon Letzion. I have no doubt that even if central Israel absorbs missiles, she won’t move one meter. Listen, war is a complicated thing. The human aspects that are discovered during war run the gamut. Anything you want to find, you’ll find. From cowardice and misery to acts of heroism and altruism. The question is what is the overall sum, and I trust the nation. I don’t say this to be flowery or corny.”
“Training is at a minimum”
There is widespread agreement that the IDF is in much better shape today than it was in 2006. The thousands of drills and exercises that have been held have improved its operational capabilities, its emergency supplies have been filled up, and the operational plans are in synch with the mission at hand. Still, Golan is disturbed. The financial and budgetary uncertainty has already led to a cancellation of training drills, and the future looks bleak.
“We are repeating the same mistakes that were made in 2003,” he warns. “They are taking the IDF and putting it in a tough situation. We don’t need much time. One year of not training adequately is enough for us to see a drastic fall-off in our preparedness.”
Aren’t you crying wolf?
“We cannot go there. We built up this state of readiness with hard work, and not through charity. Even today, reservist training is not some extravaganza. It’s at its bare minimum. In my view, regressing in our preparedness is a very problematic thing to do. Ultimately, the army is not a cheap organization to run, and I don’t think that the strategic situation is such that the state of Israel can afford to slash the defense budget, to shrink defense expenditures, and to exhale and say that we are in the clear.”
And what do you say to those who criticize your work benefits?
“It’s insulting, it’s hurtful, and it’s totally outrageous. I’m prepared to show anyone my salary slip and the salary slips of all of my men, and the public can decide if it’s opulent. I haven’t taken a trip abroad with my family since 2007. I don’t know, perhaps this is how people who live a luxury lifestyle go about their lives. I don’t walk around with a luxury watch, I don’t use pens that cost thousands of shekels. I think I live a very modest lifestyle, and I’m a major general in the IDF. And that’s not because I’m being humble, but these are my professional capabilities.”
“I don’t claim that my salary is too little, but the IDF is a thrifty army which has placed tremendous financial restraints on itself, particularly under the current chief of staff. This isn’t the army of the 1970s, there aren’t chefs who run after generals or gala events featuring celebrities. So it’s quite hurtful when government officials and regular folks criticize the army over its alleged wastefulness.”