The latest developments on the northern front underscore the limitations of Israel’s use of force in Syria and Lebanon. The Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community have chalked up many successes in recent years, curtailing Iran’s smuggling of arms to Hezbollah through Syria and later, striking Iranian military targets in Syria. However, it seems that Israel is now incapable of forcing Iran into changing its strategy in Syria. The theory recently promoted vigorously by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to which it is possible to drive an effective wedge between Iranian and Russian interests in the region (a hypothesis that is not supported by the army’s military intelligence wing) is so far not panning out.
On Tuesday, the IDF launched a widespread drive aimed at changing public perception. This included a series of briefings to military correspondents, media representatives and regional correspondents in the north, meant to uncover a new deployment of Hezbollah on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border. The details of this secretive network, contained in “The Golan File,” are interesting. The task of setting up this network, previous stages of which were cut short in 2015 after two assassinations of its commanders, Jihad Mughniyeh and Samir Kuntar, was given to a veteran Hezbollah activist. He is Abu Hussein Sajid, whose real name is Ali Daqduq, someone who fought the IDF in South Lebanon. In the last decade he also took part in operations against American forces in Iraq, on behalf of Iran.
The return of Assad regime forces to the Golan last summer, with Israel’s tacit approval, also laid the ground for the return of Hezbollah. In the first stage, dozens of activists – most of whom are Syrian citizens – gather intelligence on IDF activity in the area. However, the IDF’s northern command believes that an infrastructure is being laid for future attacks, with Hezbollah using it to open a second front against the IDF, in the event of war breaking out in Lebanon.
The media campaign, as expected, resonated loudly in Israeli media outlets. Foreign correspondents seemed less impressed. The IDF disseminated a short video showing a man walking behind a rock on the Syrian side of the border, as well as another one in which a senior officer recited some talking points against Hezbollah. The revelation that an enemy organization was doing what enemies do – preparing for war – did not quite floor foreign media representatives.
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Israel chose to issue a public threat, not to bomb a target, as happened to Sajid’s two predecessors. This is how it’s handling, for now, the person in charge of Iranian operations in the area, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani: The IDF’s Twitter account this week posted a sarcastic birthday video for the general. One can imagine Iranian intelligence officers scratching their heads in puzzlement, trying to figure out what Israel was trying to say with this infantile gesture.
Putin’s empty promises
“Our efforts against the entrenchment of Iranian military forces in Syria have yielded results, forcing them to slow down their activity,” a senior intelligence source told Haaretz. “On the other hand, they are continuing to try with all their might to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah, particularly high-precision equipment for its missiles,” aimed at improving the accuracy of its arsenal of rockets. Revelations about the group’s network in the Golan may be a reflection of the IDF’s inability to counter it. Only last summer, as Israel abandoned rebel groups in the Golan to their woes, not assisting them in withstanding the onslaught of regime forces, Russia promised that, in exchange, it would remove Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias to a distance of 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border. Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of this achievement in talks with correspondents following his latest meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
This isn’t the only matter in which Putin, a so-called friend, is not delivering the goods Netanyahu was expecting. Former Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin hinted as much in an interview he gave to Army Radio on Wednesday. He said that two weeks after Netanyahu’s visit to Putin, it still wasn’t clear what the two had agreed on. “Is operational control over the S-300 missiles being handed over to the Syrians?” asked Yadlin. He was pointing to a sore point: Russia gave Syria these advanced anti-aircraft missiles after the incident in which a Russian Ilyushin was downed last September, but is still keeping operational control over these systems. Netanyahu tried to extract a promise from Putin that this would remain the case. Making the S-300 operational would endanger air force planes, possibly requiring the knocking out of these missiles, with an increased risk of escalation. Putin, as far as is known, evaded giving an answer. It’s convenient for Moscow that both sides are dependent on it, and wait long periods for its decisions.
Can Israel exert real pressure on Russia and limit its military involvement in Syria once Assad’s regime is stabilized? A senior Israeli officer, when asked about this, replied with a question of his own: “Where does a four-ton hippopotamus sit? Wherever it wants to.”
A few hours after the “Golan File” was revealed, Netanyahu published his own announcement. “I have a clear message for Iran and Hezbollah. We know what you are doing and where you’re doing it,” he said. A further message was directed at the Israeli voter, without needing to spell it out explicitly – only Netanyahu knows how to handle the Iranians.
The maintenance of a constant sense of security threats, as distinct from active military skirmishes, serves the prime minister in his election campaign. This is true for December’s Operation Northern Shield, aimed at locating and destroying Hezbollah attack tunnels. This took place just before the announcement on moving up the election. The IDF didn’t plan on helping Netanyahu in his campaign, but the prime minister managed to find a way to promote a security-related agenda after the Central Election Committee forbade him from publicizing videos of himself with soldiers (with his visits to army units dropping accordingly right after this decision).
Overall, it appears that Netanyahu is leaving his rivals in the dust in this election campaign. The three decorated chiefs of staff brought with them to the apathetic and disorganized campaign of Kahol Lavan all the ills of the army’s organizational culture: endless and pointless deliberations, bruised egos, very little initiative. Among the four leaders of this party, it seems that only the former correspondent of the Bamahane army newspaper, Kahol Lavan’s Yair Lapid, has internalized the fact that he’s in a fight for his political survival. According to recent polls, even the publication of the list of Netanyahu’s alleged transgressions did not shift votes from Likud to center or left-wing parties. As things stand now, it would be a great surprise if Netanyahu did not emerge victorious on the night of April 9.