Interview

Spooked

Spooked

Few people are more familiar with the Israeli military establishment’s thinking than Amos Yadlin. A former major general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Yadlin served as Israel’s military intelligence chief from 2006 to 2010. Trained as a fighter pilot, he has flown more than 250 combat missions behind enemy lines — participating in conflicts such as the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In November 2011, Yadlin was named director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Yadlin speaks with Foreign Policy at an especially challenging time for Israel. To the north, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power is faltering. The Assad regime has long been a thorn in the side of the Jewish state: It has supported militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and provided its Iranian ally with a foothold along the Mediterranean. Here, Yadlin discusses how Israel sees the demise of its longtime enemy.

Foreign Policy: Israel has recently expressed fears about what will become of Assad’s chemical arsenal as his regime loses power. Is there any evidence these weapons have been deployed?

Amos Yadlin: Syria has been doing this in the past. Yes, they have operational capabilities and have deployed chemical weapons in the past. But right now, it’s not likely they will be used against Israel.

FP: All signs indicate that Assad will fight into the end — recent reports suggest he has intensified his military activity, including the movement of rockets, construction of new bunkers, and expansion of existing facilities. What is Israel doing to defend itself, should chemical weapons be mounted on long-range SCUD missiles?
 
AY: Israel can defend itself in more than one way. It will not only rely on defense only. The combination of good intelligence and a strong Air Force can deter SCUDs.

FP: Geopolitically, how different is the Syrian scenario from the Libyan?

AY: I would like to refer you to an analysis I co-wrote, titled "Syria: The case for the devil we don’t know." Unlike Libya, Assad is actively backed by Russia and China. Unlike Egypt, the Syrian army is ready to kill its own citizens over and over.

FP: Syria’s civil war has increasingly spilled over to bordering countries. If the regime falls, there is a possibility Assad may attempt to pass his stockpiles of chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Is there coordination between Israel, the United States, and regional forces to contain them?

AY: The United States, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan share the same interest in stopping transfers of chemical weapons to Hezbollah.

FP: In your opinion, could Western intervention in the Syrian conflict lead to a proxy war with Iran, also potentially drawing in Russia? Where would that leave Israel?

AY: There is no way Russia, Iran, or Israel will step in to stop a Western-NATO-Turkish operation. Iran has no military capability to project power. Russia won’t use military force. Israel won’t use military force unless its borders are attacked.

FP: What is the nature of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal? He said he would use them against foreign forces only. Could he potentially use them against his domestic opponents, which he claims are foreign-backed al Qaeda groups, if they threaten his hold on power in Damascus?

AY: Assad has a wide range of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, sarin, and VX gas. I imagine he could use them internally as a last resort.

FP: What is the significance, apart of the psychological effect, of the assassination of top Syrian security officials last week? Did it really damage the regime’s operational capabilities?

AY: The assassinations were substantial. Four senior officials were killed. This had a psychological effect, but also a serious operational one. Still, history proves regimes can survive even after stronger strategic setbacks.

FP: How substantial is Iran’s influence over Assad’s policies?

AY: The regime is still the most powerful military force in Syria. It is backed by Iran, but Assad fully controls what happens in Syria. He’s no Iranian puppet.

FP: Do you anticipate that Syria will be divided into sectarian regions after Assad’s fall?

AY: A division into cantons is a possible scenario. [The Assad regime could create] an Alawite state in the northwest as a way to regroup and cut its losses. The Kurds could do the same.

FP: When do you expect Assad to fall?

AY: Watch for these five indicators signaling Assad is about to fall: Defections of Syrian generals along with their divisions, the Free Syrian Army winning over neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo, Druze and Christian minorities moving into opposition to Assad, Russia abandoning its protection of Assad in the U.N. Security Council, and a collapse of the economy.

FP: How much longer will the international community watch what is happening in Syria without acting, and what can it do to change Russia’s stance? 

AY: The world will keep watching until the atrocities rise significantly. Until now, the humanitarian crisis does not sufficiently bother the West. No refugees are fleeing to Italy or France. Also, until the Syrian opposition is united and can hold territory, the prospect for Western intervention is slim.

FP: What are the chances of another round of violence between Israel and Hezbollah after Assad’s fall? Do you predict that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah will try to do provoke Israel to gain legitimacy in Lebanon?
 
AY: Nasrallah does not want to be seen once again as the "destroyer" of Lebanon. Hezbollah, without Assad’s backing, will become weaker. Chances that it will start a war against Israel, therefore, become even lower.