August 7, 2006

Syria - armed forces on alert

As the United Nations works on a draft resolution to end the fighting Between Israel and Hizballah, Syria’s foreign minister Walid Mu’alim warned that Syria’s armed forces were under orders to respond to any Israeli attack.

I have met with Walid Mu’alim on several occasions in the past. When I was assigned as the air attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, he was the Syrian ambassador to the United States. He often attended meetings in Syria between American and Syrian negotiators when the peace process still had a chance of success. On one occasion, I flew on his VIP aircraft with him from Latakia to Damascus, and had the opportunity to speak with him at length. I found him to be quite capable and am sure he has a good grasp on not only the political realities in the region, but most likely the military situation as well. He'd be better served to keep the references to Syria's armed forces to a minumum. Mu’alim is scheduled to attend an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Beirut on Monday. I suggest they not hold it in the southern suburbs (the “Dahiyah”).

Thus far in the conflict, Israel has gone to great lengths to keep it isolated to Lebanon. Although they believe that Syria has been active in resupplying Hizballah via the numerous small roads that cross the long, often porous border, Israel has refrained from striking any suspected resupply activity in Syria. Stopping the resupply efforts once the weapons are inside Lebanon is the reason the Israeli air force has been destroying many bridges and roads around the country, even outside the main battle space of the south.

What if the conflict spreads beyond Lebanon? Will a Hizballah rocket attack on Tel Aviv cause Israel to lash out? Where is the conflict likely to spread? The obvious answer is Syria. Hizballah is primarily supplied, funded and trained by Iran, with some Syrian weapons as well. Virtually all of Iranian support is funneled through Syria, mostly through the Damascus airport. (See Hezbollah and Hamas - the Iranian connection.) Should the conflict spill over into Syria and Bashar Al-Asad orders the Syrian military to respond, how will that affect the situation?

The Syrian military is no match for the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The IDF is superior in every aspect to Syrian forces. That is not to say the Syrians will not fight – they have an excellent reputation for standing and fighting despite heavy losses. Granted, having to do battle with Syria’s armed forces will divert the IDF’s primary focus from operations in Gaza and Lebanon, however, the IDF is capable of taking on Syria while keeping up the pressure elsewhere. In 1973, Israel has fought both Syria and Egypt simultaneously, and in 1967 took on Syria, Egypt and Jordan.

The question is how will Syria respond to an Israeli attack? Will they attempt to confront the much better equipped and trained IDF with it fairly obsolete and less capable conventional arsenal, or will they escalate early on to its ballistic missile force? Will Syria use its 360-mile range North Korean-supplied Scud-C missiles, or perhaps their short-range SS-21 missiles (see image)? What warhead will they use? I believe that Syria knows better than to use any of its chemical warheads – to do so would invite an overwhelming Israeli response, possibly to include the first use of nuclear weapons.

As I do my analysis for NBC/MSNBC, I try to forget a movie scene that keeps haunting me: “The Hunt for Red October,” Fred Dalton Thompson as Admiral Joshua Painter on the USS Enterprise, “This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we'll be lucky to live through it.”