Analysis |

Israel Climbing Up Too High a Tree Over Iran’s Presence in Syria

Red lines don’t make clear what Israel is demanding; meanwhile, threats without action will look like weakness, but acting on those threats could start major war.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Golan Heights near Israel's border with Syria March 19, 2014
Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Golan Heights near Israel's border with Syria, March 19, 2014.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

On November 24, 2015, exactly two years ago, the defense minister and finance minister signed an unusual agreement, the first of its kind. Moshe Kahlon promised the IDF five years of full budget stability in order to realize Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s ambitious, multiyear Gideon plan. In return, Moshe Ya’alon promised to adhere to a series of demands from the treasury, and pledged that there would be no requests to break the budget framework, except in the event of a “major” strategic shift.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was very displeased with the agreement that was reached behind his back after lengthy discussions that were deliberately kept hidden from him. Netanyahu, say people who were in on the secret of the negotiations, had for years been using a divide and conquer approach, with the aim of fanning dissension among the ministers and leaving the final decision in his hands. He was less interested in the long-term “industrial quiet” that the IDF chief of staff was so keen to attain.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a cabinet meeting, last year.Credit: Emil Salman

Avigdor Lieberman, the current defense minister, is now trying to undo the understandings reached two years ago. Lieberman asserts that the changes that have occurred since then certainly qualify as major. He thinks that the combination of the increased Iranian and Russian presence on the Syrian border, Hezbollah’s upgraded arsenal of precision weaponry, and the onset of an all-out regional arms race means the Gideon plan needs a significant boost. Lieberman has also added a price tag to his request: 4.8 billion shekels (about $1.4 billion) over three years, for the acceleration and expansion of the existing armaments plans, as an addition to the IDF’s annual budget of 31 billion shekels, as per the agreement with Kahlon. The entire defense budget, which also includes pensions and rehabilitation, and aid from the United States, comes to about 70 billion shekels per year.

Kahlon, as expected, firmly rejected the request and referred Lieberman to the agreement. But Eisenkot has yet to take a position on the matter (which is, in itself, a way of taking a position). The chief of staff did send two senior officers to the defense minister’s meeting with military correspondents this week, but the officers were instructed to provide a description of the evolving regional situation without really stating a position on it. Eisenkot apparently considers himself bound by the gentlemanly understandings with Kahlon, is worried about how opening up the agreement might adversely impact areas that are very dear to him, such as the model for service in the regular army, and is evidently not as impressed by the seriousness of the strategic changes.

PM focusing on Iran

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu convened a first meeting to discuss Lieberman’s requests. Present at the meeting were the defense minister and finance minister, the IDF chief of staff and top finance ministry officials. The session was relatively brief and to the point, and it was agreed that there would be another meeting soon. Netanyahu had more urgent problems to attend to, especially the crisis with the Haredim over the train operating on Shabbat. But people who have spoken with the prime minister lately say he has shown understanding for Lieberman’s requests. He may even think the additional sum should be increased further.

The prime minister’s argument focuses on Iran. In the last weeks, Netanyahu has frequently likened Iran and its proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to a cat and its paws. The cat, Iran, sits far away by extends its paws to hurt Israel from its borders nearby. When a decision is required on how to use surplus tax revenues, Netanyahu, like Lieberman, maintains that security takes precedence over quality of life. Life itself before family life, as someone in the defense establishment recently put it, or guns before socks, as they used to say here 50 years ago.

Netanyahu accuses his detractors of harassing his family merely because they cannot present an alternative to his policies. But Netanyahu has no policy.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The divergent ideas being heard about how big the defense budget should be has also given rise to the theory that Netanyahu wants to create an artificial crisis over the 2019 budget. The budget dispute would serve as an pretext for breaking up the coalition and moving the next election up to this spring, so the theory goes, and that’s with the shadow of a probable police recommendation to charge Netanyahu in some of the cases for which he is under investigation hanging over things too.

Lieberman said at the meeting with reporters on Monday that he wants to boost the capability and standing of the IDF ground forces. He expressed skepticism about one of the basic points of the Gideon plan, the merger of the ground forces command with the technology and logistics division of the general staff, a move that also raised some doubts among the top military leadership at the time. But while Lieberman was speaking with the journalists, the officers of the general staff had assembled at Givat Olga for a workshop to examine how the Gideon plan has progressed. They were shown a report that praised the merger process, saying it saved the army hundreds of jobs and millions of shekels per year.

At war’s end

Putin and Assad with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, November 20, 2017.Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

What happened this week in Sochi, the Russian resort city on the Black Sea, was essentially the concluding ceremony of the Syrian civil war. First, Syrian President Bashar Assad was flown there in secret to express his gratitude to his Russian saviors. Two days later, they discussed how to divide up the spoils. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his counterparts from Iran and Turkey, Hassan Rouhani and Recip Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss the division of power in Syria after the defeat of ISIS.

The war hasn’t really ended, of course. Syrian civilians were still dying in significant numbers while their president – who has already claimed the title of the 21st century’s biggest mass murderer – was being received by his patron Putin. Many of the rebel militias have not laid down their weapons either. What has changed is the collapse of the geographic domain that was held by ISIS, the Islamic caliphate declared by the organization in 2014 that spanned northern Iraq and eastern Syria. ISIS as an idea, with its myriad supporters in the Middle East and throughout the West, will continue to claim victims. But the fall of its caliphate is of great importance for another reason as well: Because of it, the United States will be scrapping once and for all whatever remaining interest it had in Syria, and essentially leave the field wide open to the Russians and their partners.

Behind the smiles

Presidents Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hassan Rohani of Iran meet in Sochi, Russia, to discuss Syria on November 22, 2017. Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS

With all the smiling faces gathered in Sochi, Israel is continuing to issue warnings. Netanyahu, Lieberman and even Eisenkot stated, time after time, that Israel would not accept any Iranian presence or the presence of any of the Shiite militias it backs in Syria, particularly in the south. Asked about this at the meeting with the press on Monday, Lieberman spoke of Israel’s opposition to the Iranian attempts to pressure Assad to allow them to build an airbase and a naval base on the Mediterranean coast in northern Syria. “We cannot accept that,” he said. Asked if Israel would respond with violence to the existence of bases for Iranian ground forces – one of which was reported with much fanfare by the BBC, thanks to “Western intelligence sources” – Lieberman was a bit evasive. The defense minister said it was “a Syrian airbase that had been upgraded. There are still no Iranians there. Whatever needs to be done – we shall do.”

Israel seems to be climbing up too high a tree regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. There are two potential problems here. The first is that these declarations, which amount to red lines, are not consistent and don’t make clear enough just what Israel is demanding. Is it opposed to any Iranian and Shiite militia presence in Syria, or only in the south? Is it against any activity that could develop into terrorist action against it (a wholly reasonable demand)? Or is it also opposed to Iran’s moves to bolster the Assad regime (a demand that will be more difficult to muster international legitimacy for)?

The second problem is that repeating such threats without taking any action is liable to be perceived in the region as weakness and empty talk, while actually acting on the warnings could easily lead to a serious escalation of the situation on the Syrian and Lebanese borders, and to a broader military confrontation that Israel may not be prepared for.

Two researchers at the Institute of National Security Studies, Brigadier General (res.) Udi Dekel and former Israeli ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen, published an insightful article this week on the INSS website about the latest developments in Syria. Iran, they write, is emerging as the big winner of the civil war. “The United States and Russia served it control and influence in Syria on a silver platter,” they say. “Now [Iran] is acting to reinforce its grip on Syria for the far long term by means of building bases and camps for its proxies, manufacturing infrastructure and arms storage.” They say that Iran has also started recruiting Syrian civilians, mainly Shiites, for a new militia that it is building, based on the Hezbollah model. “Another goal of Iran’s is to challenge Israel on the Golan Heights, far from the nuclear sites in its own territory, and through proxies, rather than organic Iranian forces,” they explain.

Dekel and Magen are critical of Israel’s policy in Syria. They say that since 2011 Israel has sat on the fence and not actively intervened in what is happening in the country, apart from its war on smuggled arms shipments to Hezbollah. “The result is an absence of Israeli influence in the current battle to reshape Syria and abandoning the scene to stronger Iranian influence and entrenchment in Syria,” they write, saying that it was only when Israel realized that it had let its guard down that it started declaring red lines that would require a military response if crossed. The Israeli ambiguity in setting these red lines, without elaboration, “is supposed to give Israel a certain amount of flexibility in its response. However, this ambiguity could also spur Iran to try and test Israel’s response by taking graduated steps.”

Magen and Dekel say the day is approaching when Israel will “have to roll up its sleeves and dip its hands into the action if it wants to halt the growing Iranian influence and entrenchment there. Israel has the potential to wreck Russia and Iran’s project in Syria and to seriously impact the Assad regime’s pillars of support. It must demonstrate resolve in its demand to keep Iranian forces and the Shiite militias under Iran’s control out of the Golan Heights, and prevent the construction of Iranian military infrastructure in Syria. It’s important to understand that this means growing potential for an escalation in the north, on the Syrian front, and trickling over to the Lebanon front,” they write. Dekel, who headed the negotiations with the Palestinians for the Olmert government, is far from a big hawk. If he is saying such things in public, it’s a good bet that the sentiments are echoed by some current high-ranking defense officials.

At the start of the week, IDF tanks fired twice at Syrian forces that were building a position near the Druze village of Khader, in an area under the control of the Assad regime by the northern part of the border with Israel in the Golan. The separation agreement between the two countries in the Golan Heights, signed in 1974, set restrictions on the deployment of military forces close to the border. The Syrian army is likely trying to establish new facts in the field, given the weakening of the rebels, in violation of the old status quo. Israel is seeking to enforce the old arrangement, by force as well, but this is just a small problem compared to the tensions with the Iranians and their proxies in southern Syria.

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