Israel’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz rated war as a “low risk” for the foreseeable future, but credited the risk of escalation as “very high,” in a lecture he delivered Monday, March 11 at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute for policy and strategy. “Almost every week, some incident occurs that could drag the region into a conflagration,” he warned.
DEBKAfile’s military sources: Gen. Gantz’s distinction between “war” and “conflagration” stems from the differentiation Israel’s senior policy-making and military circles have begun making of late to support a misconception that a full-blown war is no longer on the cards at present. They support this rationale by arguing that full-scale war can only be fought by large regular armies, while a “conflagration” or “escalation” entails smaller units and less terrain.
The Egyptian army, which would be the key to a major conflict, is held up in this regard as being in no state to go to war, given their country’s disastrous political and economic plight. The generals, according to this theory, wouldl take into account the low state of their units and lack of logistical preparedness and simply decline to issue any order to embark on war against Israel.
So when Gantz talked about a conflagration, he was thinking in terms of the Islamist militias in Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon and the Salafists allied with al Qaeda cells in Sinai – none of which are capable of launching war on the classical dimensions of the past.
What this kind of thinking omits to take into account is that, while the regular Arab national armies which attacked Israel in the past are indeed crumbling, the militias in their countries are mushrooming dangerously. They are bursting out of their national boundaries, nourished with arms, manpower and funding from distant sources in and beyond the Middle East.
DEBKAfile’s military sources point to the example of the Syrian army’s 17th Reserve Division, whose recent defeat in the battle for the Euphrates River in eastern Syria established a regional landmark. It removed the last gap in the 1,000-kilometer long chain of command formed by Islamist forces identified or associated with al Qaeda, which now runs contiguously from the northern outskirts of Baghdad to the eastern fringes of Damascus. The Syrian Golan, since it fell to the Islamist militias fighting with Syrian rebels, forms part of that chain. The Battle for the Euphrates was a landmark event in that it opened the way for al Qaeda to conduct itself as a transnational force in combat. And indeed, in a recent encounter, al Qaeda in Iraq claimed victory over Syrian military units which, having crossed the border into that country, lost the battle at the cost of 48 soldiers and 9 agents dead.
Therefore, any “conflagration” in Syria, for instance, could quickly spread to Lebanon, Iraq or the Golan; and a violent incident in Egypt may emanate from or spill over into Libya, Israel or Algeria.