For the first half of Israel's existence, the major military threats were from Jordanian and Iraqi forces from the east; Egyptians from the south; and Syrians from the Golan Heights. The northern border with Lebanon was the quiet one. No more.
Of all the military threats to Israel today by far the greatest comes from Iran and its Lebanese subsidiary Hezbollah. Iran is moving with considerable guile to establish a corridor extending from Teheran through Bagdhad to Damascus to the Mediterranean.
The July 17, 2017 de-escalation agreement on Syria signed by the United States and Russia in Hamburg gave those hopes a big boost. Israel had expected President Trump to seek removal of Iran from Syria as a tradeoff for allowing Assad to remain in power temporarily. But no such demand was made, and the agreement makes no mention of Iranian withdrawal.
The negative impact of that agreement on Israel was further exacerbated by Trump's subsequent decision to stop CIA funding of Syrian opposition groups, thus paving the way for Iran and its Alawite and Hezbollah allies to cement their positions in Syria.
As things stand, the overwhelming percentage of territory retaken from ISIS is likely to fall into the hands of Iran and its allies. The U.S. administration, which has been primarily focused on ISIS, ignored, at Israel's peril, Henry Kissinger's recent warnings that in the Middle East "the enemy of my enemy may also be my enemy."
BRIG-GEN. (RES.) YOSSI KUPERWASSER, the former director of research for IDF Military Intelligence, recently produced a paper for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs outlining five threats to Israel from Iranian presence in Syria.
The first would be Iranian attempts to establish a new front against Israel in the Golan Heights. Throughout the course of the Syrian civil war, Israel has reacted forcefully to all such attempts by Iran or Hezbollah to move into the areas facing the Golan Heights.
Second, a presence in Syria allows Iran greater freedom in moving "game-changing" weapons to Hezbollah. Those "game-changers" include precision missiles produced by Iran, land-to-sea missiles, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft missiles, and drones. Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a break from traditional Israeli practice, publicly confirmed that Israel has undertaken "dozens and dozens" of missions to interdict arms shipments to Hezbollah. So effective have those strikes been that Iran is now attempting to establish its own weapons manufacturing sites in southern Lebanon.
In a recent paper for the Institute for National Security Studies, entitled "Political and Military Contours of the Next Conflict with Hezbollah," Gidon Saar, the politician most likely to replace Netanyahu if the latter's legal woes force him to resign, and former IAF pilot Ron Tira, stress the high concentration and lack of redundancy of Israel's infrastructure, including electricity production and desalinization plants. Those factors make Israel highly vulnerable to precision weapons.
Take one example: the giant ammonia depots in Haifa harbor. Already in 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah missiles reached as far as Haifa. A direct hit on the ammonia storage facilities would result in the release of poisonous gasses that could kill tens of thousands. Not for nothing, did Hezbollah leader Nasrallah refer to a direct hit on those facilities as his "atom bomb."
So great was the danger posed that the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the facilities emptied and alternative sites found. And as of last week, Haifa Chemicals, owner of the facilities, announced that it would have to close production and lay off 800 workers.
In addition to the two threats that Israel has so far largely succeeded in minimizing, Kuperwasser lists three others from a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Iran may well seek to establish military bases in Syria, including naval bases on the Mediterranean. Currently 1,300 kilometers separate Iran from Israel. With bases in Syria that distance would be minimized.
In addition, a presence in Syria would allow Iran to further destabilize the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, already teetering due to the influx of refugees from Syria. And finally, a presence in Syria might allow Iran to carry-on with its nuclear program without be subject to the prying eyes of international inspectors. (The JCPOA inspection regime applies only to Iranian territory.) Recall that a nuclear plant in Syria was almost fully completed in 2007, until it was destroyed by Israel.
Last week, Maj. Gen Yaakov Amidror, former national security advisor, warned that if Iranians continue exploiting the current Syrian ceasefire, "the IDF would likely intervene "to destroy every attempt to build infrastructure in Syria." But the matter is not so simple. One major complicating factor is the large Russian presence in Syria. Russia has identified maintaining Assad in power as crucial to its strategic goal of maintaining bases and building a naval port on Mediterranean. And it sees Iran as the primary buttress for the Assad regime.
Though relations between Israel and Russian are generally good, Saar and Tira note that, "Russia could try to limit Israel's political, strategic, and even operational freedom to act." The latter is of the greatest concern, as Israel's response to threats from Syria and involving transit through Syria has always depended on complete air superiority – something that cannot be assumed with Russian planes in the skies of Syria.
IN IRAN, ISRAEL faces by far its most subtle and wily opponent ever, and one that has a clear theologically-driven strategic vision. Iran is capable of working skillfully through intermediaries and with patience where that serves its interests. Amr Taheri, formerly one of Iran's leading journalists, describes Iran's efforts to gain control in Iraq, another majority Shiite country standing between it and the Mediterranean. Teheran is aware that the vast majority of Iraqis, including the most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Al-Muhammad Sistani, do not wish to see Iran "as the arbiter of their destiny." Sistani has continuously advised politicians to think in national and not religious terms.
The political parties closest to Iran, most of them headed by members of clerical families, are thus now busy realigning themselves on ostensibly "non-sectarian" lines. By doing so they hope to lessen international support for an independent Kurdistan, take some of the wind out of the sails of Sunni opposition parties, and to mitigate Ayatollah Sistani's opposition. A third prong of the Iranian strategy is to insinuate Russia more deeply into Iraqi affairs, as far less threatening to the religious dynamics of Iraq than direct Iranian intervention.
Lebanese analyst Tony Badran of the Center for the Defense of Democracies, writes in "Lebanese PM Saad Hariri Joins with Hezbollah to Con Donald Trump," of Hariri's efforts to gain continued and even increased U.S. support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) by presenting Lebanon as a major player in the fight against ISIS.
In fact, the current Lebanese government is closely allied to Hezbollah, the main player in the government coalition. Funding directed to the Lebanese armed forces will further solidify the "evolving pro-Iran order in Lebanon and Syria," writes Badran. One of the members of Harirr's delegation on his recent visit to Washington tweeted a salute to "every resister" – i.e., Hezbollah fighter – and Hariri himself presented Hezbollah as part of the government fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Hariri and Hezbollah have thereby lifted a page from the strategy developed by President Obama and his national security deputy Robert Malley to disguise the former's pro-Iranian policy, which could never have passed muster with American voters or Congress. They recast American actions as part of a campaign against ISIS and Sunni extremism.
Hezbollah seeks to strengthen its control, writes Badran, over vast territories in Lebanon and Syria by clearing the last Sunni opposition. And it seeks closer overt coordination between the Lebanese government and Damascus. A pro-Hezbollah paper trumpeted the recent negotiated settlement with a Syrian Sunni group entrenched the Lebanese side of the Syrian border, "The Outback Agreement: Security coordination with Damascus, with political cover."
Hezbollah and Iran's interest in American military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces is as a constraint on Israel. In a future war, Israeli attacks on the LAF would be on American investments. The goal of securing American investment in the LAF is thus to effectively turn the U.S. military into guardians of the logistical routes between Iran's territories on both the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the border. Those are the routes by which Iran transfers weaponry to Hezbollah.
Whether the Trump administration's foreign policy team is up to the subtleties of the Iranians, or even whether it cares that much about the increased threats to Israel, is an open question that we will take up next week.