Middle East War: A Quneitra Option?

The New York Times features an insightful op-ed today by Michael Young, a veteran reporter in Lebanon, about the current Israeli-Hezbollah war (I don’t agree with its conclusion, but that’s for another post). Young points to a central problem: Syria is the real power behind Hezbollah, but Israel is attacking Lebanon, which has no control over it.

That’s not totally right: Israel may very well be blockading Lebanon and knocking out the Beirut airport in preparation for a ground campaign, which is the only way to destroy Hezbollah’s military capability on its northern frontier. But this is taking a severe toll in civilian casualties. Consider me skeptical of the idea that harming Beirut will get enough Lebanese to gather up the strength to evict Hezbollah from south Lebanon.

There is, however, another possible way for Israel to approach the problem, which we might call the “Quneitra Option.”

Quneitra is a Syrian town on the Golan Heights just over the border from Israel; Israel occupied it from 1967 to 1973, and withdrew as part of the post-Yom Kippur War disengagement. It is now abandoned, and part of the DMZ between Syria and Israel. It stands as an important symbol for Syria as a first step toward regaining the Golan, and Damascus regularly accuses Israel of destroying the town as it left (Israel says that it was destroyed in fighting).

Perhaps a better way for Israel to approach the problem is to re-occupy Quneitra. Naysayers will say that this is madness, as it opens up a Syrian front. But I am doubtful. The Syrian military is incredibly weak: it lacks spare parts for its Cold War-vintage Soviet equipment, and remember that we are talking about a country that was literally hours away from complete defeat in 1973, when Soviet nuclear threats got it a cease-fire. The Syrians are no match for Israel and they know it: that is why they use Hezbollah’s asymmetric warfare as a strategy.

And that is also why Israel should use traditional warfare against Syria as a response. Were Israel to reoccupy Quneitra, it would send the Syrians a very powerful signal: we are prepared to start taking your territory. And unlike densely populated south Lebanon, this would require neither risk to nor occupation of civilians. Perhaps Israel should just keep moving two miles at a time into the lightly populated area east of the Golan any time that either Hamas or Hezbollah engages in any acts of war or terror. That would send a stronger signal than bombing Beirut and save civilians to boot.

It would be a dangerous game, but far less so than another invasion of Lebanon itself.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

5 thoughts on “Middle East War: A Quneitra Option?”

  1. The one problem with that solution, and it is not a small one is that Syria would run immediately to Iran. They ARE a force to be reckoned with…

  2. That option would work if the USA weren't mired in a pointless, strength-draining war; we'd be there to dare Iran to help Syria.

  3. What happens if Syria implements the 4th generation warfare technique that's being used against the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq?

  4. "Dangerous" isn't quite the word I'd use for this tactic. Insane would be more like it, to the point that I'm surprised to see it being talked about, let alone proposed seriously.
    The Israelis under Olmert have already destroyed civilian infrastructure in Gaza and much of Lebanon on the apparent theory that if you want to get rid of a terrorist movement that operates like fish in the sea, you poison the sea. How well this might work against terrorists remains to be seen, but it's clearly taking its toll on the sea.
    (A parallel would be if we, in response to that attempt to bomb LAX in 2000, had bombed out Vancouver's airports and ferry and marine terminals, destroyed all its communications with the rest of Canada, and bombed every neighborhood where the guy and his associates had ever set foot. Think about that. Not so irrelevant either because the Israeli bombing campaign has now killed eight Canadian nationals. Americans and others are likely to be killed soon enough if it keeps on. Or as if the British campaign against the IRA involved bombing Dublin airport and destroying Irish infrastructure.)
    As Wimberly points out in a later post, much of that infrastructure in Gaza and Lebanon was paid for and built up by EU taxpayers (and probably American ones too).
    The EU, toothless as it is, has a dog in this hunt. It may be that all it has is money, but money is something the countries and people of the Middle East need desperately. It also gives Israel lots of trade preferences that the Israeli economy desperately needs. The same for the Palestinians, I think.
    It isn't just Israel and the US against a bunch of feckless and underhanded Middle Eastern states and statelets; others are involved. What the Israelis do is universally regarded as either condoned or instigated by the US.
    I don't doubt that the bush administration wouldn't bat an eye if the Israelis moved into Syria. But even with Rice's trip today, we've basically made it possible for everybody else to discount what we do or say because they already know our position. And that's in spite of the fact that we– this very administration for the first time explicitly– now support an eventual Palestinian state. We'll support whatever the Israelis do.
    And if they actually took such a step, what they'd demonstrate is that they recognize absolutely no limits. Would that put them in the nuclear blackmailing business by extension?

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