The mid-winter tensions on the Israel-Syria border and Sunni attacks in Sinai and Suez against Egypt may seem unrelated, but they actually have several factors in common. These attacks attest to the threatened collapse of regimes and states in the region and prove that radical groups are ready to exploit the chaos. Israel must therefore act quickly to recognize any major threat along its borders and thwart it before it metastasizes, as Egypt is doing in Sinai. The strike against Hezbollah clarifies to Israel’s enemies that there are “red lines” and anyone crossing them must take into account Israel’s response.
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The latest tension on the Israel-Syria border began in January when a delegation of senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders visited the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The successful targeting of that delegation resulted in the death of Mohamad Issa, chief of Hezbollah operations in Syria; Jihad Moughniyah, son of the late Hezbollah leader Imad Moughniyah; and perhaps most important, Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammed Allahdadi. Hezbollah retaliated with an attack on IDF troops in Shebaa Farms, in which two soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded. The January attacks in Sinai and Suez, in which 25 Egyptian military personnel were killed and 58 others were wounded including civilians, security, and medical personnel, were carried out by the Islamic State group’s Egyptian wing.
Although the incidents were different—Shiites in the north and Sunnis in the south—they attest to the potential disintegration of regimes and states, and prove that radical groups operating in areas where the actual regime has become defunct are waiting in the wings, ready to exploit this disintegration.
Israel cannot create order out of the Middle East’s characteristic chaos. It can (and should) recognize the direst threats and neutralize them. This is what Egypt has been doing—focusing on the elements threatening to undermine the Cairo government and on the terrorist groups running rampant in Sinai. It is not focused on the regional wars outside its borders. Cutting the Gaza Strip off from Sinai by creating a substantial buffer zone and razing the smuggling tunnels running between Egypt and Gaza are part of the extensive Egyptian effort to curtail terrorism. Israel certainly benefits from these efforts, but Cairo is motivated solely by Egyptian interests.
Israel’s alleged strike in Syria bears the same characteristics. Since Iran and Hezbollah are trying to exploit the governmental vacuum in the area, the strike was meant to clarify that there are “red lines,” and anyone crossing them must take into account that Israel will respond. Israel cannot and should not create order out of the chaos in Syria, nor will it have any say in whoever eventually wins the civil war raging there, but it must recognize and thwart any major threat as it manifests itself.
Those who fail to clearly mark their “red lines” today may find themselves powerless should these threats take full form tomorrow. It is precisely in the midst of the volatile dynamics of the world we live in that Israel must clearly define what it will and will not abide by. Egypt sobered up to the situation in Sinai at the 11th hour—Israel cannot afford to do the same in the Golan Heights.
A preemptive strike meant to generate deterrence has risks and therefore may come with a price. This was the case on the northern border, when Hezbollah retaliated over a move attributed to Israel. It had to save face after the public blow it was dealt the week before, but its method of choice—an attack in an area devoid of any civilian communities and against a military convoy—indicates caution. Hezbollah had no interest in an escalation and it has done everything in its power to prevent one, despite its inevitable response.
The fundamental elements at the heart of Hezbollah’s prudence have remained unchanged. The war it is fighting in Syria has strategic, even existential, importance for the Shiite organization, as without Syria at its back it would struggle to sustain itself in Lebanon. Syria is Hezbollah’s link to Iran and all the aid the Islamic Republic lends it arrives in Lebanon via Syria. Damascus itself is responsible for a considerable part of Hezbollah’s military capabilities.
At the same time, Hezbollah knows that as far as Beirut is concerned, it has no right to drag the Lebanese people into a war that is the result of its exploits in Syria. Hezbollah and its chiefs, in Lebanon and elsewhere, still have a vivid memory of the results of their 2006 cross-border attack, which escalated into the Second Lebanon War, and they have no desire to re-live the experience.
Regional realities have become less predictable and more violent than before, and their dynamics are changing much more rapidly. Israel must decide where to draw its “red lines” and it must be willing to pay a price for these lines if need be.
The Broader Region Includes Iran
In the near future, Israel is unlikely to be threatened by conventional armies. Instead, it faces the threat of non-state entities motivated by Islamic ideology that have managed to amass increasing power and weaponry—or that have managed to topple weak regimes in the region. More dangerous is the possibility that some time in 2015, Iran will reach a deal with the West that will allow it to continue to pursue nuclear military capabilities. Israel’s military must therefore be prepared for both ground warfare against Islamist extremists and an operation in Iran.
Some states in the region still possess armies, but there is no real conventional military threat to Israel. Egypt, the region’s largest military, is exerting itself against Hamas by reducing its smuggling tunnels and building a buffer between the Gaza Strip and Sinai and has taken on various jihadist groups operating in the Sinai. Jordan, Israel’s other partner, has a small and professional army, but it is looking east and north, toward the crumbling states of Iraq and Syria. Islamist terrorists are thriving within the power vacuum in both countries and Jordan may already be in their crosshairs. Radical Islam could potentially rear its head in Jordan and Amman certainly does not see Israel as an enemy.
Additionally, Israel’s traditional state foes have other concerns. The Syrian army is wasting its strength fighting Syrian civilians. While it still possesses a substantial arsenal, its units have been compromised, morale is extremely low, and many of its commanders fear for their lives if the other side should win. Similarly, the once-enormous Iraqi army, once seen as having the ability to change the balance of power on the eastern front against Israel, has ceased to exist. Today, the Americans are working to rebuild it in the hopes that Iraq can be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State. The Lebanese army was and remains a small force currently busy fending off Islamist extremists trying to export the war from Syria to tiny Lebanon, so far with little success.
While it is true that Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates are arming themselves with the best Western weapons, mostly American, Israel is not their target. Iran, the dark cloud looming over the Persian Gulf, is the reason for the rapid arms race in that region. It is obvious that from the moment the weapons are there, anyone who is in control of those countries can use them. There is room for concern about the future, but that will require a great change that, if it should take place, will take a great deal of time.
Having been accustomed to a situation in which large regular armies with armor, artillery, hundreds of aircraft and thousands of troops were arrayed on its borders, there can be no doubt that Israel has moved into a world in which the threat consists mainly of non-state entities motivated by Islamic ideology.
First and foremost, Hezbollah is the strongest player and its capabilities most closely resemble those of an army. Formed with a dual purpose, Hezbollah represents Iran’s long reach in the area and against Israel, while at the same time it aims to control Lebanon, where the Shiites are the largest ethnic group. Though it was established by Iran, Hezbollah’s leadership has always consisted of Lebanese people closely linked to Iran’s interests, but also occupied with assisting Lebanese Shiites by providing for their needs in the civilian sphere as a base for building military power.
Hezbollah’s arsenal numbers some 150,000 missiles and rockets, several thousand of which have a range that cover the entire State of Israel. This rare and substantial firepower apparently even exceeds that possessed by most of the European states combined. It also has long-range surface-to-sea missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and modern anti-tank missiles. It is well organized into a military-style hierarchy and appears to possess command and control systems of high quality.
Hezbollah is currently busy assisting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. It has sacrificed more than 1,000 of its own people there and is acquiring substantial battle experience, but from its perspective, the battle is over its survival. It fights beside the Syrian Alawites because it needs them to stay in power. If Assad survives, Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon will increase, as will its status in Damascus. Should Assad be ousted from Damascus, Hezbollah’s future is much less clear.
Second, Hamas has also established impressive military capabilities with assistance from Iran and Hezbollah. Its most significant capabilities are its ability to produce its own long-range rockets and its expanding grid of terror tunnels. After Operation Protective Edge in Gaza over the summer, Hamas was left in possession of 3,500 rockets. The big question is the speed with which Hamas can regain the capabilities it has lost. For Hamas, the current regime in Egypt is a formidable obstacle. Hamas has the markings of a well-organized military organization, as well as an impressive ability to learn and improve. Islamic Jihad, established and largely run by Iran, operates alongside. Although it is a small organization with a smaller rocket arsenal of lower quality, it cannot be disregarded.
The Israeli military must also take into account that radical Islamist groups are growing stronger near the borders of the Sinai and Golan Heights. Some of them are Islamic State offshoots and all of them are improving their capabilities and growing more powerful. The threat that these groups pose is less significant than Hamas or Hezbollah. Even if they pull off a successful operation— such as an abduction, which could be extremely unpleasant for Israel—they are still not that strong. A group like Islamic State can do a great deal of damage if it succeeds in disrupting the calm, and certainly if it brings about the collapse of a neighboring country. While such things do not seem high on the list of possibilities that could occur, they are the sorts of incidents that Israel should take into account and be prepared for.
Assuming the current situation in Judea and Samaria continues as is, it does not appear that the security there will significantly decline. A deterioration in relations with the Palestinian Authority could lead to tension on the ground, mainly in the form of demonstrations and rioting and perhaps more grassroots terrorism, but we can assume that this would be more of a policing challenge than a substantial security threat.
Surveying the region through this prism, the most significant—indeed singular—threat to Israel’s very existence is the possibility that some time in 2015, Iran will reach a deal with the West that would allow it to pursue some form of nuclear military capability. This process will not come to fruition this year, but a bad deal with the superpowers would be an important milestone for Tehran.
Looking toward the future, this may be Israel’s main security challenge, and any deal between Iran and the West will make it more difficult. This means that along with providing ongoing security, the Israeli military must be prepared for both large-scale ground warfare in Lebanon, attrition in Gaza and an operation in Iran—a feat that will be neither easy nor cheap.
Maj. Gen. (res.) YaaKov Amidror is the Greg and Anne Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and former national security advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel. A version of this article was published in Israel Hayom.