31 Jan 2013

Israel’s post-modern air strike on Syria, adventurism and pre-emptive interventions

Israel’s mysterious air strike on Syria yesterday puts into focus the shift in the Jewish state’s strategic approach in recent years. There’s a noticeable shift from its former adventurism towards a pre-emptive paradigm often described as ‘surgical’. Both approaches were driven primarily by Israel’s security considerations, but they differ significantly in terms of Israel’s appetite for major geo-strategic restructuring projects. Far from being driven by principles, this transformation is pragmatic and it illustrates the changing mind-set within the Israeli establishment. 

Israel’s reluctance to interfere directly in Syria during the uprising illustrates this shift clearly. 30 years ago there would have been louder voices within Israel calling for a more aggressive intervention that would fundamentally alter the situation within Syria to Israel’s advantage. That wouldn't have necessarily meant that they would have won the argument, but the lack of such voices within Israel’s military, intelligence and political circles highlights this fundamental shift.

Thankfully, it seems that Israel’s adventurism is as alive as its chief proponent, Ariel Sharon. But the alternative that Israel is pursuing currently will be equally destabilising and destructive in the long run. The illusion of surgical strikes is cultivated to create the image of an all-knowing, pro-active defence machine but, much like Obama’s ‘targeted assassinations’, its main purpose is theatrical (while its impact is all too real and destructive).

In most instances, there are no real strategic aims but targets selected to enhance the image of this highly-effective pre-emptive strike force. But notice how this façade of carefully calibrated, strategically determined pre-emptive operations quickly crumbles during Israel’s periodic attacks on Gaza and Lebanon, which are anything but surgical. While many see the motivation behind those attack as electoral, they miss the point that they’re a product of a type of militarism for militarism’s sake that is disconnected from coherent geo-strategic thinking, frequently lashing out violently without a clear aim.

The aerial attack on Syria has taken the theatrical nature of these attacks to surreal levels. It wasn't even clear at the beginning whether the attack had really taken place, then we had contradictory reports of what the target actually was. That fits to a certain extent with the traditional Israeli operational narrative with its predisposition towards secrecy and limited information, but it also seems to be reinforcing this sense of control behind the scenes that Israel is trying to project.

In reality, it is an attempt to compensate for Israel’s failure to make up its mind about what’s happening in Syria and whether it should get involved at all. The argument of the stability guaranteed by Assad versus the uncertainty of what might succeed him and the possibility of unleashing jihadi forces in close proximity to Israel, (or the territories it occupies), has been put on hold. Israel is trying to conceal this wait-and-see policy with the pretence of behind the scenes monitoring and surgical interventions.

Israel’s attitude towards Syria intersects with the wider western ‘precautionary’ approach. Chemical weapons (and less frequently nuclear components) have received a disproportionate share of attention among US and western policy circles primarily because of the uncertainty around them. Israel by virtue of its geographic position has become the spearhead of western anxiety over Syria. Its attacks, and there’s a strong possibility there will be more of them, are meant both as warning shots but also to project a sense of control over a highly uncertain situation.

But such attacks are effectively acts of war, a point that seems to be generally ignored these days. The paradox of pre-emptive intervention is that it often creates unintended consequences in its obsession with eliminating uncertainty. Israel, with tacit western support, might be pushing the region towards further instability by intervening with force in a highly volatile situation within Syria.


  1. What you wrote here has very little to do with the debate inside Israel. The role of the IDF is to ensure the safety of Israel and its citizens, and the debate is always around what would be the best way to do so.

    By principle, Israel does not intervene in its neighbor's affairs. It did so once in 1982, because the chaos in Lebanon was affecting the daily lives of people in our north. Sharon believed he had a way to both get rid of PLO rockets and terrorist attacks and install a friendly government in Lebanon which will keep the peace. This plan was highly unpopular from the start, failed miserably, and left us with no appetite to ever try to intervene again.

    Surgical strikes have always been the preferred way. They eliminated the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear plans, and they worked in many other cases as well. The attacks on Lebanon and Gaza, contrary to what you say, have a very clear aim, and that is to protect our citizens. When the attacks on our people from those places become unbearable, Israel reacts, and with good results. The 2006 Lebanon war brought more than six years of almost complete peace to our northern towns and villages (for the first time in Israel's history, after more than 50 years of living in fear), and the attacks on Gaza brought peace to our south for a while.

    The claim that Israel doesn't have a long-term geo-political strategy can be waged against its reluctance to advance in the peace process, but not against its military strategy. That strategy remained the same throughout Israel's existence and proved effective.

  2. Hey anonymous, you've written a bunch of half-truths there which sound like Zionist talking points. Israel has more consistently meddled with its neighbours than you imply - from the new info we have from Israeli archives about 1967 we know that Israel chose that war rather than had the war forced upon it. Israel intervened in Lebanon prior to 1982 - for example in 1978 when it occupied part of southern Lebanon. The occupation from 1982 continued to 2000. And of course there's the occupation of Palestine since 1947/8, the on-going and multi-pronged campaigns of terror against Palestinians and the martial law imposed on Palestinians since then, with only one year where some part of the Palestinian population did not live under martial law - 1966/7. That's a lot more intervening than you are prepared to admit and the vast majority of it was not "surgical". More of a bludgeon, really.

    I accept that Israel wants to protect (some) of its citizens (the ethnically-correct ones) but it does go about it in very stupid ways. Occupying southern Lebanon very non-surgically and causing such incredible hardship and suffering to that population resulted in the rise of Hezbollah which humiliated the Israel army in 2006. Blowback. That's not what I would call good results but perhaps a Zionist could really hasbara that into action and strategy that had 'proved [sic] effective'.

  3. To the 1 Feb Anonymous, and while i'm no fan of Hezbollah or the Syrian regime, let me correct one key information. The 2006 Lebanon War brought six years of the "balance of terror" to your northern borders.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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