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What Trump Should Have Learned From Netanyahu Before Eviscerating His Own Intel Chiefs

Over the years, Netanyahu has had differences with defense officials over the Iranian threat. But he was never so openly hostile as the U.S. president ■ Israel's moves against Iran in Syria have almost reached their limit

Amos Harel
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President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with American manufacturers in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 31, 2019, in Washington.
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with American manufacturers in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 31, 2019, in Washington. Credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Amos Harel

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump pounced – on Twitter, how else? – on his senior intelligence officials. He suggested that perhaps they needed to go back to school. The president didn’t like what Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, and Gina Haspel, the CIA director, had to say a day earlier at the Senate Committee on Intelligence. The strategic picture these two drew for the senators did not conform to reality as Trump sees it on Fox News or in his dreams.

The comment that triggered Trump’s response related to Iran’s nuclear program. Coats and Haspel admitted what is also believed by European intelligence agencies and by Israel, that so far there is no proof that Iran has returned to its attempts to produce nuclear weapons or that it has substantially violated the nuclear accord it signed with the six powers in Vienna, in July 2015. This was enough to make Trump lose his composure, assuming he still has any.

>> The absence of strategy in Washington's Syria policy

“The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong! When I became President, Iran was making trouble all over the Middle East, and beyond. Since ending the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal, they are MUCH different,” tweeted the president.

In fact, the accord still holds, even though its stability was shaken once Trump withdrew from the deal last May. But, he added, “They are testing Rockets (last week) and more, and are coming very close to the edge.”

Reading the unclassified version of the annual intelligence assessment for 2019, as presented to the senators, reveals that intelligence chiefs disputed – politely but with resolve – the president’s diagnoses and delusions at almost every step of the way. Trump declared a final victory over ISIS as a pretext for withdrawing troops from Syria? Intelligence agencies note that tens of thousands of terrorists associated with the organization are still active around the world. Trump believes that North Korea is disarming its nuclear weapons due to his diplomacy and meetings with its leader Kim Jong Un? Intelligence chiefs say: Not so fast. Their assessments of the dangers posed by Russia, with Trump continuing to deny any hint of collusion which may have helped him win the 2016 election, are much harsher and more pessimistic than those of the president.

Benjamin Netanyahu has clashed on many occasions with the chiefs of intelligence agencies over the years. The most prolonged and serious dispute related to the implications of a unilateral Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear sites, and later to the interpretation of the value of the Vienna nuclear accord. Netanyahu is now celebrating his justification, which he sees as playing out through Trump’s withdrawal from the accord and the harsh sanctions against Iran now taking shape. It’s not that there are no essential differences between Netanyahu and his friend, the president, but here’s one in Netanyahu’s favor: He has never come close to expressing, at least not in public, the level of hostility that Trump has directed at the heads of the defense establishment.

Limits of Israel’s Iran strategy

Coats, in his address to the Senate, also referred to the growing confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria. Less than two weeks ago – an eternity in terms of Israeli news cycles, which is why this has almost been forgotten – Iran fired a mid-range missile at northern Israel in response to an airstrike near Damascus airport, attributed to Israel. The IDF intercepted this missile with an Iron Dome rocket, responding with another extensive strike, this time targeting bases and weapons systems built by the Iranians in Syria.

In his Senate address, the director of National Intelligence expressed increased concern about the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East and about the danger of the region flaring up as a result.

Iran, said Coats, is continuing its attempts to set up bases in Syria, signing large economic deals in the process. It seems that Iran is trying to maintain a network of Shi’ite militias in Syria, operating under its influence and with its funding, despite Israeli attacks. The Americans estimate that Iran wishes to avoid a general confrontation with Israel at this point, but Israeli attacks in Syria increase the risk of an Iranian military response, using conventional weapons.

It appears that Coat’s assessment matches that of his Israeli counterparts. The Iranians have not given up their efforts in Syria even though the victory of the Assad regime in the civil war and the focusing of the fight in the Idlib region in the northern part of the country has allowed it to reduce its forces in Syria, including the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah forces and Shi’ite militias. There is a respectful co-existence between these and Russian forces, despite a recent unreliable report about clashes between militias identified with Iran and Russia. Moscow is definitely not pleased with Iran’s influence in Syria but for now it is not acting to remove it. Tehran continues to build military infrastructure and to install weapons systems in Syria, which appear as attachments to Syrian airfields.

Speaking at the same INSS conference, former air force chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel noted an interesting point. Eshel, who formulated and led the offensive strategies on the northern front in earlier years, said that Israel’s great military capabilities will not remove Iran from Syria. Only a Russian decision will. This, for now, does not seem to be a likely option. Eshel warned that there is a very great chance that the Russians will “turn the tables” on us, based on our [alleged] continued airstrikes.

In an interview with Haaretz in August 2017, Eshel first revealed the extent of operations – hundreds of airstrikes on Syria in recent years. It now seems that he doubts the efficacy in continuing such strikes. While outgoing Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot praises the achievements of the “battle between wars” and with Prime Minister Netanyahu explaining that Israel will not rest until it removes the last Iranian from Syrian territory, there are growing doubts about the success of this mission.

What could go wrong? Israeli moves against Iran have almost reached their limit. Iran has a deep strategic interest in Syria and will not hurry to withdraw. Under these circumstances, the actual effectiveness of Israeli airstrikes is diminishing. Gradually, mutual deterrence will be established. For years, Israel has not been attacking Hezbollah targets in Lebanon from the air. It seems that Iran, as evidenced by the firing of the missile, is trying to establish such deterrence with regard to strikes in Syria as well. One risk is that Israel, frustrated by not achieving its goal, will be tempted to try and strike targets that are closer to the Assad regime’s core assets.

If that happens, Russia, which has invested soldiers, weapons systems and billions of dollars in its main regional project – Assad’s survival – will not sit idly by. What could happen? Suffice it to remember what happened in November 2015 when Turkey, in its arrogance, laid an ambush for a Russian warplane which crossed, Turkey claims, its border with Syria.

The incident happened two months after the Russians deployed their warplanes in northwestern Syria, a move which subsequently tipped the scales in the civil war in Assad’s favor. The Turks apparently wanted to mark red lines, but this move boomeranged. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin made a host of threats against Turkey, after which internet traffic around Istanbul was somehow disrupted for a few weeks. The Turks got the message. Israel too, with all its military and technological prowess, is not totally immune to similar steps.