An Approaching Point of Crisis :: By Matt Ward

Late on Friday, March 17th, Israeli fighter jets crossed the Syrian border and carried out bombing raids against targets located in or near Palmyra. It represents the most northerly point Israel have ever attacked in Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. It is believed Israel were targeting Hezbollah advanced weapons transfers.

The Syrian response was immediate, launching several anti-aircraft missiles which pursued the IDF jets back into Israeli airspace. Israel were then forced, for the first time, to deploy the new Arrow defense system, which according the Israeli government successfully intercepted the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles just moments before they hit the retreating Israeli jets.

Syria replied officially through its Ambassador to the United Nation’s, Bashar Al Jaafari, who reflected a change of mood in the Syrian capital Damascus to such attacks, “the Syrian response was appropriate and changed the rules of the game.” [1]

The Syrian government, under Bashar Al Assad, is feeling increasingly empowered and to a very large degree immune from Israel’s more drastic military responses, due to Russia’s ever growing presence within Syria. Assad is beginning to feel secure again and also quite emboldened, to the point that he clearly no longer fears the consequences of firing upon Israeli jets, or perhaps even upon Israel itself.

Shortly after the successful bombing raid, Israel’s Ambassador to Russia, Cary Koren, was summoned to Moscow to hear the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister deliver a stern and severe rebuke, warning Israel in no uncertain terms not to interfere again in future Russian plans for Syria. [2]

Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli Defense Minister responded as only he can, by threatening to wipe out all Syrian anti-aircraft batteries that fire on intruding Israeli bombers in the future.These Israeli fears have led the defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to threaten to wipe out any Syria anti-aircraft battery that fires on intruding Israeli bombers.These Israeli fears have led the defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to threaten to wipe out any Syria anti-aircraft battery that fires on intruding Israeli bombers.These Israeli fears have led the defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to threaten to wipe out any Syria anti-aircraft battery that fires on intruding Israeli bombers.

Israel are heading towards war. Though much of Israel’s future security strategy is understandably shrouded in secrecy, there are enough fragments of publically available information to clearly signpost in which direction Israel is headed.

In mid-June of last year, at the annual Herzliya Security Conference, Major General Herzl Halevi, the chief of the IDF’s military intelligence directorate, gave a speech in which he detailed the immediate military and security threats faced by Israel at that time. He was very clear about the belief within the Israeli military establishment that Iran’s Lebanese terrorist proxy Hezbollah are Israel’s current number one threat. He concluded ominously that, “For Israel, Hezbollah must be incapacitated or destroyed; war becomes inexorable by implication.” [3]

Israel views war with Hezbollah as being a certainty at this point, and there is a belief that this unavoidable future conflict will be different from those fought in the recent past. The IDF believe that in the next war, unlike previously, Israel will sustain serious numbers of casualties, “I wouldn’t say the next round of violence with the Iran-backed terror group would result in mass casualties among Israel’s civilian population, but close.”

The Israeli Defense Forces have been preparing for this eventuality and seem to genuinely believe they are ready for what is to come. Halevi continued,

“I’m going to say this with all due caution, but there has never been an army that knows as much about its enemy as we know about Hezbollah…But still, the next war will not be simple, it will not be easy.” [4]

Halevi’s comments reflect the growing assumption within Israel’s political and military leadership that at this late point in the Syrian civil war, after years of death, displacement and suffering, there will not now be any meaningful political settlement found that will be able to reunify and bring peace to Syria. Halevi himself believes that Syria is “saturated by bloodshed,” making any realistic or lasting peace impossible.

The second key assumption of Israel’s leadership is that Iran, under the cover of this Syrian civil war and using Hezbollah as a front, have been transporting increasing numbers of Iranian commanders directly into the Syrian border areas, adjacent to Israel. It is now a commonly held view in the IDF that they will soon begin seeing, “entire Iranian Revolutionary Guards battalions from their Golan observation points.” [5)

Israel’s military and political leadership believe Iran have been hugely emboldened by Barack Obama’s failed Iranian Nuclear Accords. Obama has given Iran international legitimacy without providing any way at all to check the real and growing threat they pose to Israel. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Syria today.

Under the direct military cover of Russia, and using the fight against IS as a convenient excuse, Iran have been flooding Syria with both men and weaponry, as well as reinforcing Hezbollah. All this is for one purpose alone, to bring the fight directly to Israel.

Israel recognize that a major confrontation is coming, as does Hezbollah’s leader, radical Shiite cleric, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. It is for this reason that Hezbollah have withdrawn and recalled all their Special Forces troops from the Syrian theatre back into Lebanon. Hezbollah, it is believed, will need them to face off against Israel in the approaching war,

“Nasrallah was serious when he said that the region is heading towards a conflict and that there would be casualties in the next few months. This is because he has information that tells him Israel is preparing for war and soon. And because of this, Hezbollah is prepared for an armed standoff.” [6]

Israeli military planners have been rapidly drawing up their own plans. Already in the later stages of preparation, plans for the mass evacuation of up to a quarter of a million civilians from communities bordering Lebanon have just been revealed. Colonel Itzik Bar of the IDF’s Homefront Command said,  “In places where we understand there is a great danger to civilians, for example, where we won’t be able to supply defenses or supply deterrence … we will evacuate…” [7]

As Bar concludes, in the next war with Hezbollah, “…all of Israel is under threat.”

Yet this fragile and dangerous situation is further complicated by one issue over which Israel has no influence or control: Russia. Hezbollah and Iran’s obvious reliance upon Russian military cover in Syria presents Israel with a huge strategic problem. Up until this point Israel have proved time and again that when they feel there is an existential threat to their existence, or are faced with a situation where hostile enemies, like Hezbollah, are on the brink of receiving sophisticated weaponry, Israel will act every time. This will not change in the immediate future.

Yet Syria is now at a turning point. Syrian President Assad is increasingly stabilizing his hold over a country torn apart by war. His successes in recent months, propped up by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, have prompted Assad to change his tactics and his approach towards Israel. He is getting bolder and has proven over the last few weeks, especially in his response to Israel’s most recent incursion into Syrian airspace, that he is now prepared to start firing back. He is actively trying to bring down Israeli jets operating in Syrian airspace.

Israel, for its part, seems to be in no mood to draw back from its consistent policy of attacking arms transfers to Hezbollah, where ever they see them. The potential for future confrontation between Israel and Syria, or worse between Israel and Russia is now a very real and growing one.

The problem Israel faces is one of balance. Do they continue their policy of strikes against Hezbollah, diminishing their capabilities which have until this point proved a tactical success, but which also may provoke a much greater strategic problem for Israel by drawing Syria and Israel into a full blown military confrontation? Worse still, Israel may even be drawn into an open confrontation with Russia.

Ominously, the beginnings of this may be happening right now. At the United Nations on Sunday night, Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, speaking of Israeli Ambassador Cary Koren’s summoning to the Russia Foreign ministry, revealed that a clear message had been sent to Israel, “Putin sent a clear message, and (Israel) were told categorically that this game is over.” [8]

Events in Syria will continue to deteriorate from Israel’s strategic point of view. Bashar al-Assad, increasingly empowered, emboldened and now antagonistic, will continue to tighten his growing grip on Syria. Israeli border areas will continue to be flooded with Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah with fighters, all of whom are armed to the teeth and intent upon confronting the Jewish state with an arsenal so vast that it exceeds all of Europe’s armies current conventional capabilities put together. [9]

Russia will also continue to turn Syria into essentially one huge forward operating base.

It would seem Vladimir Putin is signaling that Israel’s time to act with impunity against Hezbollah over the skies of Syria is now over. The rules of the game for Israel are changing and her freedom to act decisively is coming to an end. War clouds are gathering over Israel and as Israeli Major General Herzl Halevi asserts, an approaching war for Israel, at this point, would seems to be an inevitability.