Yom Kippur 1973 is etched in Israel’s history as a formative event — a huge failure that led to many casualties, tremendous damage and an undermining of the country’s image and might.
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The war was not the result of a single failure. It was the result of a chain of failures, an imperviousness of the political and military leaders amid an atmosphere of complacency and condescension that prevented those leaders from seeing the facts and reading the warning signs. Commissions of inquiry, investigations and the drawing of conclusions — both general and about individual leaders — took place after that unfortunate war, which four years later led to a historic political upheaval when Likud took over.
At present we are in the midst of a series of failures, faulty diplomacy and again — the imperviousness and condescension of our leaders. These are leading to a failure as big as the Yom Kippur War, and this time regarding strategy, which is even more disastrous.
For more than six years a civil war has raged in Syria. That country, a central link in what has been dubbed another axis of evil — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas — has been torn apart by rebels against President Bashar Assad, jihadi groups, Kurdish forces and others who are fighting the Syrian army, which is loyal to the government and supported by Russia (mainly air power), Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Since the outbreak of the hostilities, Israel has adopted a policy of not taking a stance or intervening in Syria, with the exception of when the shooting crosses over into its territory. In these cases the Israel Defense Forces has responded specifically at the area from which the shots have been fired, even if the shots stemmed from a mistake or mishap. The Israeli government declared that under no circumstances would it allow the transfer of high-quality weapons systems from Syria to Lebanon, because such systems would make it difficult for the IDF in a battle against Hezbollah on the Lebanese front.
Over time there have been specific operations against threats considered to have a high potential, such as missile-manufacturing plants and advanced antiaircraft systems. The Israeli government is proud of these operations (sometimes without admitting it publicly), mainly those by the air force, but it’s clear that the navy and special forces are still engaging in deterrent activities in Syria and on its borders. The success of those efforts inspires a feeling of a control of the situation, military superiority and confidence in our strategic situation, which recalls the (mistaken) feeling on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.
The Israeli decision not to intervene, and even more, the absence of diplomatic efforts worldwide and especially in the United States against the Assad regime, have created a vacuum that Russia entered with great wisdom. Russia, which has always considered the Middle East, Syria in particular, a first-class strategic outpost, read the map well and established a strategic naval base in Latakia and a strategic air base in Khmeimim.
At these sites it has deployed advanced aircraft, air defense systems among the most advanced in the world, and communications and intelligence networks. From there Russian forces embark on operations to assist Assad’s army, thus changing the balance of power in favor of Assad, whose government was about to fall.
Iran hastened to enter Syria and is increasing its forces there and in the territories under its influence. Russia decided that support for Iran serves its interests, so it is clear that its efforts in the region contradict Israel’s interests. Against this backdrop, the declaration by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting with the Russian foreign minister in 1996 that he would be happy to see Russia return to a central role in the Middle East sounds surprising today.
Russia is achieving strategic and image-related results in the region beyond what it expected in its wildest dreams. That was made possible mainly by the policy of the United States, which withdrew from its involvement in Syria, and by Israel’s diplomatic, military and public relations failures.
Russia entered the region to remain there for many years to come. Its intelligence and strategic assets have brought it to a situation where no arrangement regarding Syria and the neighborhood can take place without Russia’s total consent and involvement. That has led to a situation in which Iran received a free hand and is becoming Syria’s main sponsor. In effect, it is Tehran that will decide on policy there.
And although Hezbollah will always operate under Assad, it will receive its orders and instructions from Iran.
So what is the Israeli government doing? For a long time it has been trying, unsuccessfully, to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran. Israel condemns the nuclear agreement everywhere, and mainly in the United States — where Netanyahu even spoke in Congress against the previous president, Barack Obama.
Iran’s involvement in direct and indirect assistance to terror in the region, its spread into Syria and its threats against the region’s moderate countries are not among the government’s priorities — neither in its military nor diplomatic efforts, not in the United States and certainly not against Russia.
Missile and rocket launchers
And what is the strategic significance of these developments? Iranian forces, or those that take orders from Iran, are deploying on Israel’s border in the Golan Heights. Here there will be a full operational link between the forces operating against us from the Lebanese border and those standing opposite us in the Golan Heights. And soon Iran will deploy missile and rocket launchers in Syria that will be aimed at Israeli territory.
That suits Iran’s policy, which mandates that Israel’s destruction will come after it is surrounded by missile- and rocket-launching sites. And all this will be done under a Russian aerial and strategic umbrella that can limit the IDF’s operations, especially from the air.
By Israel’s inactivity, by the prime minister’s visits with Russian President Vladimir Putin that lack any practical leverage, by a lack of coordination with American policy in the region, Israel is sending a message that Russia can carry on with its policy, and Iran will of course exploit that well. Our strategic situation will gradually deteriorate until we become dependent on the willingness of the United States to fight for us or support us against Russian or Iranian intervention by making threats — something on which I wouldn’t base our national security.
We must recognize that we are in a strategic emergency situation. We must understand that the weak link in this chain of threats is still the Assad regime. We can undermine his standing and his hold on certain strategic assets; we can damage infrastructure vital to him and rouse world public opinion against one of this century’s greatest war criminals.
Thus we must stop the futile efforts against the nuclear agreement in forums that lack any ability to influence the situation. Instead, we should open secret contacts with our strategic partners — the moderate Arab world and the free world, headed by the United States. Yes, that will force us to listen to them, but we must not ignore the growing threat against us.
Asaf Agmon is a reserve brigadier general in the Israel Air Force who fought as a pilot in the Yom Kippur War.