Arab Deterrents; Going 'Mad' in the Middle East

By Green, Stephen | The Nation, September 27, 1986 | Go to article overview

Arab Deterrents; Going 'Mad' in the Middle East

Green, Stephen, The Nation

GOING 'MAD' IN THE MIDDLE EAST Against the backdrop of the lastest flurry of promises about Middle East peace talks, a quiet process of military escalation is under way in the Middle East, one which will dramatically alter the dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In an effort to counter Israel's military superiority, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt have begun to acquire advanced offensive weapons with the intent of destroying what American and Israeli officials fondly refer to as the "status quo" in the region.

Since the Camp David meetings of 1978-79, Arab countries have watched Israel repeatedly employ its armed forces to achieve both military and political objectives. The invasion of Lebanon, in particular, in which Israel humiliated Syria militarily, embarrassed Egypt diplomatically and attempted to impose on Lebanon a puppet regime that would sign a peace treaty with Israel, was a turning point. It led several "moderate" Arab governments to the conclusion that if they are ever to have meaningful negotiations with Israel, they must first nullify its military option. Because they are not strong enough to do that by force, and will not be so in the foreseeable future, they have decided to seek deep-strike, offensive weapons of such terrible, swift destructiveness as to make a continuation of the pattern of Israeli land invasions and deep-penetration bombings unthinkable. The concept is not a new one. It's called deterrence, or, more descriptively, mutually assured destruction.

It was Syrian President Hafez al-Assad who first recognized and rejected the military implications of the Camp David accord. Only when the Arabs had reached "military parity" with the enemy, he said, would peace be obtainable on honorable terms. Assad was merely rephrasing that ancient Reaganism: "We will not negotiate from a position of weakness." It was Israel, however, that finally convinced him to do more than talk about military strength.

In June 1982, in the early stages of the Lebanon War, Israeli bombers devastated Syria's Air Force, destroying eighty-six planes and a large portion of its air defenses. At the time, the Reagan Administration hailed the outcome as a victory for Israel and, by proxy, for U.S. weapons systems over Soviet Arms. It was more than an embarrassment for the Russians; it was a direct challenge, which they could not ignore because of the Syrian-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1980.

Over the next few months 5,000 Soviet advisers arrived in Syria to supervise the installation of an advanced, automated radar surveillance network, which included low-altitute acquisition and ground-control intercept radars, and new antiaircraft missiles. The SA-2s, 3s and 6s that Israel ahd successfully suppressed were supplemented by SA-5 surface-to-air missiles--the first introduction of such weapons outside the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries.

Not all of Syria's new capabilities were defensive. An integrated command, control and communications system was adopted, complete with AN-26 aircraft, providing an airborne radio relay. For the first time Syria had the potential, at least, to coordinate a land, air and sea attack force. More sophisticated T-72 tanks and Mi-24 attack helicopters arrived, along with SU-22 and MIG-27 Flogger D fighter-bombers with deep-strike attack potential. In early June of this year the Russians finally agreed to supply the MIG-29 Fulcrum, a plane comparable in performance to the U.S.--and, thus, Israeli--F-16.

Perhaps most worrisome to the Israelis, the Russians sold to Syria, installed and temporarily manned as many as nine batteries of SS-21 tactical ballistic missiles. With a payload of more than 2,000 pounds and a range of about seventy-five miles, these weapons can deliver conventional high explosives, cluster munitions and/or chemical, biological and radiological warheads to any part of northern Israel. Unlike the SCUD-B and FROG-7 missiles that the Russians provided to Syria and Egypt in years past, the SS-21 is accurate to within 200 feet. …

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