National Security

The More Things Change

Advances in Israeli weaponry haven't led to advances in Israeli strategy.

After almost four years of cyclical escalation and de-escalation in the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas are at it again. And with both sides having conducted hundreds of airstrikes and rocket strikes against one another in the last six days, a major battle on the ground in Gaza is likely if diplomacy fails.

But despite years of preparation on both sides and the introduction of new technologies -- Hamas's long-range rockets and Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, in particular -- the parameters of the conflict remain essentially unchanged. Israel has broadened its target set inside Gaza, while Hamas has widened the geographic scope of its operations to include the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. But with preparations for a ground invasion currently underway, Operation Pillar of Defense could very well evolve into a "Cast Lead" redux.

Indeed, intelligence collection and operational planning for this offensive have been underway virtually since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, as have the development of doctrine and the readying and training of specific forces. Israeli objectives in this operation also closely mirror those of Cast Lead -- in particular, reducing rocket threats to southern, and now central, Israel; damaging the military capabilities of Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza; and restoring Israel's ability to deter attacks from Palestinian forces in Gaza.

Unlike Operation Cast Lead, however, Israel's defensive operations now form a major part of its response to the Gaza based threat. In addition to civil defense exercises and the national attack warning system, both leveraged in 2009, Israel now boasts the Iron Dome counter rocket system, which has successfully intercepted as many as 90 percent of rockets deemed a threat to targets inside Israel, according to the government.

Still, the centerpiece of Israel's operation in Gaza has been a comprehensive aerial attack on multiple target sets within Gaza. The air operation, which began on Nov. 14, has been directed at military targets and Hamas associated infrastructure. Based on the relatively low number of Palestinian casualties -- roughly 110 killed, including both civilians and fighters -- in the first six days, the strikes seem to have been relatively precise. Israel has also used leaflet drops to provide warning to civilians.

Preparations for a ground operation in Gaza are well advanced and could probably be conducted on very short notice. Elements of several brigades are in the border area, including two high-quality regular infantry brigades (Paratroop Brigade and Givati Infantry Brigade), the 401st Armored Brigade, and perhaps another armored brigade. The Gaza Territorial Division, which is normally responsible for security along the Gaza border, is likely being reinforced with additional reservists, combat units, artillery, and engineers. Israel has mobilized perhaps 16,000 reservists, and is prepared to mobilize as many as 75,000. This would give the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the capability to launch a multi-division scale offensive in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Hamas' armed wing, the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades (EQB), and other armed groups in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, continue to fire rockets into Israel and will likely take part in any ground battle that ensues. In addition to avenging the killing of Ahmad Jabari, Hamas' military commander, Hamas seeks to compel Israel to stop its air campaign, deter an Israeli ground operation, and demonstrate active "resistance" against Israel. In addition, Hamas wants to prove that, regardless of Israel's actions, it can continue to threaten the Jewish state with rockets, a capacity that Israel will have difficulty completely eliminating.

The EQB and other armed groups are using a variety of weapons to strike Israel. In this conflict they have introduced for the first time in battle the Iranian Fajr-5 rocket, which has a 175 kilogram warhead and a range of 75 kilometers. The EQB also claims to have produced an "M75" rocket of similar range, possibly a copy or derivative of the Fajr-5. How many of these long-range weapons the armed groups have is unknown. Some have already been fired and Israel claims to have destroyed many others in air attacks. Also new to this round of fighting is the extensive use of multiple rocket launchers, deployed both on the ground and on trucks. This is an attempt by the EQB and others to increase the rate of rocket fire, probably to saturate the Iron Dome system. The EQB is also using a variety of mortars to fire on targets close to the border, as they did in 2009 and in subsequent clashes with Israel.

Hamas also claims to be using shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles, likely acquired from Libya, to engage Israeli aircraft. This would be a tactical improvement since 2009. The EQB even says it has downed Israeli aircraft in recent days, but nothing has been officially confirmed. The IDF did carry out a targeted killing of Mohammed Kaleb, Hamas's head of air defense, suggesting that it takes this threat seriously.

Little is known about current Hamas readiness for an Israeli ground incursion, but history suggests that they are at least somewhat prepared. After the failures of the last war, Hamas has devoted substantial resources to improving the EQB's combat readiness through better training and newer weapons. They are now thought to have sophisticated anti-tank guided missiles (the Russian designed Coronet) and rocket propelled grenades (RPG-29 and RPG-7 with tandem warheads). This represents a potentially significant upgrade of their combat capabilities from the last war. Of course, these capabilities have yet to be tested in battle.

Nonetheless, Hamas and the other groups are probably approaching the limit of their ability to strike Israel. They may still be able to fire at high volume for short periods, but it is likely that the overall number of rockets fired will decrease as stocks are depleted, the rocket logistical system is disrupted, and launch crews are killed and wounded. Daily totals have already begun to slip significantly. Hamas will likely try to keep firing -- even at reduced capacity -- and shoot off small numbers of long-range rockets aimed at Tel Aviv and perhaps Jerusalem. It also promises operational "surprises." Still, Hamas' best hope is that a ceasefire will end the exchange of strikes before it runs out of rockets or Israel launches a ground attack. That would constitute at least a qualified victory for Hamas.

Failing a ceasefire, it is likely that the conflict will escalate into something resembling Operation Cast Lead. Continuing rocket fire, even if at lower levels of intensity, will push the Israeli government toward ground operations in Gaza. In this event, Israel may not be satisfied with simply ending rocket fire. It may well attempt to inflict a much more punishing blow against Hamas and its political and military structure in Gaza, all the more so because a majority of Israelis appear to support an expansion of the war. To strike a lasting blow at Hamas, however, Israel will have to mount a substantial ground offensive inside Gaza and maintain it long enough to destroy Hamas' facilities and forces. Still, it would be virtually impossible for Israel to permanently eliminate Hamas' military capability, meaning that we could be looking at yet another iteration of this conflict a few years from now.

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Don't Go There

Why President Barack Obama should not visit Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced last week that President Vladimir Putin had called to congratulate Barack Obama on his reelection and claimed that the American president accepted an invitation from Putin to come to Russia. Obama's plans, which have not yet been publicly announced, seem truly puzzling.

In the past 12 months, Putin's foreign and domestic policies have been nothing but a brazen, in-your-face challenge to U.S. interests and values. Russia has sided with Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria as it slaughtered tens of thousands of its own citizens, casting three vetoes in the U.N. Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions. Moreover, it has signaled the end of its already limited and caveat-ridden support for international efforts to contain a nuclear-bound Iran.

Closer to home, Kremlin-sponsored goons have heckled and hounded Obama's own ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, and Kremlin-controlled television networks have aired vile, Soviet-style propaganda "documentaries" accusing McFaul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and, the United States more broadly, of organizing and funding Russia's anti-Putin, pro-democracy opposition.

Domestically, the regime has been relentless in ratcheting up repression. Under laws passed in quick succession following Putin's inauguration in May, the government has meted out huge fines and lengthy prison terms for participants in "unsanctioned" demonstrations; branded humanitarian and civil rights organizations as "foreign agents" for accepting international funding; introduced Internet censorship; and established stiff penalties for "libel" against state officials. A few weeks ago, with barely any protest from the White House, the Kremlin expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development from the country after 20 years of work and billions of dollars spent by U.S. taxpayers to promote democracy, civil society, and economic development in Russia. Just last week, Putin signed into law new legislation vastly expanding the definition of treason (which can be punished by up to 20 years in jail). One can be considered a traitor in today's Russia for as little as providing or receiving information from a foreign organization deemed hostile to Russia's interests. (Amnesty International, for example, could qualify.)

In August, two members of the punk band, Pussy Riot, who sang at the altar of the Christ the Savior church in Moscow and called on the "Mother of God to rid us of Putin," were sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Aged 22 and 24, one is the mother of a five-year-old boy and the other of a four-year-old girl. They petitioned to serve in or around Moscow -- as is normal practice for convicted Muscovites. Instead, they were sent to notorious prison camps in Mordovia and Perm, where tens of thousands died in Stalin's gulag and where the Soviet government tormented the most dangerous dissidents. Meanwhile, the 17 protesters arrested on the eve of Putin's inauguration on May 6 are still in "pre-trial detention" where they could spend months or even years in conditions that would be considered torture in Europe or the United States. (One of them has already been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail).  

Possibly signaling the regime's transition from "softer" authoritarianism to a more traditional repression, the Kremlin further tested the waters with indictments against Russia's two top opposition leaders: blogger and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny and socialist Sergei Udaltsov. The former is accused of stealing 13,000 cubic yards of timber and the latter of plotting to overthrow the regime with the assistance of the Georgian government. Now two of Udaltsov's closest associates have already been arrested; the third, Leonid Razvozzhayev, was kidnapped by the FSB in Kiev, brought to Moscow, and held handcuffed without water, food, or access to a toilet until he "confessed" to plotting, with Udaltsov, to instigate mass riots to bring down the government It is almost certain that both Navalny and Udaltsov are headed for arrests, trials, and lengthy prison terms. 

Given this record, both the Russian opposition and the regime would undoubtedly interpret Obama's visit as a show of support for the Kremlin as it continues to crack down on a non-violent opposition that demands free and fair elections, equality before the law, freedom of speech, and the end of corruption.

Occasionally, in the conduct of foreign policy, statesmen are forced to choose between their respective country's values and their interests. This, however, can hardly be the case here. Russia is no help -- or worse -- with Iran or Syria. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will end what has been Moscow's main contribution to U.S. national security: its permission to transport troops and weapons across Russia through the so-called Northern Distribution Network.

This leaves only one conceivable reason for the White House's neglecting what should be an overarching U.S. goal of facilitating Russia's transition to a freer, more democratic, stable, and prosperous state: the administration's aim to make even deeper reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in pursuit of Obama's declared goal of a "world without nuclear weapons," as he put it in his 2009 speech in Prague, by means of another arms control agreement with Russia.  

If that's the case, then turning a blind eye to the regime's increased repression and Obama's visit to Moscow can't be the only conditions for the Kremlin's cooperation. Surely, Putin will continue to demand the scuttling of missile defense systems in Europe.

I, for one, have often given the Obama White House the benefit of the doubt where the Russia policy was concerned. But it would be hard to do the same this time if core U.S. values and security goals are being sacrificed on the altar of a hardly urgent "arms control" deal with a regime in Moscow that has been so hostile to both. The president should stay home.

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImages