Sometime on January 30, 2013, Israel invaded the sovereign airspace of Syria and destroyed a large target or targets. While Israeli officials are still slide-stepping confirmation of details and still only and hinting at responsibility, signals went out almost at once from highly-placed Israelis tending to confirm the official American account: that Israel had hit a convoy of trucks carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles towards Lebanon. It seems also likely that Syria is right in claiming that a research facility in theDamascus suburb of Jamraya was struck at the same time.
A brief excursus into history
There is a long history of such unilateral acts of violation of the airspace of its neighbours by Israel. There was the surprise air strike carried out on June 7, 1981, by the Menachem Begin government, which took out the Osirk nuclear reactor being built for the government of Saddam Hussein by the government ofFrance, then headed by Jacques Chirac. On that occasion Israelquickly acknowledged the deed, claiming to have knowledge that the reactor would become active in “less than a month.” Ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian were killed. France led governments around the world in declaring the act “unacceptable.” Israel was rebuked by the UN Security Council and by the UN General Assembly in two separate resolutions. More significantly, the Reagan government, normally sympathetic to Israel, chose to “condemn” the attack and the Thatcher government in Britain denounced it as “a grave breach of international law.”
Again in September 2007, Israel’s air-force entered Syrian airspace and destroyed a set of buildings in the northeastern corner of Syria. Again, as with Iraq in June 1981, the targeted regime preferred not to make a diplomatic fuss, as to discuss the matter would only draw attention to the illegal activities of the targeted regime. But the enemies of Israel at the UN could not be denied; they called for a session of the Security Council where new resolutions of condemnation of Israel were added to the existing mountain. George W. Bush, following Ronald Reagan’s precedent, joined officially in the condemnation while privately rejoicing (as the memoirs of both make clear) in the damage done to a regime which the U.S. regards as a menace to peace. It was typical diplomatic hypocrisy in the name of an imagined greater good.
Israeli and U.S. satellite intelligence eventually identified the target as a nuclear installation that had just received (or was about to receive) a shipment of nuclear technology disguised as “cement” and delivered on September 3 at the port of Tartus from a North Korean vessel. Russia had only recently acquired Tartus as a home-base for its projected Mediterranean operations. The Americans and the Israelis had known for some time that North Korea was donating to Syria equipment for enriching uranium and that it had seconded engineers and scientists to Syria to assist in stockpiling toxic nerve gas and other chemical weapons on Syria’s soil as UN investigation teams were getting closer to its own facilities. At that time, Syriapossessed already hundreds of missiles having a range of over 350 miles.
Assad’s government had already concluded in 2007 that the possession of weapons of mass destruction by an Arab power was no longer an issue that anyone in political life in our part of the world wants to know about.
Reaction to the incident of January 30, 2013
Following the incident of January 30, 2013, official spokesmen for Syria and for Iran asserted, respectively, that Syria had “the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation,” and that the deed would have “grave consequences for Tel Aviv.” Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s National Security Council said that “the Islamic world will not allow aggression against Syria.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry denounced these “unjustified assaults on the territories of an independent and sovereign country, which constitutes a blatant violation of the U.N. charter — whatever the justification.” A statement released by the Arab League called the strike “a blatant violation of the territories and sovereignty of an Arab country.” Spokesmen for the rebels also condemned the attack – no doubt calculating that the only way remaining for Assad to survive was to use the Israeli action as an opportunity, somehow, to rally the Muslim world against Israel.
None of this surprised anyone. It was the dog that did not bark that was significant. Given the nearly-universal concern that Syria’s dictator might seek a Gotterdammerung ending for himself, and given the world’s lack of lack of reliable knowledge about the location of all of the WMD that Syria is known to possess, we have to assume that our political leaders, in their heart of hearts, would not mind seeing more of the same – so long as they do not have to stand up in the broad light of day and defend Israel’s actions.
Since that event back in September 2007, the “Arab Spring” has almost utterly destabilized the Arab Middle East, dramatically changing the diplomatic context. The most recent signs of Spring include the impending collapse into anarchy of the largest Arab nation, Egypt (where most western commentators had originally pretended to see the best proof of progress towards democracy and stability) and the impending collapse into anarchy of Syria (the regime that everyone agreed in January 2011 was the least vulnerable.) Everywhere, Islamist zeal is overwhelming everything left standing from the collapse of old regimes and thwarting all our efforts to find and support decent regimes.
Anti-Zionism as appeasement
Today, as in the 1930s, ascendant wisdom among opinion elites, including the people in the Universities, and among the leaders of the mainline churches, is a compound of naivety and cynicism. The same spirits who in the 1930s proudly re-iterated pacifist and idealist slogans are today united behind “anti-Zionist” slogans. The logic is the same. Israel has never had the luxury of imagining that as we do that, so long as everyone refrains from imagining that our way of life has an enemy the quiet life will go on for ever. Living under daily existential threat,Israel has had to build great walls to contain the enemy; she has had to endure the costs and humiliation of pervasive anti-terrorist scrutiny over civilian life and private life as well as the crushing burden of military preparedness.
Today, decent people denounce Israel’s warmongering just as in the 1930s decent people clamored against the warmonger Winston Churchill. President Obama (who sees nothing to admire in Winston Churchill) has so far calculated, as Chamberlain (and for that matter Franklin Roosevelt) were calculating until mid-1939 ) that to act realistically would bring down condemnation from almost the entire opinion elite. [See my essay, “A Gathering Storm as President Obama mulls over ‘red lines’” (11 Mar 2012 )].
But the response – or rather, the lack of response — from the major-league governments suggests that a degree of realism may at last be penetrating to the highest levels. As late as 2007 the calculation was that Syria’s alliance with Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as its evident grip on the Hezbollah terrorists who operate out of Lebanon, had to be treated as unfortunate facts of life. Russia (along with another veto-holding Member of UN Security Council, China) remains committed to protecting Syriafrom UN condemnation, largely on account of its concern about setting precedents for interference in internal matters. Until recently, Russia’s diplomats were still dealing closely with Assad regime and supporting publicly Assad’s case that its enemies are terrorists. It was just seemed too risky to do anything about these facts. But Russia has recently withdrawn her objections to calls for Assad to step aside and has begun to hint that they agree that the Assad regime has little hope of surviving. Now Syria’s only ally is Iran, a universal pariah at the moment on account of its continuing violation of UN Resolutions requiring it to cease its preparations for nuclear capability.
Today Syria is on the cusp of liquidation. It has no friends in the Arab world, where it was only recently a major player. Boaz Ganor, Executive Director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Centre a Herzlia (Israel), explains the stake that the rest of the world has in this matter: “If Syria’s weapons end up with jihadist groups like Al Qaeda or its proxies. That would be a global threat… In no time … we’ll see it all over the world.” [“Syria Says it has right to Counterattack Israel“, NYT, January 31, 2013.]
The recovery of realism?
We are back where we were in the mid-1930s. It is as clear today as it was then what must be done. The side that is committed out loud to the destruction of our civilization is still at disadvantage – strategically, diplomatically and morally — as Hitler, Mussolini and company were as late as 1937. Then as now, our elected leaders were fearful of taking necessary actions to turn around the advantage/disadvantage scale. Fear of the appearance of “warmongering” inspired them to pretend not to notice when Hitler violated the most solemn international agreements by occupation of the Rhineland (1936), at a time when, as archives from the German side have made abundantly clear, Hitler would have been quickly toppled by the leaders of his own armed forces had the armies and air-forces of the major western nations acted with modest force.
Today, we find the clearest analogies to Hitler’s provocations of the mid-thirties in the defiant behaviour of Iran and her allyNorth Korea. As well, Iran, alongside other more “respectable” principals such as Saudi Arabia and her oil-rich neighbours, is busy enabling a range of terrorist extreme-Islamist entities dedicated to destroying the advantages of ourselves and our allies and preparing us for the global victory of Islam.
Israel has never had the luxury of ignoring what world opinion concludes about the activities that she pursues in the name of self-defense. Israel seems to be most vulnerable of all, because it is physically closest. But this is a relative matter and will become irrelevant when North Korea and Iran become fully equipped with the longest-range missiles and nuclear and chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction or when the Islamization of such presently wobbly regimes as those of Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Algeria, and Egypt is completed.
Israel for the moment has the advantage over us of not being free to ignore the imminence of this threat. By the time that our governments and our public are able to see that we are all equally under threat, it will be too late. In the meanwhile, there is double-mindedness on the part of the American government and other Western governments with respect to Israel’s readiness to act unilaterally against the threat that hangs over all of us. The small corner of the mind that remains capable of rationality cannot fail to appreciate the benefits to all of us of what Israelhas done by her pre-emptive actions against Syria, including the air strikes of 1981, 2007 and 2013.
It is time to admit that there are no grounds for honest idealism about the Arab Spring. It is time to admit that there is nobody and nothing on the horizon with whom our governments can negotiate as moral equals. It is time for a return to realism. It is time to admit the need to put to effect our present advantages in political, military and moral resource to prevent the enemies of civilization proceeding further in their dedication to our destruction. A necessary first step towards this end is for our political leaders to brace themselves against the forces of political correctness and announce their solidarity with Israel.