Russia, the United States and Israel :: By Matt Ward

Since the end of the first Gulf War in 2001, missile defense has been an absolute priority for Israel. In 2001, Saddam Hussein, in an effort to draw the Jewish State into a war he knew he was going to lose, fired 39 Scud Missiles at Israel in a failed attempt to fracture the fragile Arab coalition formed against him. Though ultimately Saddam Hussein’s attempt to draw Israel into the conflict failed, many missiles did manage to find their targets and innocent Israeli’s died as a consequence.

Since then missile defense has become a matter of the greatest strategic military importance for Israel. To this end, in early March, elements from the United States and Israeli militaries began a joint training exercise known as “Juniper Cobra.” Five thousand US and Israeli troops trained together with the aim of successfully defending Israel from missile attack should a war break out in the Middle East. The training included live fire drills, missile defense simulations, field training and computer simulations of multiple attacks against Israel from multiple fronts, all at once. (1)

The strategic threats Israel faces in 2018 are much direr today than they ever were in the 1990’s or early 2000’s. Hezbollah, to Israel’s north, has acquired a truly enormous arsenal of missiles and rockets. Conservative estimates put the Hezbollah arsenal at well over 100,000 rockets or more—all of which are aimed exclusively at Israel, and all of which now have the ability to reach any part of the Jewish state for the first time.

In any future confrontation with this Lebanese terror group, there is a genuine risk that Israel’s defensive solutions, sophisticated though they are, would be completely overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the barrage they would face. Israel would be rapidly swamped by the deluge of rockets and missiles fired at her.

Yet, that is not the only, or most significant, threat Israel must manage. Hamas, towards Israel’s south has also managed to acquire, despite their often repeated claims of abject poverty, a truly huge arsenal of rocketry. Add Iran into this mix, and the existential threat of their nuclear weapons program and their genuinely sophisticated ICBM systems, and it becomes clear that the Israeli strategic military landscape is a formidable one.

Juniper Cobra is part of the joint response to these threats. Not aimed at any individual scenario, it deals with the development of “complex scenarios,” which include simultaneous attacks from multiple enemy countries and militant groups.

The US and Israel are preparing for a war in which the Jewish state will face a “multidirectional threat.” In other words, they are preparing for a war in which Israel will be attacked, at the same time, from all sides.

Brig. Gen. Zvika Haimovich, chief of Israel’s air defense command, relays that they do this “…because this scenario is real.”

Brig. Gen. Zvika Haimovich is not over-exaggerating; Iran has been very busy of late. In late January – early February, Iranian leader, Hojatoleslam Seyed Ebrahim Raisi, was pictured closely scrutinizing the Israeli-Lebanese border. Raisi was not there simply to enjoy the fine views; he was examining Hezbollah fixed border positions directly facing Israel and, ominously, inspecting the border formations Israel’s army had taken up to counter them.

That this man would visit the Israeli-Lebanese border is highly significant. He is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s leading successor and the second most important person in Iran. Nobody commands more attention or wields more power other than the Ayatollah himself, than this man. And he seemed to be very interested in Israel’s borders and in her ability to defend and repel an organized and sustained attack, and in the capability of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, of launching just such a meaningful attack.

Accompanied by Revolutionary Guard commanders and Hezbollah officers, he then received a thorough briefing on both the battle readiness of Hezbollah units and IDF military build-ups along the Lebanese, Syrian and Golan border areas. Concluding the visit, Raisi held extensive and wide-ranging talks with Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, before departing back to Tehran.

According to Israeli military and intelligence sources, the gist of Raisi’s message was that Hezbollah has now become a genuine fighting force in the Middle East, experienced and battle-hardened by the Syrian civil war. Raisi’s pep talk concluded with darker tones, referring to the growing spirit of resistance against Israel in the Muslim and Arab world, exemplified by the Palestinians and their “struggle.” He clearly signposted Iran’s approaching endgame for its proxy group:

“It was Hezbollah’s fighting capacity alone that generated resistance in the Islamic countries. Allah willing, we shall soon witness the liberation of Jerusalem!”

Yet Raisi is not the only high-profile Shiite to visit Lebanon in recent months. On December 2nd, 2017, Qais al-Khazali, head of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Aasaib Ahl al-Haq militia, also visited the area, also for a firsthand look at Israel’s border formations and military set up. It is widely believed in Israeli intelligence circles that Qais al-Khazali performed this surveillance on behalf of the Iranian al-Quds General Qasseem Soleimani himself, the legendary Iranian supreme military commander in Syria and Iraq.

Qais al-Khazali, on behalf of Iranian General Soleimani, was assessing how to more effectively deploy Hezbollah’s now tested and battle-hardened forces right along the full extent of Israel’s northern border.

These visits were highly political in nature too. Qais al-Khazali’s visit came just one day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. The message of these visits, and their timing, was a clear one; no matter what was discussed between the Israeli and Russian leaders, Tehran has no intention of withdrawing militarily from Syria and, additionally, would be extending its presence right into Lebanon with the aim of directly confronting Israel itself at some point in the very near future.

That Iranian and Shiite aim of confronting Israel may be a desire granted sooner rather than later. Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently under the most enormous pressure. Putin has miscalculated badly in recent weeks, and he now finds himself increasingly boxed into a corner by the international community.

And it all began to go wrong for Putin in a quaint little English town called Salisbury, with the poisoning of two seemingly harmless individuals – an old man and his thirty-year-old daughter. It would seem at this point unthinkable that Vladimir Putin did not directly authorize the poisoning and attempted assassination of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia.

The international reaction to this attack, the first use of chemical weapons on mainland Europe since the end of the Second World War, and in Britain of all places and against and amongst civilians, has provoked a diplomatic whirlwind against Russia that seems to have genuinely caught the Russian leadership off guard.

Then, just days ago, came Douma. In another act of senseless barbarity, someone – the Syrian regime or another actor, launched a horrific chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma, killing and maiming many, including babies and children.

The West was quick to point the finger of blame at Assad and Russia; Russia vehemently denied it. Indeed, Russia to this point has denied that chemical weapons have even been used in Douma. However, despite the swift and strong Russian denials, babies and young children foaming at the mouth paint a completely different picture. Somebody did use chemical weapons. The question is who.

The tone of the Security Council emergency session called to discuss this heinous act was unprecedented, and the rhetoric coming from politicians and leaders all over the Western world would seem to indicate that the West is pretty sure that they think it was Assad.

What Putin cannot have foreseen, or in any way anticipated, was that the United States and its chief allies, the UK and France, all seem to be holding him directly and personally responsible for both the chemical weapons attacks in Syria and in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom attack against Sergei Skripal and his daughter is being tied together by the international community at the United Nations with the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

It is against this background that the large Syrian air base, known as T-4, and operated extensively by Iran as a forward-operating base, was then attacked on Sunday night. Russia believes this attack came from Israel, and Russia’s tone and attitude towards the Jewish State has immediately shifted.

The Kremlin’s longstanding modus operandi with regards to Israel’s military strikes in Syria in the past was to make no comment. That has now changed. This time, the Kremlin condemnation of the Jewish State was swift, reporting that two Israeli F-15 jets carried out the attack using guided missiles launched from within Syrian airspace.

Russia has asked Israel for their “explanations.” Israel, as always, has made no comment. Sergei Lavrov, the outspoken Russian Foreign Minister, told reporters that the “air strikes carried out on Sunday were a dangerous development.”

Dangerous indeed, because Russia seems to now suspect that the Israeli strike is a US test, to see what Russia’s response would be ahead of a potentially larger US operation that may come any moment now. Russia has warned of “grave consequences” if they do.

It is impossible to say, at the point of this writing, what may happen next, as developments on the ground are fast moving. The US or her allies may strike in Syria, or they may not. Russia may retaliate, or she may not. One thing is certain though; the events of the past few weeks, the obvious preparations being made by Iran and Hezbollah for war against Israel, the poisonings in the UK and the chemical weapons attacks in Syria – all being brought into sharp focus through the prism of Syria – may be pushing Putin firmly into the embrace of an alliance prophesied about eons ago by the prophet Ezekiel.

Recent events, especially if there is further military action taken against the Assad regime by the West in the coming days and weeks, may make Putin finally turn on the West’s regional Achilles heel, Israel.

These events, and whatever lies just up ahead, may make Putin turn completely against Jerusalem and decide that supporting a war against Israel, which Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have long since been planning for, is actually the best long-term way of hitting back at America and her allies after all.