The Israel Defense Forces' Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz crystallized Israel's dilemma regarding Syria's strategic weapons while speaking at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday.
Israel can carry out a pre-emptive, wide-ranging attack on all of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and strategic military installations, which would perhaps destroy them but would run the risk of launching a broad regional war, or it can opt for a more pinpoint strike, based on precise intelligence, on convoys of Hezbollah or other terrorist operatives trying to get their hands on the weapons. The second option may be lacking in some regards, but the other side would be able to sustain such a hit and not feel obligated to respond.
Gantz's audience, if reading between the lines, could get the impression that he prefers the second option. There is indeed always the concern that despite the high alert level of Israel's intelligence and operational forces, we still won't have all the information in real time to successfully hit such a convoy; and still, it is a calculated risk versus the certainty of the consequences of a comprehensive attack — war.
Without actually saying so, Gantz's brief can be loosely translated as follows: To effectively act against Syria's strategic weapons array (including not only its chemical weapons stockpiles but also its advanced anti-aircraft systems, long-range missiles and land-to-sea missiles), a wide-ranging, pre-emptive attack is required — one that would create a lot of noise.
To carry out such an attack, according to Gantz, Israel would need to overcome Syria's anti-aircraft batteries, its military bases and the ground forces deployed to protect them, causing much damage and heavy casualties. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would assuredly be unable to accept such an attack and would need to respond in a painful manner.
Two days ago, Syria hinted that it would use its chemical weapons only against "external aggression." Even if it refrains from doing so, it still has enough conventional weapons to drag Israel into a painful conflict.
Israel has no interest in going to war with Syria — especially a war that could strengthen Assad and extend his days in power — and thus, the relevant option right now is a pinpoint strike.
The estimation is that a precision strike on a convoy could pass "under the radar" and wouldn't force the other side to respond. If Israel is wise enough to refrain from bluster, as it conducted itself after the strike on Syria's nuclear installation, then it's possible that both Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon would be able to swallow the insult. They would understand that Israel is serious about its predefined red lines, but also that it wishes to avoid all-out war.
Iran cannot be removed from this formula of numerous unknown variables. Experts in Israel are divided as to whether Iran sees an Israel-Hezbollah war as advantageous for it. On the one hand, such a war would pin Israel down on its northern border and would postpone, in effect, any chance of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. However, such a conflict with Hezbollah would allow Israel to neutralize the Lebanon-based balance of power that Iran has built. As a result, a few months down the road, Israel could attack Iran without simultaneously being bloodied by an automatic reprisal from Hezbollah.
In the meantime, Gantz's message of calm yesterday to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee means that for now, this discussion will remain theoretical: Assad remains in control of his strategic weapons.
No one is prepared to venture a guess how long that will last, so it is reasonable to assume that the tensions and high alert levels, and with them the winds of war, will continue to accompany us in the coming months as well.