Analysis

Battle Between Israel and Iran Shifting From Syria to Lebanon

IDF is disturbed by Hezbollah honing its skills in the Syria war and sending some of its units back to Lebanon. Over the border, the Lebanese are increasingly suspicious of Israel, and their wariness is turning into threats

FILE PHOTO: Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018.
OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS

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Thursday night’s incident in Syrian airspace, which was painted in dramatic colors by Arab media outlets, turns out to have been relatively minor.

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Syria’s air defenses, identifying what it considered to be unusual movements by Israeli planes in southern Syria, fired 20 anti-aircraft missiles. But contrary to Syria’s claims, they hit no Israeli planes or missiles.

There has been no credible information from Syria about any damage caused by an Israeli strike. Russia didn’t condemn or even officially comment on the incident. And while shrapnel from one Syrian missile fell in the Israeli portion of the Golan Heights, it caused no damage.

As in several other recent incidents, this looks like a Syrian overreaction. The last such overreaction, on September 17, led Syria to accidently down a Russian spy plane.

Thursday’s incident occurred a few hours after former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin made an unusual statement. Yadlin, who heads the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the radio station 103 FM that Iran has recently altered its behavior in the region.

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“Beyond the fact that the Russians are angry at us and giving us the cold shoulder, I think they also sent forceful messages to Iran that its military entrenchment and missile factories in Syria are harming the effort to stabilize Syria,” he said. “An unstable Syria doesn’t suit the Russians. Israeli strikes have dropped to near-zero, and I think that’s not because we don’t want to [carry out strikes], but because the Iranians have changed their tactics. They’re moving everything to Lebanon.”

Yadlin thus said openly what several senior Israeli officials have recently hinted: Due to changes imposed by Russia, the Israeli-Iranian battle has largely moved to other countries.

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FILE Photo: An Israeli tank on the Israel-Syria border, February, 2018.
AMMAR AWAD /REUTERS

Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly in September, is worried by the Iranian-Hezbollah effort to set up production lines for precision weaponry in Lebanon. Some of the necessary materials are now being smuggled on the frequent flights from Tehran to Beirut, rather than overland through Syria.

Lebanon is undergoing many changes that worry Israeli decision-makers: the effort to build precision weapons factories; Russia’s growing interest in events in Lebanon, after having bolstered its aerial defense umbrella over Syria; the return of some Hezbollah fighters from Syria as the civil war dies down there and changes in their deployment in Lebanon; and the continued upgrading of Israel’s barrier along the Lebanese border, which will approach areas disputed between the two countries near Rosh Hanikra and Manara. Israel has already announced that it intends to continue building the barrier despite Lebanese warnings.

Hezbollah probably isn’t seeking war with Israel right now. But the improvement of its offensive capabilities during Syria’s civil war and the return of some of its units to Lebanon worry the Israel Defense Forces.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s suspicions of Israeli plans are growing, leading to counter-threats. This weekend, Hezbollah released a threatening video showing aerial photographs of various Israeli sites, including Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. The clip included a Hebrew caption: “If you dare to attack, you’ll regret it.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit responded in Arabic on social media, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

All this is happening less than two weeks after Netanyahu warned in a speech of a serious security situation. His speech had a political motive; he was trying, successfully, to keep the Habayit Hayehudi party in the government after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman quit and withdrew his Yisrael Beiteinu party from the ruling coalition. But it also raised questions about whether Israel was planning an offensive. Since Netanyahu’s position on the Gaza Strip is fairly clear — he wants to avoid war with Hamas if possible — attention has focused on Hezbollah.

The government recently extended the term of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot for an additional two weeks, to mid-January. Shortly afterward, Eisenkot announced that he was canceling a planned trip to Germany.

Yet anyone trying to connect these dots seems to be jumping the gun. If war is expected, you don’t extend the chief of staff’s tenure by a mere two weeks. And if war were being planned, the extension presumably wouldn’t have been announced.

The more likely interpretation is that tensions are indeed expected, due to the changes up north and Hezbollah’s efforts to acquire better weapons, but there’s no deterministic process leading inevitably to war. It’s worth recalling that Israel and Hezbollah have been through similarly tense periods in previous years, but have nevertheless managed to preserve almost complete quiet in the 12 years since the Second Lebanon War.