Fearing Iran and Hezbollah on Border, Israel Watchful as Putin Fans Mideast Flames

Regional chaos serves Russia's interests, shifting world focus away from Eastern Europe, but a deal in Syria could lead to problems for Israel.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his respects to slain Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, during the funeral ceremony at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow on December 22, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his respects to slain Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, during the funeral ceremony at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow on December 22, 2016.Credit: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Paradoxically, it appears that the past six years of regional turmoil were good for Israel. Conventional military threats from its neighbors have almost completely disappeared. There are potential risks associated with the entry of Islamist terrorist groups into areas adjacent to the borders with Syria and Egypt, but so far these threats have not materialized. In the meantime, a nuclear accord was signed between global powers and Iran, which for now is blocking Iran’s progress towards the production of nuclear weapons, despite its flaws.

A senior officer who briefed foreign correspondents this week said that the IDF does not forecast a war in 2017 and that Hamas and Hezbollah are not interested in a confrontation with Israel at this point, although one could erupt as a result of a local incident or in the wake of a string of misunderstandings.

Indeed, Israel only represents a blip on the map of global interests. There are more hefty issues on the scales right now in the game waged by the powers. The importance of Israel increases during times of crises. In calmer times, the international community has more urgent issues than the continued Israeli occupation of the territories.

The final press conference held by U.S. President Barack Obama, in which he confessed to his frustration in face of the slaughter inflicted by Russian and Syrian jets on the population of the eastern parts of Aleppo, seemed like the last glimmer of an administration that is winding down. In what will be remembered as his worst failure, Obama allowed Vladimir Putin to stabilize the rule of tyrant Bashar Assad, with thousands of civilians massacred in the process. That train has already left the station. According to American media, Donald Trump, who is set to assume office in exactly four weeks, will try to reach a deal with the Russians to reduce military friction in Syria (in practice, ensuring the regime’s control over 70 percent of the country’s population).

Despite his claims that Obama weakened the U.S. and his promises to make America great again, it seems that Trump won’t lean toward endangering the lives of American soldiers in the name of what he considers a marginal interest. The president-elect did not hide his admiration for Putin during the election campaign. Despite denials by both sides there are increasing reports of preliminary contacts between Moscow and Trump advisers regarding a new agreement about the division of global interests.

Russian soldiers march during the Victory Day military parade marking 71 years after the victory in WWII in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 9, 2016. Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP Photo

Putin needs Syria since it guarantees him access to Tartus, a warm water port on the Mediterranean coast, and since it exemplifies renewed Russian dominance in distant parts of the world. However, his primary focus of concern lies on his western borders with Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states and their relations with NATO. Russia sees these countries as part of its sphere of influence, from which the West has to keep its distance. Maintaining a belligerent pose against a foreign enemy is important for Putin as a means of repressing internal problems, ranging from a hobbling economy to a dangerous demographic balance.

From time to time, the Russian president deliberately stokes tensions, such as in the Crimean Peninsula and in eastern Ukraine, as well as in Georgia, which borders Russia in the south. The chaos in the Middle East serves Putin well, since it weakens the European Union, which is worried about Islamic terror attacks (such as the one that took place in Berlin this week) and the impact of the waves of refugees. At the same time, the situation in the Middle East pushes the West into military action against terror organizations in Syria and Iraq, at the expense of the attention it could be paying to Eastern Europe.

Agreements between Putin and Trump for stabilizing the international arena could include parallel moves in Syria and Eastern Europe. As Haaretz reported last week, Israel is worried about Assad’s next moves. A ceasefire will perpetuate his hold on Syria and will constitute a victory for the Iran-Hezbollah Shi’ite axis that supported him. Before any agreement, or as a result of one, the regime could try to reassert its hold on the border with Israel on the Golan Heights, where local rebel militias have taken hold in recent years. That could bring Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah fighters close to Israel’s border.

Israel’s nervousness about such an occurrence is negligible in comparison with that of Russia’s European neighbors. In recent years, NATO has taken a more extreme approach to Moscow in Eastern Europe. The possibility of Russian aggression was explicitly mentioned in briefings by intelligence agencies, in declarations by senior American military officers and during NATO maneuvers last year. In Eastern Europe, more than in Syria, the advent of the Trump administration will reshuffle the deck. A basic change in Washington’s policies may leave Russia’s neighbors at the mercies of Moscow.

No conventional threats

If the powers manage to impose a solution in Syria, most Hezbollah units that have been involved in the fighting there since the summer of 2012 could return to Lebanon. In addition to sustaining casualties, Hezbollah has gained much combat experience and acquired skills in operating offensive units, in combat techniques and in working with large units, alongside the Iranians and Russians.

In light of the vast arsenal of rockets and missiles held by Hezbollah, as well as the training of its Radwan commando forces and the organization’s ability to strike civilian infrastructure in Israel, the IDF now defines Hezbollah as an army more than as a terror organization.

The improvements in Hezbollah’s capabilities have led to extensive discussions in the defense establishment regarding ways of confronting the Shiite organization in a future conflict. Those deliberations revolve around two dilemmas. One deals with the need to keep the war short (due to damage to the home front and expected international pressure) and the desire for a result that will paralyze Hezbollah for many years. The second question relates to the nature of the decisive component in Israel’s military might. Despite the years-long allegiance of Israel’s chiefs of staff to the ground forces, its standing has been eroded over the last decade in comparison to that of the air force. The IDF has honed its aerial capabilities while neglecting its ground forces.

Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eizenkot highlighted the need for a far-reaching ground maneuver as an essential component in overcoming an enemy in a 2015 document describing the IDF’s strategy. The same point has been emphasized recently by the head of the IDF’s Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, especially againstg the backdrop of Hezbollah’s growing strength.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, formerly the head of the army’s forces in the north, recently published an article entitled “The crisis of Israel’s ground forces” under the imprint of the Israel National Security Studies research institute. In it, he argued that Hezbollah and Hamas have created a hybrid and dispersed system with considerable resistance capabilities against the threat of a large maneuver by the IDF. The letter, he claimed, will find it difficult to identify the enemy’s centers of gravity, the neutralization of which could lead to its defeat.

The combination of long-range rockets threatening Israel’s rear and dense defensive lines will make both Hezbollah and Hamas difficult to penetrate and will inflict heavy losses on the IDF, Hacohen wrote. Israel’s leaders are wary of a ground campaign that could get out of hand and cause many casualties. Under such circumstances, there is a growing temptation to rely on the air force, which can be deployed rapidly with relatively lower risks. The problem, Hacohen said, is that the enemy isn’t playing along. In light of Israeli air superiority, the two organizations are improving their survival and concealment techniques, so as to avert a rout.

Against the backdrop of that dilemma, which the ground forces call “problematic maneuver tactics”, the defense ministry has recently proposed a new acquisitions strategy. It includes a mid-range rocket system to supplement offensive aerial strikes, partly compensating for difficulties the air force may face due to anticipated attacks on air bases. The idea was first floated in the 1980s by Maj. Gen. Yisrael Tal and former Defense Minister Moshe Arens and re-examined by prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. But such a system was not included in the army’s multi-year plan that was approved last year. If Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tries to promote the issue, he will encounter professional opposition from the air force.

How many of these deliberations are shared by Israel’s top political-security body, the cabinet? The events of recent years are not encouraging in this respect. In the summer of 2014, during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, cabinet members were excluded from most of the important decisions. They knew little of the growing threat of Hamas’ attack tunnels.

Recent stories regarding the acquisition of submarines and defensive patrol boats by the navy only raise doubts about the involvement of the cabinet in decisions about transactions worth billions of shekels. Despite the dramatic changes on the northern front, only two cabinet members came to view a large general staff exercise that took place three months ago.

The Amidror-Ciechanover committee, established last June to investigate the functioning of the cabinet, presented its recommendations to Netanyahu this week. That was a pre-emptive move by Netanyahu, ahead of the publication of the State Comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge, scheduled for January. The report criticizes the functioning of the cabinet, according to the latest draft Netanyahu received. The committee adopted Naftali Bennett’s demand that the cabinet deepen its knowledge, an issue on which Bennett and Netanyahu clashed during the war. The committee recommended appointing experienced people from the National Security Council as liaisons responsible for updating cabinet members on an ongoing basis. The committee also recommended that cabinet members attend annual general staff exercises.

These are the required recommendations, which Bennett can take credit for. He is probably less enthusiastic about another recommendation. The committee objects to independent visits by cabinet members to battle areas, such as that of Bennett to his friend, Givati Brigade Commander Col. Ofer Vinter, ahead of the entry into Gaza during the last war.