The war dance is in full swing

By Victor Kotsev
Jan 11, 2012

If the most recent wave of escalations in the Middle East is a bluff, it is a very convincing one. Russian analysts speculate that a military intervention against either Syria or Iran (or both) could start by the end of the month; the latter is still hard to imagine, but the time frame seems to correspond to the nature of the developments and the rate at which they are being announced.

Barring a full-scale war in the Middle East in the next few weeks, we could think of what is happening on both sides as a modern version of a war dance, a dress rehearsal for a showdown and a spectacle for domestic consumption, for the enemy and for the international community alike.

There is a widespread perception that the crises with both Iran and Syria are nearing a climax. There is a massive Western naval presence off the coasts of both countries, and the opposing sides

are conducting war games at a dizzying rate. In fact, it looks suspiciously as if the games are an excuse for them to keep their militaries on near-constant high alert (a dangerous situation, not least because an isolated incident or a miscalculation could lead to a full-scale clash). The diplomatic war is near a peak level as well.

Take the past 24 hours or so. On Monday, the United Nations nuclear agency confirmed an Iranian claim that it was about to start enriching uranium at the underground site at Fordo in Qom province, stepping over another red line set by Israel and the United States. In fact, the agency claimed that Iran had already started the enrichment process. [1] The United States Department of State characterized the development as "a further escalation", and Iran responded by announcing that it had sentenced an American "spy" to death.

In this context the attempt by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to make light of the situation [2] rings hollow and tasteless. Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz to traffic galvanized the West, and several nations, including the US, Britain, and, according to some reports, France, sent warships to protect commercial traffic. Last week, plans were announced to tap emergency oil reserves in case Tehran follows through with its threats (the reserves are said to be sufficient for a month) [3].

Meanwhile, Iran just finished one large 10-day naval exercise, and announced another next month [4]. The Islamic Republic has been conducting land maneuvers in the last days as well [5].

On the other side of the barbed wire, Israel and the United States are preparing to hold their "largest-ever" joint missile defense drill, code-named "Austere Challenge 12". It should be noted that this exercise comes on the heels of several other large Israeli war games. Thousands of American soldiers and sophisticated anti-missile systems will land in Israel, and according to a few reports, some of the force and equipment will stay there for months.

Their presence will likely have a double effect of helping Israel shoot down the thousands of missiles aimed at it in the event of a regional conflagration and adding pressure on the Jewish state not to embark on any adventure alone.

In general, sources report an increased rate of transfer of military equipment to American bases around the Middle East in the last few weeks and months. These are very clear preparations for war; yet they need not mean that a strike on Iran is imminent. Such an operation is a complicated endeavor, even for the US.

Just as Iran would need a certain period of time (known as breakout time) from the moment it leaves the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the moment it builds a bomb, so would the United States need a period of time from when it decides to strike to when it does. It could take weeks if not months to transfer the necessary military personnel, airplanes and (especially) supplies to bases in the region.

An attack on Iran is unlikely to remain limited to the numerous nuclear facilities; key other military facilities such as anti-aircraft batteries, missile bases and command-and-control structures will almost certainly be targeted as well. Protecting the Persian Gulf from Iranian mining crews would be no easy task, either. In brief, the United States is upping the ante in the brinkmanship game by shortening its own response time in the event of a war.

The escalations are, among other things, a way of preparing world opinion for war - something that President Barack Obama would be very careful to do slowly and methodically in the event he chooses to go down this path. Moreover (and somewhat paradoxically), if the next month or two pass and the war has not come, this would spread further confusion about the inevitability and the timing of the attack. It might even help create a minor element of surprise for a future attack.

There is another reason why the US, and especially Israel, might be hesitant to attack Iran just yet. According to analyst Eli Lake, an Israeli strike on the Islamic Republic would rely heavily on electronic warfare conducted from drones [6]. However, when a month ago the Iranians shot down a stealthy American drone, reportedly by blocking its electronic communications and spoofing its GPS navigation system, they demonstrated that the success of such a mission is not guaranteed. Presumably, Israel and the US would need more than a few weeks to counteract the sophisticated Russian equipment which allegedly allowed the Iranians to carry out the hacking attack.

On the other hand, the situation in Syria is quickly approaching an intolerable state. It could very well be that the Western war dance against Iran is also a warning to the Islamic Republic to stay out of anything involving Syria. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close Iranian ally, is teetering on the brink as a civil war in the country escalates.

Amid growing criticism that the Arab League observer mission in the country serves mainly to provide a cover for the brutal repression carried out by the regime [7], Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made another fiery speech on Monday that was widely interpreted as a veiled threat that his country would interfere to prevent a civil war in its neighbor [8].

The level of Russian concern about the situation in Syria, and about the fate of its only naval base in the Mediterranean, which is located in the Syrian city of Tartus, is evident from the decision to send a flotilla led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov as a show of support to Assad [9].

While there is still a sliver of hope for negotiations with Iran to succeed - the brinksmanship is also a game of maneuvering for a better deal - Syria is probably beyond hope. An optimistic scenario would see Assad leaving the country in exchange for immunity from persecution, but that is a tall order, and would likely not prevent the disintegration of central authority in the country. An intervention of some sort appears almost inevitable, although its timing and format are hard to predict.

1. UN nuclear agency confirms Iranian uranium enrichment at bunker, increasing nuke fears, The Washington Post, January 9, 2012.
2. Iranian, Venezuelan leaders rebuff US, joke about bomb, Ynet/Reuters, January 10, 2012.
3. West plans to tap oil reserves if Iran blocks Strait of Hormuz, Ha'aretz/Reuters, January 7, 2012.
4. Iran to hold another naval drill near Strait of Hormuz next month, Ha'aretz, January 6, 2012.
5. Iran holds military exercise near Afghan border, Jerusalem Post/Reuters, January 7, 2012.
6. Israel's Secret Iran Attack Plan: Electronic Warfare, The Daily Beast, November 16, 2011.
7. Muslim Brotherhood accuses Arab League of Syria cover-up, The Daily Telegraph, January 9 2012.
8. Erdoga: Turkey must prevent the impending civil war in Syria, Ha'aretz/Reuters, January 9 2012.
9. Report: Russian naval force arrives at Syria port in 'show of solidarity' , Ha’aretz, January 8 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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