Howard Epstein




Last week I set out here a spoof letter that might have been written by an anonymous person, claiming to have assisted Russian expansion by leaving vacuums which Putin could – and smartly did – fill. The spoof part was the form. The content was very definitely for real. Under Obama’s watch, the master-tactician – and strategist – in the Kremlin spent eight years honing his military to a state of readiness in a line from Finland to Damascus, via Crimea, ready that is to move militarily against Western interests at a moment’s notice, with no realistic barriers impediments. He has taken Crimea, and continues to threaten Ukraine, has already imposed his will in Syria and, until now at least, saved the Assad regime.

The problem for Putin is that he cannot fight every battle for Assad, who appears to be losing ground not only in Hama, 213 km north of Damascus, but also around 2.13 km from his presidential palace in the suburbs of Damascus. Indeed, Putin may have had the edge taken off his appetite for Alawite salvation by receiving, one assumes, the true figures of Russian losses in the Syrian theatre. This week they have been reported (according to evidence gathered by Reuters) as being three times as high as those disclosed, with officers as well as ordinary troops finding their way back to Mother Russia in body bags. Military casualties abroad are not as politically sensitive in Russia as in some other countries, but they will not enhance Putin’s standing should the true casualty numbers leak out.

Meanwhile, in Syrian air-space, so far, the Israeli PM appears to have maintained freedom of movement, but it is not entirely clear whether that is because Putin has been persuaded by Netanyahu to turn a blind eye to Israeli incursions to take out advanced missiles otherwise destined for Hezbollah, or because Israeli military boffins have managed to neutralise the s300 and s400 anti-aircraft systems that Putin had installed in Syria. One supposes that if the latter were true, the former would have to be adopted as the cover story, for otherwise the much-vaunted “impenetrable” Russian anti-aircraft system would lose something of its sheen – as would Russian prestige.

Be all that as it may, Hezbollah, and their Iranian compatriots, continue to move closer to Israeli-controlled territory on the Golan (you remember the Golan, the strategically vital Heights that certain groupings in this country wanted us to hand back to What-Used-To-Be-Syria some years ago), with all that that spells in terms of a direct, or quasi-direct, confrontation between Israel and Iran.

The usually well-informed Caroline Glick reported in her op-ed in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post:

This week we learned Iran has built underground weapons factories in Lebanon. The facilities are reportedly capable of building missiles, drones, small arms and ammunition. Their underground location protects them from aerial bombardment.

Whilst Hezbollah and Iran are also suffering losses in former-Syria, they consider that they have plenty of time and, hey what value do the lives of their “Soldiers for Islam” have anyway? (Until Israel claims them, of course.) If those subterranean factories exist, and I for one would not bet against Ms Glick, they will be stockpiling their output for a rainy day. That will be the day on which they start raining down on us.

As worrying as the preparations for the next war being made apace in Lebanon – and Gaza – was a news item in the Times of Israel of March 21: Israel plans mass evacuations if war erupts again. It seems that, in the next war, some 250,000 Israelis will be evacuated, so as to leave empty towns for the enemy to attack. Should that last word not have been “invade”? What happened to seventy years of Israeli policy of settling people on the periphery to defend the country? Do we have no Plan B concerning tunnelling, where Plan A is mass evacuation? Is anyone asking these questions in the (Hebrew) Israeli press? Or in the Knesset?

We should also hear our representatives in the Knesset, and in the media – if not completely muzzled by a paranoiac prime minister who wishes to arrogate as many powers to himself as possible – questioning how quickly a mass evacuation could be carried out in the event of a surprise attack. Given that much enemy activity (not limited to weapons production) goes on underground now, and that most surveillance is a surface activity, there must be an increasing intelligence deficit. One may admire Israeli intelligence for being able to pinpoint those whom they wish to target for elimination, as seen repeatedly recently, but there have been so many world events that the combined nouse of the CIA, MI5 and Mossad did not see coming, that responsive intelligence must be regarded as our weak spot until proven otherwise. Again, is anyone in the media or the Knesset asking these questions?

There is evidence of one Q&A session today in Times of Israel:

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman denies there are 15 cross-border Hamas tunnels extending into Israeli territory, as reported by Channel 2 in February.

Answering questions on Facebook Live, the defense minister says: “There are not 15 tunnels that cross into Israel.”

“If there are any tunnels at all,” he says, “there are much, much fewer [than 15].”

So that’s OK, then. Much fewer than 15. Phew! Huge sigh of relief. Well, that’s if “much fewer than 15” is 14 fewer. Or 10 fewer. Or 7? But what if Defense Minister Liberman means just 51/2 fewer. Then I would not feel so relaxed about it. Would he? I think we should be told.

Further, this country, having survived against more powerful foes by the leveraging of technology and the onward march of miniaturization, and because Israel invented the drone (or UAV), our intelligence community should not allow itself to be behind the curve in anticipating that those weaker than us will have learned the same techniques. Asymmetric warfare is here to stay and it will be deployed first and foremost against any detectable Israeli complacency: first off – intelligence failures.

Finally, on a different but, by me, oft-invoked note, once again we see in Europe a terrorist attack on “ordinary people”, the British upper lip plainly in view, defiance and questions about lone wolves – but no introspection about how such attacks became the new normal because they were tolerated as long as they were confined to the streets of Israel. Well, now that the horse has bolted, who wants to know that it was fed hay provided by the (pre-Brexit) EU? There is, however, one significant difference between using a vehicle to strike down pedestrians in Europe/UK and in Israel: the way it is reported. In the former, as we have seen for the past few days and in the cases of Nice and Berlin, the perpetrator is identified as a malign person. When it happens in Jerusalem it is reported as “JCB Kills Two…”. Don’t bother to look for a reduction in hypocrisy any time soon. That would require intelligence.

© March 2017 – Howard Epstein

Howard Epstein is a political commentator and the author of Guns, Traumas and Exceptionalism: America in the Twenty-First Century, recently published by Amazon and on Kindle. He writes:

There is no need for me to tell you that the scourge of gun crime is perhaps the most pressing issue in the USA. My book takes a new approach – support failing gun control by viewing gun crime through the prism of gun culture.

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