Analysis

Ambiguous No More: Israel Owns Syria Strikes, but Iran May Get the Last Word

Iran and Hezbollah might be tempted to spark a provocation or make a surprise move in the north, if only to place Israel’s new unambiguous approach in an absurd light

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at a conference in Herzeliya, December 23, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

It has been more than a year since the policy of ambiguity Israel imposed on the aerial assaults in Syria started to erode. Over the past 24 hours, it seems that the fog has lifted entirely.

It began with outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s proud assertion to the New York Times of attacks on thousands of targets in the north during his tenure. On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took public responsibility for attacking Iranian weapons stores in Syria on Friday night.

The concept of ambiguity was formulated by the intelligence community as far back as 2007, ahead of the attack on the Syrian nuclear facility, on which the news blackout was only completely lifted last year. Intelligence officials said that as long as Israel didn’t publicly boast about its actions, the Assad regime can pretend that nothing happened and wouldn’t see itself obliged to respond.

Read more: 'Aerial and intelligence superiority': Army chief reveals how Israel beat Iran's Soleimani in Syria ■ Does Iran really want to destroy Israel?

The idea was also successfully imported with regard to assaults on Hezbollah arms convoys (and later on bases the Iranians built in Syria) during the Syrian civil war. The intelligence community believed, correctly, that Assad and his partners were too busy fighting the rebel groups and that Israel could continue its efficient, methodical attacks without getting caught up in the war. The intentional ambiguity Israel maintained limited the amount of media attention and so the attacks continued almost uninterrupted for years.

Sometimes, the Israeli policy stretched the boundaries of logic. The military censor permitted the Israeli media to quote only foreign sources, although the circle of those in the know gradually widened to include almost the entire country. In unusual cases, Israel itself admitted to the attacks: when an Israeli F16 was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire in February last year, and then when the Syrians mistakenly shot down a Russian intelligence plane during an Israeli attack in September. Yet Israel mostly stuck to its policy of ambiguity, much to the chagrin of the local media.

Eisenkot’s remarks on Saturday were made in the context of a round of farewell interviews and were intended to showcase success in the offensive battle the IDF waged against Iran and Hezbollah during his time at the helm. The New York Times headline went even further: (“The Man who Humbled Qassim Soleimani”) and a series of statements to Israeli TV stations analyzed the mistake of the Iranian general in deciding to prepare for action against Israel on the Syrian border. 

On Sunday morning, Netanyahu, who is both prime minister and defense minister, seemed a bit jealous of Eisenkot. The prime minister decided to take advantage of his farewell remarks to Eisenkot, at the start of Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, to officially announce that Israel had attacked Iranian weapons stores near Damascus on Friday.

It might indeed be time for Israel to stop pretending about the attacks in Syria. But the backdrop – the end of Eisenkot’s tenure, and more importantly, the beginning of a tumultuous election campaign – raises doubts whether the considerations behind the new approach are purely germane.

It bears remembering that the IDF does not operate in a vacuum. Every statement by a senior Israeli official is analyzed by the other side, which is also alert to the unstable balance of power between the sides.

Soleimani, who in charge of the Revolutionary Guards' Al Quds division, and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah (reports of whose declining health have once more been making the rounds over the past few days) might be tempted to spark a provocation or make a surprise move in the north, if only to place Israel’s statements in an absurd light.

The downing of the Russian intelligence plane, for example, happened a few days after hundreds of attacks in Syria were mentioned in a briefing for Israeli military reporters for the first time.

Ending 'Northern Shield'

Meanwhile, on Sunday morning the IDF announced the end of the operation to locate Hezbollah attack tunnels on the Lebanese border. Six tunnels were found in a month and a half, the latest one over the weekend. The army said it was familiar with Hezbollah’s attack plan and that thus the threat of the tunnels was lifted from the Galilee.

The last tunnel that was uncovered, from the Lebanese village of Ramya toward Moshav Zar’it, was dug relatively deeply and attested to the project's near completion. In the controversy surrounding the operation's execution, it seems that Eisenkot came out ahead: Hezbollah lost an important offensive asset and it’s good that it was neutralized in time, even if some of the historical comparisons exaggerated the importance of the project.

Nasrallah’s decision, which he maintained completely, not to relate at all to the Israeli uncovering of the tunnels, is interesting. Netanyahu and Eisenkot wanted to leverage the uncovering of the tunnels into an international move against Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, but nothing very useful has come of this so far.

The atmosphere on the border with Lebanon will continue to be tense in the near future. Last week, Israel took advantage of the uncovering of the tunnels to renew work on a border wall from the area of Misgav Am and Manara. This is a sensitive zone, where the exact international border line is a matter of dispute between Israel and Lebanon. The IDF will continue the project cautiously, aware that Beirut might decide to ramp up tension over the wall's construction, if only as a response to its embarrassment over Israel’s uncovering of the tunnels.