Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, June 21, 2002
Catch-up #2. Many thanks to Joe Katzman at Winds of Change for linking to this blog. (Note: Joe: you've got a bad link, actually. The address is He and I had an email exchange on the subject of probable Israeli retaliation for a major mass-casualty (1000s of people) terrorist attack. (His original post on the topic is at the link above.) Here's the gist of my side:

I think on balance we agree more than we disagree. The main point of disagreement is emphasis: to what extent would mass-casualty counter-attacks deter future attacks, and to what extent is deterrence even the right framework to use.

The core of his proposed response was: chemical attack on Damascus, conventional attack on Saudi desalinization plants on the coast, and nuclear attack on Iranian WMD facilities. Each was designed both to damage a key supporter of Hizballah and Hamas and to illustrate how much more damaging further attacks would be, thereby either deterring future attacks or causing the population of these countries to rise up and overthrow these regimes.

We agreed that retaliatory measures against the Palestinians would include mass expulsions, which would preclude any future threat from that quarter. I suggested that Syria would be the right place to expel them to, assuming Jordan was not involved in the attacks on Israel. With respect to the Saudis, I suggested that if Israel is serious about treating Saudi Arabia as a dangerous enemy, they need to incapacitate them. That means taking out the source of their power: the oil fields. A nuclear attack on the oilfields would have major economic and political consequences, but it is the only decisive response that eliminates Saudi Arabia as a threat forever. (There was a book premised on such a scenario, set in a resource-poor future that followed an Israeli nuclear attack on the Saudi oilfields: The Cool War, by Frederic Pohl. Not a great book, actually. And not a proper conclusion; the short-term dislocations would be massive, but long-term other petroleum sources would come on line, and the economy would adjust.)

We also agreed, I think, that Iran's WMD capability would have to be taken out. I actually think it needs to be taken out preemptively; I don't think it can wait for a WMD attack on Israel to justify it. But Joe claims that there'd be no way to take out the capability surgically a la Osirak, which would mean any preemptive attack would itself involve massive casualties. This is a big problem, and I don't see an easy solution.

The best one would be to tip Iran before it achieves nuclear capability. In that regard, I think a direct attack on Iran would be counterproductive, as it would likely bolster patriotic support for the regime. I have a hunch that one of the ways we could cause a crisis in the Iranian regime would be for America or our allies to wipe out Hizballah. Why? Because that puts the Iranian leadership in a bind: either they take action to militarily support these terrorists - putting their own people at risk of massive retaliation in defense of a bunch of Arabs, whom the Iranian people hate - or they do nothing and destroy their credibility. The Iranian people would go to war to defend their homeland from attack. But if the mullahs try to take them to war to defend Yasser Arafat and Imad Mughniyeh, the Iranian people will string them up on the nearest lamppost. Of course, the risk is that they stay out of the war, don't collapse, and develop WMD, in which case the problem is not solved at all.

Our biggest discussion, though, focused on the northern front, and his suggested chemical attack on Damascus, which he thinks would lead the Syrians to end their hostility to Israel and, in fact, wipe out the terrorists of the Bekaa Valley who brought this devastation on them. I disagree pretty clearly with him here.

First, I'm quite skeptical that Israel will respond to a WMD attack in a casualty-maximizing fashion. That's how the other guys play; it's not how Israel has ever responded in the past, including how they have responded to the unprecedented murders of civilians over the past 2 years, nor how they are responding to the latest atrocities. I also don't think it would restore Israeli security.

I don't think Israel should ignore the Bekaa Valley and rely on Syria to clean it up. Israel should destroy that valley, using whatever ordnance - large conventional bombs, nerve gas, neutron bombs, whatever - was necessary. Kill the terrorists and leave the region uninhabitable by humans for a generation. And Israel should not bomb Damascus and kill thousands of civilians; it should invade Syria, occupy Damascus, arrest Bashar Assad and his cabinet, and execute them all for crimes against humanity, a la Eichmann. That would be the end of Syria as a political entity; it could not possibly survive such a humiliation at Israeli hands.

I specifically mention neutron bombs (does Israel have them? I don't know) because they combine high lethality, longevity of contamination and a relatively low fallout profile because of the smaller blast area. Neutrons could also penetrate many caves, unlike either conventional or chemical weapons, although they would not penetrate deeply buried ones.

But the larger point is that Israel has to take care of the problem itself, not outsource it to the Syrians. I still think the balance should be on eliminating evildoers rather than scaring other evildoers into eliminating them for us. I don't think you could induce the Syrian government to do Israel's bidding by punishing that government or the Syrian people. It hasn't worked in the West Bank, for one thing. Arafat is blithe about how many hundreds of Palestinians die in Israeli retaliatory attacks. What worked was going into Jenin and killing or capturing the terrorists themselves. And while Joe is right that Syria is a fragile state ruled by an unpopular minority, it's also more likely that the successor would be a Hizbollah-controlled state bent on the annihilation of Israel at any cost rather than a state determined never to let itself get dragged into war with Israel again.

I don't think conquering Syria would be impossible militarily. Virtually all of Syria's population and its military assets are located a very short distance from Israel. Israel controls the strategic heights of the Golan. Syria would have no support from any neighboring country, nor from Egypt; the Lebanon War and Operation Defensive Shield are clear precedents for how Egypt would respond if Israel attacked a neighboring country in response to terrorism: that response would be limited to diplomatic and economic retaliation, and even these would be limited in scope. If an Israeli invasion were in response to a Pi Glilot-scale attack, it would be even less likely that any other country would come to Syria's defense.

Occupying Syria permanently, on the other hand, would be difficult. But once Israel was in control of the country, it would be in a position to dictate terms, and in a strong position to rope friendly powers like Turkey or America into underwriting a more docile successor to Assad. Moreover, if the terrorist havens in southern Lebanon were literally wiped out - neutron bombs, remember - then the biggest successor threats would already be eliminated.

Punishing the enemy to make him surrender is a historically losing strategy. In WWII, Allied bombing of German cities strengthened German resolve; there was no mass uprising. And Hitler was able to foil plots to assassinate him quite effectively. In Vietnam, America dumped more bombs on the enemy than we did in WWII. We lost, because victory required not bombing the North to convince them to stop fighting but invading the North to force them to stop fighting, and we weren't going to do that for fear that the Russians or Chinese would directly enter the conflict. We were deterred by the fear of a wider war; North Vietnam was not deterred by massive bombardment and huge loss of life. And that was not a war of survival for North Vietnam; in fact, the American government had more at stake in terms of national prestige than North Vietnam did, since a draw would have satisfied American war aims (as in Korea), and a draw would have left the North Vietnamese in Communist hands indefinitely.

I think the right approach should be to focus on actions that directly increase Israeli security, and also enhance deterrence, rather than on actions that punish the enemy in an effort to deter him. That's why I think Sharon's current response to recent attacks - retaking Area A in response to terrorism - is the right one. In response to larger mass-casualty attacks such as Pi Glilot, Israel should take more wide-ranging and decisive action of a similar character, eliminating the enemies that threaten to destroy them. Israel's house-to-house fighting in Jenin did more to restore Israeli security than all the retaliatory attacks taken before, because that fighting (a) killed or captured the people who were the biggest threats to Israel; (b) established that Israel can take control of a terrorist area, not just inflict damage on it; (c) established that Israel was ready to risk military assets to achieve its objectives; (d) established that, in the end, the terrorists cannot defend the Palestinian people nor defeat the Israeli military. If Israel needs to establish these things on the northern front, I don't think a chemical attack on Damascus would do it. Rather, it would show weakness in a sense, because Israel would be taking the cheapest route to produce high casualties rather than an expensive route to achieve a strategic objective. Israel would be effectively broadcasting what that it is unable to conduct a conventional war in the Palestinian areas and against Syria at the same time, and therefore has to resort to threats of mass violence to induce its neighbors to reverse their policies and accommodate Israel. This weakens deterrence; it doesn't strengthen it. That's why I say this is the way the other side plays the game: they think Israel can be demoralized into surrender by mass-murder attacks on soft, civilian targets. It's a losing strategy that has strengthened Israel, even as it has bled her. Israel should not adopt it as its own strategy, but should pursue its classic approach of eliminating threats directly, and attacking preemptively (as in 1967) when the approach of war is clear.