Israel's Military Chief: ISIS Can't Be Defeated With Airstrikes Alone

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot adds that an Islamic State victory in Syria would be worse than an Iran-Hezbollah victory.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

An end to the fighting in Syria and a diplomatic settlement depend on cooperation between the United States and Russia, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff said Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, speaking at a private event, said he believed it was impossible to defeat the Islamic State exclusively from the air.

Eisenkot appeared to back Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has said the United States needed to be more active in the fight against the Islamic State.

U.S. President Barack Obama said at the beginning of the week that attacks against the Islamic State would continue mainly from the air. In a speech to the American people, Obama hinted he would not send ground forces to Syria or Iraq and said ISIS could be defeated using limited means.

Over the weekend at the Saban Forum in Washington, Ya’alon said the United States needed to be more active against the Islamic State. According to Ya’alon, a vacuum was being filled by Russia, Iran and a radical Shi’ite axis supporting the Assad regime.

But the chances of the Shi’ite axis achieving full victory in Syria were nil, Eisenkot said. Very significant ground forces would be required that Iran, Russia and Hezbollah were unwilling to send.

Iran sent about 2,000 Revolutionary Guards to Syria in September as part of a plan with Russia for a ground operation in northern Syria to back up Russian airstrikes. But the Iranians have suffered losses. Senior commanders have been killed, and the head of the Guards’ Quds force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, is thought to have been wounded.

Israeli observers have noted Iran’s and Hezbollah’s unwillingness to suffer high casualties. Hezbollah's losses since the summer of 2012, when it began direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, total more than 1,300 killed and 5,000 wounded. This is high considering that probably no more than 30,000 men are serving, including reserves.

Despite the wider Russian involvement since September, no major ground victories against the rebels have been achieved. The Assad regime currently controls about 15 to 20 percent of Syrian territory.

Unlike Israeli analysts like former National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, Eisenkot believes that an Islamic State victory in Syria is a slightly worse scenario for Israel than an Assad victory, even though Iran and Hezbollah, Israel’s main enemies, support the Syrian dictator.

Eisenkot cites Israel’s ability to meet an organized threat from Iran or Hezbollah, unlike the difficulty of identifying and deterring the Islamic State if it controlled most of Syria.

Eisenkot is more optimistic regarding the Egyptian army’s chances against Wilayat Sinai, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in November. The IDF estimates that the organization does not number more than 700 to 800 fighters, and despite its major victories against the Egyptian army, Cairo’s reaction has been organized and strong.

IDF officials thus believe that Egyptian ground forces can win if they fight methodically against the Islamic State in Sinai.

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