Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence who heads Israel’s most prestigious security think-tank, enjoys the local status of something of an oracle when it comes to pronouncements on defence matters.
He made waves in Israel last month when declared at his centre’s annual conference that Iran had crossed the now-famous “red line” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set at the United Nations for development of the components of a nuclear weapon.
A former air-force pilot and retired major-general who took part in Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Gen. Yadlin served more than 40 years in the military, heading the intelligence branch from 2006 to 2010. So his views can often reflect those of Israel’s defence establishment, and are seen as a reliable bellwether of mainstream thinking on security issues.
Gen. Yadlin says that the Israeli air strikes in Syria over the weekend were not an intervention in the civil war there, but rather a deliberately aimed blow at the movement of Iranian arms through Syria to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Still, he told The Globe and Mail that the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would improve Israel’s strategic situation by breaking up the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance. “Better the devil we don’t know than the devil we know,” he says.
What is the connection between the recent Israeli air strikes, reportedly on Iranian-made missiles destined for the Hezbollah group in Lebanon, and the civil war there?
You have to differentiate between the two issues. The attack was not directed against Syria. It was directed against Iran transferring weapons to Hezbollah through Syria, but it was not an in intervention in the internal conflict in Syria, which is another matter. This was against Hezbollah and anyone helping it build its military capabilities that are endangering Israeli security.
Whom would Israel prefer to have the upper hand in the Syrian conflict?
Formally, Israel does not prefer anybody. I personally think that anyone who comes after Assad, strategically, is better than Assad. Better the devil we don’t know than the devil we know.
My preference is that the secular liberal Sunnis of Syria will take over and Syria will be a democratic pro-Western state. However there is another possibility that Islamist rebel factions, including those who are al-Qaeda-inspired, could become the future leaders of Syria.
Still, I think that the fact that the axis of radicalism – the strategic alliance between Syria and Hezbollah is going to be broken, because Syria is going to be ruled by Sunnis who are now oppressed by Iran and Hezbollah – ... is a positive strategic development for Israel. The Syrian army, which was a formidable force with advanced air defences and a lot of rockets and missiles and chemical weapons, is not going to be the threat it is today.
Most of the Syrians are secular, not extreme Sunnis, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that a more risky option will develop – maybe a Somalia-type or Iraq-style country. But I still think that the military threat to Israel will be less than the conventional and unconventional military threat posed by Assad.
What about the reports that the Israeli strikes also targeted military installations and killed scores of Syrian soldiers?
I think that at most it was collateral damage to soldiers who were close to the Hezbollah arms depots that were attacked. To the best of my knowledge, Israel didn’t attack any pure Syrian target. It was only weapons on their way to Hezbollah.
Arms from Iran have been moving through Syria to Hezbollah for years, so what made this strike necessary at this time?
Because quantity is important. Every missile that was destroyed, according to the reports, is one missile less on Tel Aviv in a future conflict. We drew a red line on transfer of advanced weapons systems, and any time you can stop it, that will affect any future conflict.
So is Israel taking advantage of Syria’s disintegration to go after these weapons?
Hezbollah viewed Syria as a safe place for contingency storage of weapons for a future conflict. Storing them in Lebanon was not legitimate because it would violate United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 [which ended the 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel], so they kept most of the weaponry in Syria. But now Syria is not safe enough, and they see Lebanon as a safer place.
This interview has been edited and condensed.