Analysis |

Not Just Missiles and Bombs: How Israel Exercises Soft Power Across the Mideast

Reducing Iranian attacks from Syria and removing top enemy commanders from their posts are just some results of Israel's threats, influence, leaks and other signals to achieve its goals ■ The Gaza-Israel flare-up highlighted once more the problem of the Israeli army's ground forces

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli tanks in the Golan Heights, in 2018. Against the background of the security tensions on the northern border, and in case of an Iranian response to attacks in Syria, the military deployed additional Iron Dome batteries in the Golan Heights.
Israeli tanks in the Golan Heights, in 2018. Against the background of the security tensions on the northern border, and in case of an Iranian response to attacks in Syria, the military deployed additional Iron Dome batteries in the Golan Heights.Credit: Rami Shllush
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Most of the Israeli media coverage on the war between the wars focuses on the airstrikes in Syria, and it's still shackled by censorship restrictions. In many cases, the military censors – according to the dictates of the political leaders and the intelligence community – allow only quotes from foreign sources.

The arena extends across other places in the Middle East, and the methods are diverse. Along with missiles and bombs, Israel exercises plenty of soft power. It wages influence campaigns based on threats, signals and articles in the international media.

A good example is seen in the decrease of Iranian attacks on Israel from Syrian soil. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated by the United States in Iraq in January 2020, led the Iranians’ military consolidation in Syria. According to foreign sources, Israel began to take action against this in late 2017 when it bombed a large Iranian base near Damascus. Since then, many of the attacks in the war between the wars have focused on targets directly linked to the Revolutionary Guards, not only on attempts to disrupt Iranian arms smuggling through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Soleimani hoped to establish a large, independent Iranian presence in Syria based on thousands of combat troops. What remains today is just a few hundred Iranian advisers with limited capacity to cause damage.

A missile over Damascus in 2019.Credit: SANA/Reuters

This isn't an overwhelming Israeli victory – Iran still wields influence in Syria, and the arms smuggling has improved Hezbollah’s arsenal in Lebanon, including precision missiles. But the Iranians are far from realizing their original goal.

Behind the scenes, Israel was also involved in the events that led to the dismissal of Javad Ghaffari, the Quds Force chief in Syria, who was considered Soleimani’s right-hand man. Ghaffari, who like his mentor is a graduate of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, had been active in Syria since 2012, which worried Western intelligence agencies.

Israeli Military Intelligence discovered that he was active in two areas that could upset the host Syrians. Ghaffari exploited transit permits throughout Syria to smuggle goods and sell them on the black market, raking in profits and destabilizing the Syrian economy. He also broadened the operation of Shi'ite bases and militias beyond what had been agreed with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Along with the leaking of this information, Israel bombed Iranian command posts – whose existence or scale of activity was apparently little known to the Syrians.

Israel later attacked cells linked to Iran and Hezbollah near the Syrian Golan Heights, once again exposing secret Iranian activity.

A year later, last November, Revolutionary Guards chief Esmail Ghaani fired Ghaffari. As far as is known, this was done at Assad's behest.

Ground forces grounded

Once again, the latest operation in Gaza ended without the need to send in the ground troops. It's better that way, of course. Fire from the air and artillery, coupled with precise intelligence, was enough to achieve the military's goals.

The government and the General Staff were right to strive for a quick conclusion after making Islamic Jihad pay a price. That doesn’t solve the problem of the ground forces, which for years have been the third wheel, almost superfluous, during offensive operations.

If in the past these units cultivated an atmosphere of sacrifice (“We were called, and we went”), this has been replaced by an ethos of victimhood (“Why do we work harder than everybody else?”). In recent years, the idea has even become: “Who still gives a damn about us?”

Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

As is the custom, all this requires a condolence visit by the chief of staff to these units after an operation, along with a promise that if a major war erupts, the ground forces will be unleashed with all their might.

There’s not much new here. Like Aviv Kochavi after him, the previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, scrimped in committing the ground forces during major moves. He once said he wouldn't launch a ground operation simply because the commander of the Armored Corps’ 7th Brigade complained that he was bored.

Even though the term “maneuver shy” – what was once effective on the battlefield isn't anymore – has been banned in the military, this term is still very relevant. Kochavi, who will end his term in January and probably pass the baton to Deputy Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, has big ideas about integrating new technologies and precision intelligence.

But as often happens, a gap still exists between the optimistic vision and its full realization, especially considering the large number of battalions and brigades, certainly among reservists. The concepts are there, but the equipment and intelligence that will put them into practice are still partly stuck.

There was a bit of symbolism in the headlines on Haaretz's website Wednesday morning. On one side was Yaniv Kubovich's piece on the chief of staff’s spending of 35 million shekels ($10.8 million) on a conference on innovation, at the expense of funds earmarked for improving soldiers’ quarters.

The funeral of Staff Sgt. Natan Fitoussi in Netanya this week.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

On the other side was an article on the investigation into the death of a Kfir infantry brigade soldier, Staff Sgt. Natan Fitoussi, whose buddy accidentally shot him to death on duty on the Green Line.

The rumors about a small, smart army haven’t reached the Kfir Brigade troops, who are stuck in these positions for shifts of eight and even 12 hours.

The comparison of these two articles isn't trivial. Some ground forces units suffer from low discipline, which wasn't sufficiently addressed even after the previous friendly fire incident, in January, in which two company commanders were killed by another officer from their Egoz commando unit.

The wave of shooting, knifing and ax attacks between March and May forced the army to allocate forces at the expense of training, in order to close breaches in the separation barrier. Nine battalions are still bearing that burden instead of training, and the conditions are difficult.

Together with the boredom and the missing equipment – according to accounts of some combat soldiers – questions also arise about the training ahead of routine security assignments on the seam line with the Palestinians.

And there’s another matter that's rarely mentioned aloud. In some units there's the problem of the quality of the junior officers. This partly has to do with the quality of their training and degree of independence during missions.

All these issues will probably arise when the investigation into the Kfir Brigade incident concludes. The matter can't boil down to punishing the soldier who opened fire, even if he acted carelessly – and tragically.

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