As the war in Syria dies down and the dust starts to settle, the enormity of Israel's strategic mistake during the long years of conflict is becoming all the more apparent. The first person to point this out publicly was Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) chief of Military Intelligence from 2006 to 2010.
Yadlin is now the executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, the country's most important research institution. On Nov. 23, he declared resolutely, "Israel made a mistake when it adopted a position of neutrality during the Syrian war. It should have done everything it could to bring down President Bashar al-Assad's regime as early as 2012." According to Yadlin, the weakness shown by the United States and Israel is what led to a situation in which the new Syria is being shaped by "the Czar [Russian President Vladimir Putin], the Sultan [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] and the Supreme Leader [Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].” At an attempt in Geneva to resolve the crisis several years ago, the United States dictated the list of participants. Now the United States has all but disappeared from the arena, while Israel is being excluded by Putin and Erdogan.
As revealed in an earlier Al-Monitor article, behind closed doors, Israel is bemoaning having missed a historic opportunity to be done with Assad, and with him, the Shiite axis along the Golan Heights and its border with Lebanon, since this axis is only getting stronger. As one very senior Israeli military official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "There was a full year during the civil war in Syria in which anyone who wanted to could have taken down Assad without any effort and without anyone signing off on it, without it being attributed to some operation or other. Car bombs were going off outside his presidential palace during that year, and mortars were landing just a few dozen meters away from the struggling Syrian president. All anyone had to do was give it another little nudge."
Now Israel finds itself faced with dire strategic circumstances. While Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said this week, "Right now there is no Iranian military force on Syrian soil," no one in the Israeli defense establishment plans to relax. No one has stopped worrying that Syria could become a protectorate of Shiite Iran or that Iran could establish itself in Syria and Lebanon, turning them into a military arm of the ayatollahs' regime, under its direct control.
Foreign news sources say that Israel used the last few years to launch a lengthy series of aerial attacks against Syrian targets. Most of these were directed at concentrations and convoys of arms intended for Hezbollah. Now Israel is considering the possibility of reconfiguring and strengthening its unwritten red lines, which have set the ground for its military activity in the region over the past few years. It is even investigating the possibility of launching a far-reaching preventive strike to interfere with future Iranian efforts to establish factories for the manufacture of precision rockets and missiles in Syria or Lebanon, as well as to prevent Iranian military bases from popping up there.
As always, these concerns and the overall alarmism originates with the political leadership and decision-makers, chief among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and less from the military brass. "There's no need to exaggerate," one senior military source told Al-Monitor two weeks ago on condition of anonymity. "The Iranians aren't sitting on the border fence. Even if some Shiite militia or other establishes a base in Syrian territory, it would not be a real strategic threat."
It is believed that Iran is planning to keep the Shiite militias, which fought during the civil war in Syria, under Iranian commanders drawn from officers and experts in its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. "Even if that does happen, it is not the kind of tiebreaker that would necessitate going to war," the source added.
What disturbs the Israeli officers more is the Iranian "Precision [Missile] Project," intended to provide Assad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah with the capability to manufacture their own rockets and missiles, which could strike within dozens of meters of strategic targets. As one top Israeli minister told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "For that, we would need to consider going to war. That should be a red line flashing brightly at us. All the regional decision-makers must then take into consideration that Israel will not blink, and that it will do everything it can to prevent its enemies from obtaining the capacity to harm it, its economy, its air force bases and other sites with precision strikes. Period."
There are those in Israel who compare the current situation on the Syrian front with what the Egyptians did on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Back then, Egypt repositioned its Soviet anti-aircraft missiles so that they would be in range of the front lines during any future war. This is what enabled the Egyptian army to cross the Suez Canal and establish a bridgehead on its eastern bank, despite Israeli preventive efforts. This resulted in the loss of dozens of Israeli fighter jets.
Today, Israel is stretching its intelligence capacities in an enormous effort to locate factories that are part of the "Precision Project," like the one on the outskirts of Damascus, which was bombed a few months ago (the Syrian SARS project). At the same time, Assad is getting stronger by the day, and his regime is successfully re-establishing itself. Jerusalem is aware that at some point, Syrian restraint will diminish. Assad will no longer be satisfied with sporadic anti-aircraft fire in the general direction of Israeli aircraft. He will strive to exact a steeper price.
Sources in Israel are saying that over the next few months, every decision to launch an aerial attack against Syria, like the relatively frequent decisions over the last year, will have to take into consideration the growing risk of a war breaking out between Israel and the forces on the Syrian front (Hezbollah and Assad, backed by Iran). Both are getting stronger steadily. "What we mustn't forget," said one senior Israeli source on condition of anonymity, "is that the more time passes, the harder such a war will be for us. It is directly proportional to how strong Assad gets. Right now, Israeli military superiority is decisive, while Assad is still fragile and vulnerable. That is why we mustn’t wink. We must make it clear to all the relevant parties that there are certain lines that Israel has no intention of abandoning."
As usual, the mood in the IDF is much calmer. "Assad is still intimidated by Israel, as is Nasrallah," a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. ''We have to keep doing what we've been doing until now in order to stop 'Project Precision' and to keep Iran from constructing an airport or naval port in Syria. What is true," he added, ''is that we must do it quietly, without making a big show of it. Just do it, instead of talking about it."
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