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«Did Israel let the Hamas attack begin in order to recreate the sacred union of society?»

Bernard Wicht is an expert in military strategy and a lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Lausanne. The author of numerous books, he is also a research fellow at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris (CNAM). At a time when conflicts are intensifying around the world, he provides a hard-hitting analysis of the geopolitical stakes in Ukraine and Gaza.

Bernard Wicht
© DR

Amèle Debey, for L'Impertinent: Earlier this year, you said that the war in Ukraine had opened a Pandora's box of war against Western Europe. Are you still of the same opinion?


Bernard Wicht: Yes, and I'll go even further: I see the Hamas attack on October 7 as the opening of a second front. Europe and the United States were already "entangled" with Ukraine, where they showed their weakness in this affair. And here we have a second, even more complex and delicate front. From my point of view - and I'm only making a strategic analysis here - this attack is supported by Iran, and sets American power, and Europe with it, even further to the East. We can see how many Western heads of state are in Jerusalem, not only to offer their support, but above all to try to avoid any escalation.


What I mean by war is not a replay of the Cold War or the Second World War, but a confrontation between regular armies. In my opinion, this war has already broken out. If you look at the situation in Europe, the activities of drug traffickers are increasing exponentially. We have two states that are almost considered narco-states: the Netherlands and Belgium. And the suburbs of the big cities are in turmoil for a variety of reasons. So there's already a first source of conflict.


Then there are the migratory flows that cross the whole of Europe, showing that Europe is no longer capable of protecting itself. These flows go from Serbia to the UK, from Italy to Sweden, Norway and so on. As an analyst speaking from the point of view of historical time, I like to compare these flows to the invasions that put an end to the Roman Empire.


It's not a question of crying "barbarians! But with the research carried out over the last twenty years on the fall of the Roman Empire, we now know that the so-called "great invasions" were mainly "great migrations" of populations coming to settle in the Empire.


What's more, Europe has shown itself to be defenseless. With nothing left in its arsenals, it has drawn on everything it has. The debate in Switzerland about whether or not to donate twenty-five tanks or ten thousand shells shows that all NATO countries are scraping the bottom of the barrel. Europe is openly disarmed!


What is your link between the war in Ukraine and the war in the Middle East?


My analysis is that the conflict in Ukraine is a proxy war launched by the United States and NATO against Russia. Angela Merkel explicitly recognized this when she said that the Minsk agreements (in 2014) had been concluded only to give the Ukrainian army time to build up its strength. The analysis was undoubtedly that Russia would become entangled in this conflict as the United States became entangled in Vietnam. But Russian strategists seem to be more skilful than their Western counterparts.


After a year and a half of conflict, we can see that the problem is increasingly on the Western side, with the need to invest colossal resources to support the Ukrainian war effort at arm's length. What's more, we can no longer obtain cheap Russian gas; we have to turn to North American gas, which is much more expensive. Let's not forget that all this was part of the Russian scenario.


"Putin's objective is the destabilization of the dollar-dependent Western system"

In January 2022, Vladimir Putin spoke to the Russian think tank Valdaï. He declared that the "war scenario" was becoming a credible hypothesis, that the main objective was not the annexation of the autonomist provinces of south-eastern Ukraine, but the destabilization of the Western system totally dependent on the dollar. As everyone knows, the dollar is particularly volatile.


We can see that this calculation is coming true: Germany, the economic engine of Europe, is in recession. The other countries are not doing well, and France is in a state of near insurrection. Western Europe is suffering enormously from this conflict, with galloping inflation. The UK is suffering extremely.


But what does this have to do with the Middle East?


It's a bit like the shepherd answering the shepherdess. When we see that the United States is completely entangled in the war in Ukraine, with a blockage in the House of Representatives, putting the hot potato of the Hamas-Israel conflict in their hands creates a second problem.


When I learned of the attack on October 7, my first thought was, "But why does Hamas want to do Israel such a favor?" Why did I say that? Because since the beginning of the year, or even the end of last year, Israeli society has been experiencing a very, very serious fracture. The Israeli newspapers, the newspapers of the Jewish communities in Europe that analyze this situation were saying: "Israeli society is on the brink of civil war" because of the planned reform of the Supreme Court. As Israel has no constitution, it is this Court, so to speak, which plays the role of legal framework, guarantor of democracy and institutions.


Army reservists went on strike, particularly pilots. The Israeli air force is Israel's main defense tool. When you have "militia" military pilots refusing to serve, you understand that the divide is huge. However, the Hamas attack provoked a sacred union, and Israeli society immediately regained its cohesion. That's why my first thought was that Hamas had really chosen the wrong moment.


"The decline of the United States is accelerating!"

But then... when you see that the Americans are sending two naval air groups to the region, that to do so they have to strip their Indian Ocean fleet, which is supposed to come to Taiwan's rescue, that not only are they having trouble producing enough ammunition to maintain the Ukrainian army, but that now they're going to have to produce ammunition to maintain the Israeli army. In my opinion, this is what is known as "the opening of a second front", which is pinning down American power and dragging it down. The decline of the United States is accelerating!


For the record, in 2003 the United States entered Iraq under the nose of the UN, world opinion and against the advice of two of its great allies, France and Germany. In 2023, where are they 20 years later? In history, 20 years is nothing. It took the Roman Empire three centuries to collapse from the 2003 "we're the strongest" to the 2023 "calm down guys, we can't really afford it anymore" sequence.


There's been a lot of talk about the famous Ukrainian counter-offensive, which has recently come to nothing. How do you see this conflict ending?


Not immediately, in any case. Many of us believe that the Ukrainian army was in no way capable of fighting this war, and we have some fairly solid evidence to support this opinion: in 2021, the Ukrainian military recorded 6,000 deaths that had nothing to do with the fighting. The reasons were: alcoholism, suicide, hazing gone wrong and poor handling of weapons and explosives. What does this mean to someone with a little knowledge of how an army works? That it's not operational!


Russia had such an army in 1994, at the time of the Grozny affair in Chechnya. Soldiers were selling their weapons to buy alcohol, and the officers were corrupt. It took a decade and an iron fist to rebuild the Russian army into the effective tool it is today. So to say that the Ukrainians are going to win is like me telling one of your colleagues on the sports page that the Bourg-La-Pontet third-row soccer club beat Manchester United last night and qualified for the Cup final. It's as obvious as that.


"The entire Ukrainian generation of young men between the ages of 18 and 43 is being used as cannon fodder."

Secondly, going back to what I was saying earlier, the Russians have a different vision of strategy than we do. They don't necessarily seek victory on the ground. They look at their adversary as a system (this goes back to the Marxist thinking they inherited) and ask themselves how they can destabilize it.


Did the Russians want to invade Ukraine? Why put themselves in the hands of a country where half the population (the western part) is against them and which, after a year and a half of war, is pretty much destroyed? It's not in their interest to do so. So why go to war at all, and why stay on the current front line? Because we could also have envisaged that, once the two provinces and Marioupol had been retaken, they would withdraw.


I think it was the stalemate at diplomatic level that led the Russians to say to themselves "well, we're going to play for attrition and exhaust Ukraine's potential, not only militarily, but also demographically". Because the entire generation of young men aged 18 to 43 is being used as cannon fodder on the battlefield.


Let's digress for a moment. What makes me say this is that historians are currently reanalyzing the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Thanks to the opening up of archives and the fact that emotions have calmed somewhat in the memory of the Spanish people. What's interesting is that until two or three years ago (when the new studies appeared), it had always been thought that General Franco, the Nationalist leader who won the war, was a very skilful politician, but on the other hand a poor strategist who had prolonged the war unnecessarily for two or even three years. He gave some very true examples. At the very beginning of his intervention, he could have rushed into Madrid, which was poorly defended at the time. If the capital had fallen at that point, the Republicans would have sat down at the negotiating table and agreed to a ceasefire. Now, with the publication of the archives, we can see in black and white that Franco deliberately wanted to prolong the war precisely to exhaust the Republican demographic pool. And he says it in his notebooks, in his staff notes: "what's the point of winning the war when the country remains infested with your enemies?"

 
 

He constantly left opportunities open for the Republicans to attack, and every time they did, they were demolished. Because, like the Russians today, Franco had a large fire superiority. From my point of view, the Russian strategy today is exactly the same.


The two places where the Russian forces have accepted the battle are Marioupol, a Russophile city, we mustn't forget, where it's the Chechen units that have borne the brunt of the fighting. And Bakhmout, for strategic reasons, where it was Wagner's mercenaries who did the fighting. So we can see this desire to spare the Russian soldier and break the Ukrainian potential. And on this side, the cracks are beginning to show.


Since the beginning of the conflict, Zelensky has been elevated to hero status, invited to make speeches at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, in the parliaments of Europe, treated like a real star. And I wondered if it wasn't also in his interest to keep this conflict going? After all, human beings are quite fallible and full of ego. Does Zelensky also have an interest in keeping this conflict going?


That's an excellent question. Just as the war is breaking out, ten or fifteen days after the start of the Russian attack, the first peace talks are taking place in Turkey. And the Russians taking part in these talks are saying that the Ukrainians have put some very interesting proposals on the table, and that we're moving towards a possible negotiation. It's NATO, the EU and the USA who are going to say to Zelensky: "You withdraw these peace proposals immediately. We'll support you and you'll go to war".


So I think from that point on, yes, there must have been a change. At some point, Zelensky said to himself "since I have no other choice, let's go ahead and go all the way". And he kept raising the stakes from that point of view.


From a strategic point of view, this counter-offensive is a bit of a show-off. When you prepare a counter-offensive, you try to hide your intentions from the enemy as much as possible, so as to surprise them. You show yourself weak if you're strong, and strong if you're weak. The last thing we're going to do is shout from every TV set and major newspaper: look, we're going to launch a counter-offensive and they're going to retreat all the way to the Urals. We can't be serious!


"The united Ukrainian front is cracking on all sides"

Then, when he went to tell France, London and the United States that he wasn't ready for this operation, he raised the stakes. So I think there's now a bit of a wait-and-see attitude, which can also be explained by the defections in his government. A few months ago, the Ukrainian Defense Minister was sacked, supposedly over a corruption scandal that doesn't really hold water concerning military jackets ordered from Turkey.


What's more, one of his advisors wanted to run against him in the 2024 elections because he thought a negotiated solution with the Russians was needed. And now Zelensky has cancelled the elections for next year. This united front is cracking on all sides.


Does the war in the Middle East benefit Putin?


Yes, and that's why I'm talking about a second front. It's really difficult this time to make Prime Minister Netanyahu look like Winston Churchill and the leader of Hamas look like Adolf Hitler. What we did with Ukraine and Russia. There is a fracture in public opinion, manifested in the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.


This benefits Vladimir Putin enormously and, above all, puts a heavy burden on the Western economy. And why? Because this economy is completely financialized. We've seen how this war has affected the stock market. The West has seriously de-industrialized. It is dependent on countries like China, Vietnam and many others for production itself. So yes, for Vladimir Putin it's a godsend.


How did the October 7 attack come about on a technical level?


When you read the blogs of Israeli soldiers who weren't necessarily on duty at the time, but who did serve on the Israel-Gaza demarcation line, what's striking is that they're all surprised that we didn't see it coming: "There are sensors everywhere, a cat is meowing, we can hear it, so how could we have missed such a thing", they wonder?


Did Israeli intelligence really see nothing? Or did they see the thing, but given the serious fracture in Israeli society, figured they'd let the attack go ahead, in order to recreate the sacred union of Israeli society? The question is worth asking. Especially as this is not the first time this kind of scenario has occurred.


In the 90s, just when real negotiations were getting underway between Israel and the Palestinian organizations, just when the Israeli government was open to finding a solution, every time the negotiations made interesting progress, there was an Islamist attack, a suicide bomber about to blow himself up on a terrace in Tel Aviv or elsewhere.


So much so, that Western embassies in Israel had raised the possibility of an intelligence agency manipulating an extremist faction of Palestinian groups and making them act every time to block the peace process and negotiations. Has this scenario been repeated?


Do you think the hypothesis raised by several NGOs that Israel used phosphorus bombs on Gaza is credible?


It's very difficult to say. Right now, in these wars, whether in the Ukraine or the Middle East, we're like an Agatha Christie detective with Hercule Poirot who discovers a crime and realizes that everyone is lying to him. He has to sort out what's false from what's true, based on his knowledge of society and human psychology.


Let me remind you that we are still looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq... not forgetting the case of the nurseries in the so-called Kuwait City maternity hospital.


At present, Western public opinion reacts essentially emotionally. If you talk about phosphorus bombs that have killed children, you're guaranteed sympathy. But Israel's sympathy capital is melting like snow in the sun.


You were talking about inflation earlier, about electricity shortages... But I wonder if war isn't a good thing. We were printing money like crazy during the Covid crisis, the famous "whatever it takes" approach. Isn't it a bit simplistic to blame inflation on these conflicts?


You're absolutely right. In the economic sphere, we've been playing with fire since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Western economies have been completely financialized. What counts is not the quality and value of the products that industry is able to put on the market, but corporate dividends.


In Switzerland, we're somewhat spared from this, for a reason that's not well known to the Swiss themselves: 70% of a young age group chooses vocational training in a company. So we have a large proportion of young people who, from the outset, are going to be faced with a problem of production, product exports, quality, and so on. Germany hasn't completely given up on this either. In fact, it has outsourced very little of its production; even when it was in difficulty, it always kept its industries on its soil. But the rest of Europe has outsourced everything. For example, Great Britain is a country that used to build cars and planes, that had a leading-edge electronics industry, and now they have nothing. Even Rolls-Royce and the other big names have been taken over by foreign companies.


Just look at the Brexit. They didn't realize at all in their approach how dependent they were on foreign countries and the big European market for the running of their company. An example that goes exactly along the lines of your question: the British are pork eaters and they import this meat from Germany. It's incredible! German pig farms are more attractive financially than local production.


We have weakened our economy, financialized it and tied it to the dollar. In 2009-2010, the euro crisis was provoked to save the dollar. It was Goldman Sachs who, by rewriting the Greek budget, allowed that country to join the euro zone, even though it didn't meet any of the criteria. In 2009-2010, it was Goldman Sachs that stripped Greece of its credibility and caused the euro to collapse.


So, the war may be a good thing, but it's the trigger that was missing. And when Putin says he can destabilize the West because its economic system is fragile, it's a perfectly correct analysis.


Does the United States protect Israel more out of interest than conviction, to maintain control over the region?


There is that, I think. There's also the political importance of the Jewish community in the United States, which is a major backer of the Democratic Party. The United States has an extraordinarily strong bond with the protection of Israel. When Obama was chosen as the Democratic Party's candidate after the primaries, his first sentence was to reiterate his support for the State of Israel.


One thing we haven't paid much attention to is that in 2023, the Americans are no longer there. They're no longer in the Middle East. Iraq is chaos. Iran is with Russia. And, incredibly, China has managed to re-establish diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And yet, as a major oil monarchy, Saudi Arabia has long been a steadfast ally of the United States. Whether during the Intifada in the 80s, or later, at the time of the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, or with the development of colonization, which made all Arab-Muslim populations cringe.


For Saudi Arabia, it has never been a problem to present itself as the United States' privileged and loyal ally. Now, however, they've changed direction: closer ties with Iran, an almost hereditary enemy of the United States, and they want to be part of the BRICS. The BRICS is, after all, an international pole aiming to re-establish a multipolar world rather than a unipolar one. This is a real turning point.


But isn't the conflict in the Middle East destabilizing the creation of the BRICS?


No, I don't think so. Because the Arab-Muslim street is not as tolerant of Israeli policy, the colonization of the territories, the blockade of Gaza. The BRICS are getting stronger. Russia has succeeded in rallying an Arab-Muslim pole around itself, mainly with Iran, perhaps Saudi Arabia, which is getting closer, Qatar and Asia.


There is one thing that is clear and that we didn't really mention because we thought it was a detail: the use of Chechen militias in the capture of Marioupol. With Chechen fighters filming themselves on TikTok shouting Allahu Akbar with Kalashnikovs in the air, the message could not have been clearer. Now we're on the Russian side. They are the bulwark against the Great American Satan. The Russians also let Azerbaijan have its way in Nagorno-Karabakh, for strategic reasons. Because they need to be able to use the Caspian Sea if they ever want to fire missiles at the American fleet, which is either in the Red Sea or in the Mediterranean.


Here too, it's worth noting that the attachment of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia was perceived as a kind of crusade by Armenian Christians against Muslims.

According to my analysis, the world is now organized around three poles. We have North America. We have Russia, Iran and the BRICS. And then there's China. But it's a bit difficult to say where China stands, because it's flexing its muscles in the Taiwan Strait, but its economic situation is very bad. With the Covid confinements, they've really dealt a blow to their production.


"The world system is governed by the dollar, which is no longer governed by anyone"

Then they have the same problem as Europe: the baby-boomer generation is retiring. So they've got quite a labor shortage. And then there's one thing that explains, from my point of view, why they're behind the Russians but aren't militant or making thunderous declarations against the United States: China, too, depends on the dollar. It has bought up a huge percentage of US public debt. It is therefore linked to the dollar and its instability (according to the principle: if I owe my banker 10,000 francs, he has me. If I owe him 100 million, I owe him).


At present, the world system is governed by the dollar, which is no longer governed by anyone. On the contrary, Russia is solid. It has a relatively modest GDP, but sufficient natural resources to keep its industry going. It sells grain, gas and oil to huge markets such as Pakistan and China. So the fact that it no longer sells gas to Western Europe means that we, not it, suffer the consequences.


So there are three poles, and Europe is stuck in the middle. But I'm not sure she realizes it.


Israel has just fired a missile at Syria. The region is on fire. Are we heading for World War III?


That's the big question. I'd like to say that we can't envisage a Third World War the way we would have envisaged a Soviet invasion of Europe during the Cold War, or the way we experienced the Second World War. Why not? Because the states that are in a position to wage war don't have the demographic potential to do so.


The United States uses Ukrainians as cannon fodder. The same can be said of Iran and Russia's use of Hamas as cannon fodder. When Azerbaijan took over Nagorno-Karabakh, there weren't many Azeri soldiers. They were mainly fighters from Syrian jihadist groups and Turkish mercenaries. As I said, when Russia really needs to fight, it calls on Wagner.


"We no longer have the means for a world war"

I don't see a Third World War along the lines of the previous ones. But, with American leadership fading fast, local and regional conflicts that had been frozen may be reawakened: Azerbaijan and Armenia is a case in point. Similarly, the war in Syria has been going on since 2011, and serves as a reservoir of fighters for the conflict in the Caucasus. Now there's Israel and Hamas. Libya is in chaos... I see more of a generalized, violent mess. But not a Third World War. I don't think we have the means to do that anymore.


And what role does Switzerland play in all this?


It is at a crossroads.


A triangle had been built up since the end of the XIXᵉ century, first with the Red Cross, then with neutrality, and then, from the middle of the XXᵉ century, with banking secrecy. Throughout this period, Switzerland enjoyed a special status. It was also going to be able to avoid being caught up in the blocs, of being the war vassal of one or other, thanks to this triptych. But it was linked to the fact that we had sovereign states in conflict with each other, and no authority above them.


As soon as, with the end of the Cold War, monolithic American leadership asserted itself over the whole world, a West that believed itself to be the victor while other countries were in the process of recovering from the technical KO of the end of the Cold War, it became clear that this triptych was beginning to unravel.


We've lost banking secrecy. The war in Ukraine showed that we were incapable of playing our humanitarian role: the debate in Parliament was appalling. It was limited to whether or not we wanted to sell 25 tanks to Germany. We swept aside our humanitarian tradition, forgot that we were the depositary of the Geneva Conventions, and failed to fulfill our mandate. And bye-bye neutrality, since we've imposed sanctions.


So the context has changed a lot. However, if we have lost the three major assets, others are taking shape in a new context. In a completely weakened Europe, we suddenly realize that we have an army which, although not very well supplied, is well equipped. We have a military power, a country that is capable of defending itself when others are no longer. What reinforces this is that we still control our borders. And we have our own currency. That's important right now.


Our third asset is our remarkable potential for economic and technological innovation. There's considerable potential for innovation and activity, which is linked, as I said earlier, to the vocational training system and the fact that we're creating small and medium-sized businesses. This is the solid link in the economy. And then there's an element that shouldn't be overlooked: popular sovereignty, which is constantly reasserted through a plethora of initiatives and referendums.


Switzerland is therefore well placed to act as a pole of stability in a Europe in disarray. These are the three great opportunities I see for the Switzerland of tomorrow.

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