The string of attacks on civilian and military targets in southern Israel by gunmen suspected to have crossed from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was a complex, carefully coordinated operation. Israeli sources say that its intelligence services, army and police were taken by surprise by the scale and slick organization of the multiple assaults staged near Eilat.
More serious than the military effect of the operation is its potential to destabilize relations between Israel and Egypt. Israel has retaliated with the air strikes against Gaza but on past form this will not be the end of the affair. Six months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the delicate internal balance between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood will be tested depending on the severity of Israel’s response. Hamas is better armed than a year ago, not least due to the greater porosity of the border between Gaza and Egypt, and it has benefited politically and militarily from political instability in Egypt.
If the IDF re-enters Gaza and launches raids against Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—its parent group—will put pressure on the military authorities in Cairo to end their business-as-usual approach to relations with Israel. It is unlikely that the Israelis will retaliate against militants in Egypt itself, however, although the deteriorating security situation in Sinai has been causing concern for months. They will expect a determined response by the Egyptian security forces, including improved security for the natural gas pipeline to Israel which has been attacked five times over the past six months. Many Egyptians are opposed to the sale of natural gas to Israel, especially in the light of recent disclosures that Mubarak’s government was getting less than the full market price for the gas.
Israel’s northern border on the Golan Heights has been quiet for decades but that, too, may change soon. The most significant foreign news of the past few days concerns the decision by NATO and its eastern outpost, Turkey, to start arming anti-government rebels in Syria. It now transpires that “pro-democracy protesters” demonstrating against Bashar Al-Assad’s government have morphed into armed insurgents whose arsenal, currently limited to automatic weapons, is to be augmented with some serious hardware:
Instead of repeating the Libyan model of air strikes, NATO strategists are thinking more in terms of pouring large quantities of anti-tank and anti-air rockets, mortars and heavy machine guns into the protest centers for beating back the government armored forces. Since the Syrian air force would certainly shoot down air transports making the drops, the tendency is to get the weapons to their destination overland, namely through Turkey and under Turkish army protection … The refugees from the battle zone would be given sanctuary there instead of crossing into Turkey and the protected enclaves would also serve as weapons distribution depots… Also discussed in Brussels and Ankara, our sources report, is a campaign to enlist thousands of Muslim volunteers in Middle East countries and the Muslim world to fight alongside the Syrian rebels. The Turkish army would house these volunteers, train them and secure their passage into Syria.
Now that President Obama has called upon Syrian president Bashar al-Assad “to step aside,” the next likely step would be a warrant for Assad’s arrest by the International Criminal Court. The beneficiary will be the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which is anything but a “democratic” force. Its goal is a Sunni theocratic state ruled by Sharia. A triumph of the MB in Syria—and regionally, most dangerously in Egypt—would be a disaster for American interests, a catastrophe for secular Muslims (whether Shia or Sunni) and for religions minorities (Alawites, Druzes, Christians, Yezidis, etc). Syria’s current political order may be imperfect but in many respects is more tolerant and representative of its diverse population than what would succeed it.
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