Next month, Israel will conduct its first-ever drill simulating a nuclear and chemical missile attack against its cities, according to the Army's Homefront Corps.
The planned exercise comes in the wake of last summer's war with Hizballah, which fired over than 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, killing more than 40 civilians. A spokesman for the national rescue services says the drill's main scenarios will simulate a massive rocket attack on Israeli cities, along with "conventional and non-conventional" missile strikes. Air raid sires will sound during the exercise, while rescue and medical personnel practice their responses to chemical and nuclear attacks.
While civil defense has always received a high priority in Israel, preparations for missile and rocket attacks have taken on additional urgency because of Hizballah's success in paralyzing portions of northern Israel during last year's month-long war, Iran's pursuit of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, and reports of a Syrian military build-up.
Last week, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Syrian units have moved closer to the armistice line on the Golan Heights in recent months, and Damascus is strengthening its military forces in a way that is "unprecedented in recent memory." According to the paper's respected defense correspondent, Zeev Schiff, Iran is providing funding for the build-up, allowing Syria to acquire advanced anti-tank weapons and anti-ship missiles, while expanding its arsenal of missiles and rockets. The head of Israel's military intelligence research division has also accused Damascus of preparing for renewed conflict, possibly using Hizballah as a proxy.
But Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, seemed to downplay the Syrian threat, telling military officials to "avoid making unnecessary comments" on Syria and asking officers to steer clear of a "war of words" with Damascus. Peretz has been widely criticized for his handling of last summer's war with Hizballah, and the comments by senior IDF officers--including the information provided to Zeev Schiff--may indicate a measure of dissent within the ranks, and concerns that the defense minister is not paying sufficient attention to the Syrian threat.
However, Mr. Peretz is correct in cautioning against "unnecessary comments" on Syria, particularly if those remarks exaggerate the potential threat from Damascus. As we've noted in this blog before, Syrian military readiness has suffered greatly over the past two decades, thanks to underfunding and reduced arms deliveries from Russia. And while the purchase of advanced anti-tank and anti-ship weapons would improve Syria's operational capabilities, they are not enough to overcome years of insufficient training, inadequate funding and operational neglect. Facing Syrian forces with better anti-armor and anti-ship missiles would make the fight a bit tougher, but it would not change the outcome of a conflict between Tel Aviv and Damascus. By most estimates, a conventional war between Israel and Syria would last less than a week, and result in a crushing defeat for Damascus.
Of course, Syria wants to avoid a conventional fight, and that's one reason they've invested in ballistic missiles, WMD, and their alliance with Tehran and Hizballah. Syrian President Bashir Assad believes that last summer's Lebanese War has provided a template for successfully battling the Israelis, using rockets to paralyze their civilian populations, while inflicting significant casualties on advancing IDF units. Simultaneously battling Hizballah in Lebanon and Syria along the Golan Heights, the Israelis could expect an even greater barrage of rockets and missiles, striking all major population centers, while Israeli ground units fight bloody battles on two fronts. Based on what he saw last summer, Assad believes the Israelis don't have the stomach for that type of fight, and believes that the threat of such a war could force Israel into another "land for peace" deal with Syria.
Of course, Syria has badly misjudged Israeli intentions in the past, resulting in bitter defeats for Damascus. And, even Bashir Assad understands that a Syrian chemical or biological attack against an Israeli target would invite retaliatory, nuclear strikes that would reduce his country to ruin--and there's little that Damascus, Hizballah, or their friends in Tehran can do about it. With an estimated 200 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, Israel has the ability to vaporize most of the key targets in Syria and Iran, with a few left over for Nasrallah and his boys in Lebanon.
But clearly, Syria sees an opportunity in the current situation, and is taking incremental steps to improve its military position. From their perspective, Israel's civilian and military leadership is in a state of flux. The IDF Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Dan Halutz, announced his retirement last month, after a government commission criticized his leadership during the war with Hizballah. His boss, defense minister Peretz, appears to be losing favor within the IDF, and the country's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is hamstrung by personal scandals and falling approval ratings. Increasingly, the current Israeli administration is taking on the appearance of a caretaker government--at one of the most critical junctures in the nation's history.
It would be nice to say that next month's nationwide drill reflects an Israel that recognizes a growing danger, and is preparing to meet those challenges at all levels of society. But meeting those challenges also requires a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Syria, Iran and Hizballah, and that's where the current government is sorely lacking. Civil defense exercises represent a necessary preparation for potential conflict, but without a viable, over-arching strategy, their value is diminished, suggesting a government that is (correctly) preparing for the worst, but without a clear plan for deterring--and defeating--the forces that would inflict mass pain and suffering on the Israeli populace.