Syria: An irresistible force (Israel) meets an immovable object (Iran)

Source: Syria: An irresistible force (Israel) meets an immovable object (Iran) –

There was nothing overtly extraordinary about Sunday night’s missile attack near Damascus, which was attributed to Israel. And yet, it very well could have signaled the start of a new phase in Israel’s campaign to remove Iran from Syria.

In retrospect, there was nothing extraordinary about the missile attack near Damascus late Sunday night, which was attributed to Israel. Foreign sources are again saying the attack targeted weapons warehouses, that missiles were again fired from the Golan Heights and Lebanese airspace, and that Syrian air defenses again engaged the incoming missiles. It’s really just a matter of routine at this point.

And yet, perhaps the attack was uncommon after all, as it could have signaled the start of a new stage. We can posit cautiously, based on the recent comments by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, that Israel apparently intends to intensify and expand the scope of its campaign to curb Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria while arming Hezbollah and other Shiite militias.

This is a long-standing policy. It was first unveiled by Benny Gantz as IDF chief of staff, reaching its apex during the tenure of previous IDF chief Gadi Eizenkot. In 2017-2018 alone, Israel carried out more than 1,000 different actions against the Iranians in the northern sector. Some of these actions were military in nature; others were economic, diplomatic, and legal. Others still were meant to influence public opinion. The result was a resounding success in terms of preventing Iranian entrenchment, partial success in terms of preventing the transfer of weapons, and zero success in persuading the Iranians to stop pursuing either endeavor.

In recent months, however, Israel significantly decreased its activities. This stemmed from the tensions in Gaza, which culminated in the assassination of Bahaa Abu Al-Ata in early November, and the disinclination to become ensnared on two fronts simultaneously. It was also rooted in the increased brazenness of the Iranians – who felt confident enough to shoot down an advanced American drone and attack Saudi oil infrastructure – which led to the Israeli assessment that Iran would no longer restrain itself when attacked.

It now appears Israel is returning to action – vigorously. Gaza is calm, and Iran is more determined than ever. Israel’s political and military leaders caution that failing to dislodge Iran from Syria would pose an intolerable threat to Israel. In other words: Whoever wants to prevent the establishment of another Hezbollah in Syria needs to act now, despite the inherent risks.

Assuming that Israel has indeed decided to intensify its activities, it needs to take into account four primary factors:

1. The upcoming general election; and the possibility that attacks in Syria will be perceived as political moves.

2. Tensions with Moscow and the growing unease in Russia over Israeli activity in Syria (to the point that the Russian Defense Ministry has demanded they stop).

3. The internal situation in Iran, a consequence of its economic distress, alongside the possibility of renewing nuclear talks with the United States.

4. The potential for an atypical Iranian response that could lead to an escalation, maybe even war.

All four factors require attention. The first, on the political level, necessitates coordination with the Opposition and other elements. The second and third factors require diplomatic coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office, Defense Ministry, and Foreign Ministry, together with the IDF and the Mossad. And the fourth factor necessitates a broad military deployment for deterrence purposes; and if indeed a conflagration occurs – to provide either a pinpoint or large-scale response if Hezbollah chooses to join the fray.

This means that Israel must continue using its brawn, but also its brains. It cannot be obstinate. It must be able to change and adapt its actions to developments on the ground. Expecting the Iranians to surrender and give up trying to establish a presence in Syria, simply because of Israeli attacks, is unrealistic. This will only happen (if and when) the superpowers come to an agreement, which Israel should certainly strive to facilitate.

The attack on Sunday night, assuming Israel was responsible, still falls within the framework of the so-called “campaign between the wars” – a fundamental condition of which is that it won’t cause the other side to want to go to war. It isn’t certain this condition will hold water much longer. Even now its viability is already debatable. Iran will retaliate sooner or later, and the result could be painful. Israel could find itself in another fight, maybe worse. It would be wise to prepare for this right now, at home and abroad.


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