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Israel Simulates War With Hezbollah, but Iran Will Orchestrate Next Conflict in Lebanon and Syria

Israeli army and political leadership's calculations can't help but change

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Hezbollah and Syrian flags on a military vehicle in Western Qalamoun, Syria, August 2017.
Hezbollah and Syrian flags on a military vehicle in Western Qalamoun, Syria, August 2017.Credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The massive drill conducted by the IDF Northern Command last week concluded, as usual, with a convincing victory over Hezbollah. But does the scenario the army selected for the simulation really reflect the reality it may encounter if a third Lebanon war occurs? For years, senior officers and strategy experts have been agonizing over whether the IDF’s equipment and combat methods are suited to meet the new challenge posed by organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon (and, to a lesser extent, Hamas in Gaza) now that the threat of facing the armies of some neighboring countries has declined. This year, a new question has been added: Given the clear advantage the Assad regime has established in the Syrian civil war, don’t these new regional circumstances require Israel to modify its way of thinking about potential future conflicts?

The IDF is not revealing much about the simulation it just held, and this policy is understandable. What has been made public indicates that the army is preparing to contend with a surprise assault by Hezbollah that would include the attempted takeover of a northern Israeli community or of an army position near the border and a simultaneous heavy barrage of rockets on the home front in the north and center of the country. In addition to massive aerial bombardments of Hezbollah targets, the Israeli response would also rely on a rapid ground maneuver into Lebanese territory. During the simulation, senior officers said, “The maneuver is not the problem, it’s an important part of the answer.”

This sounds like a clear statement on the question that has been occupying the security leadership for many years – the state of the ground forces and their ability to play a key role in achieving victory over the enemy. The last time the IDF maneuvered deep into enemy territory was in 1982, against the Palestinian terror organizations in Lebanon. Ariel Sharon, the defense minister who was the architect of the First Lebanon War, ended up being severely disappointed by the IDF’s performance in battle, a feeling that fed his distrust of the General Staff, even when he was elected prime minister in 2001, at the height of the second intifada.

But since 1982, Israel has avoided deep maneuvers inside enemy territory. Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002 did not involve significant movement by the armored brigade, and the adversary on the other side was weak. As chief of staff prior to the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Moshe Ya’alon was skeptical about the abilities of the ground forces, which had been doing less training during a time when the main concern was stopping the terror attacks of the second intifada.

Dan Halutz, who succeeded Ya’alon as chief of staff and had to deal with the war with Hezbollah, was wary of using the ground forces and turned out to be right in that regard, even as he let himself be talked into supporting the failed ground campaign of the war’s final 60 hours. In Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, the IDF confined itself to a token ground maneuver in open territory, and did not encounter significant resistance because the Hamas units had retreated into the urban part of Gaza.

In Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the security leadership – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz – refrained from launching a major ground campaign in Gaza, and focused instead on the Hamas attack tunnels near the border. The IDF suffered quite a number of casualties and awarded numerous medals of valor to its soldiers, but it did not contend with intensive, protracted combat deep in Hamas-controlled territory, both because the Israeli leadership feared the anarchy that could ensue in Gaza were Hamas soundly defeated, and because it wasn’t sufficiently confident of the army’s capabilities in that kind of combat scenario. The latter is something that the General Staff came to refer to as “manuever confusion.” The officers originally championed the maneuver, but didn’t know exactly what to do with it and were fearful of the implications, including potential heavy losses and possible failure.

Current Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks differently on the subject and also, to some extent, acts differently. He advanced a move begun by Gantz to institute an order of priorities among the IDF divisions, so that the divisions whose job is to maneuver deep in enemy territory would receive priority in training and resources over those concerned with routine security. Next year, for the first time in 18 years, the training periods and field-duty periods (in the territories and on the borders) will be equalized for the units that do such ground maneuvers. But in the years in which the ground forces’ training stagnated, the air force did improve and polish its offensive capabilities. To the leadership, the temptation to keep relying on the air force is great. An air war is conducted from a much safer distance with much less risk to soldiers’ lives. However, many military officers and experts are not convinced that a war can be decided by air power alone. In Lebanon in 2006, and in the last three conflicts in Gaza, the story repeated itself: It didn’t take that long for the air force to deplete the “target bank” and at that point the enemy was still standing, despite the tremendous pressure being brought to bear.

During the Second Lebanon War, Eisenkot was head of the General Staff Operations Division. Afterwards, he said that Israel might have been better off sticking to the original “ice-breaker” plan of action, which consisted mainly of four days of massive aerial attacks, with very limited movement on the ground. To judge by his more recent public statements, though, his confidence in the IDF’s ground maneuvering capability has since grown and he again attaches great importance to it.

In the latest drill, the IDF dealt with a mirror image of southern Lebanon: The forces made their way south, towards the Lower Galilee, which simulated enemy territory. But how far would the lead ground troops advance? To Tyre, Sidon, or all the way to Beirut? Another question is whether a ground offensive through southern Lebanon, no matter how big, would be enough to break Hezbollah’s will to fight.

At the same time, advancing all the way to Beirut would involve extensive logistics and enemy contact, major loss of life and a longer war that would erode legitimacy for the IDF’s moves both abroad (without question) and at home. This could well cause a gap to surface between, on one hand, the narrative that the IDF tells itself, the Israeli public and its adversaries, and which serves the cause of Israeli deterrence, as well as preserving the combat ethos and bolstering the number of volunteers for combat units – and, on the other hand, the army’s ability to adequately achieve its stated goals.

A strategic shift

This is where a new, important element enters the picture – the recent developments in Syria. Since the rebel surrender in Aleppo last December, and the Russian-dictated cease-fire in some parts of the country that went into effect in July, Assad has been moving steadily closer to victory in the war. The big winners here are the two countries that supported the Syrian tyrant – Russia and Iran. Tehran is counting on the payoff for its contributions, in the form of big contracts with the regime, construction of a seaport, creating a contiguous corridor of influence via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, and later gradually establishing itself on the Golan Heights near the Israeli border.

Last week we reported that Russia and the United States did not heed Israel’s request to keep Iran and the Shi’ite militias about 60 kilometers from the border, east of the Damascus-Suwayda highway. The Russians would pledge only that the Iranians and their surrogates would not come any closer than five kilometers from the lines of contact. The alliance of interests between Moscow and Tehran is partial and temporary. In the event of a major escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, the Russian presence could work in both directions: as a restraining influence on Iran, with the aim of averting a war and thus preserving the strategic asset of the Assad regime, or as a force that will try to limit Israel’s freedom of action, perhaps by threatening to activate the surface-to-air missile batteries deployed in Syria. It’s very doubtful that Iran is looking for a military conflict with Israel right now. It has too much to lose. Yet the Iranians are good at looking to the long term. The Vienna agreement may have frozen their nuclear program, but it got the economic sanctions lifted and saved the Iranian economy from collapse.

Then-President Barack Obama’s eagerness to seal the nuclear accord, combined with the American public’s growing reluctance to get involved in distant wars, led him to forgo military intervention in Syria. Later, following Russia’s intervention, this approach allowed the Assad regime to survive, the opposite of the desired outcome.

At the same time, Iran is currently bolstering its ability to launch, via surrogates, a harassment campaign against Israel in the Golan Heights as well in south Lebanon. As one cabinet member described it, “Iran now has a long border with Israel, but Israel has no border with Iran.”

Another upshot from the Syrian civil war is that Tehran has cemented its position as head of the Shi’ite-Alawite axis. In July 2006, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah ordered an operation in which two IDF reservists were captured on the northern border, thinking that it was a tactical move that wouldn’t lead to war, and evidently without consulting at all with the Iranians. The balance of power has shifted since then. If Nasrallah has already sent 1,800 Lebanese Shi’ite youth to their deaths on behalf of Assad, and has permanently stationed more than a quarter of Hezbollah’s regular forces in Syria, it means he is acting in accordance with Iran’s directives. In the future, Tehran may be the one to determine if and when Hezbollah goes to war against Israel, but Israel’s military effort is still focused on Hezbollah. Israel is wracking its brain over how to deter (and, if necessary, defeat) Nasrallah, but its real adversary is the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, General Qasem Soleimani.

All of this mandates a re-examination of basic premises, such as that the fear of the resultant damage to Shi’ite villages in south Lebanon will deter Hezbollah from starting a war. It certainly warrants reconsideration of the idea that destruction of Lebanese civil infrastructure could bring Hezbollah to its knees so that Israel could impose a cease-fire to its liking.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been adept at identifying the new situation that has arisen in the region. Ignoring for a moment that highlighting the Iranian threat pays off for him domestically (playing up security fears is always helpful at election time) and abroad (it’s a good way to muster the United States to our side), the prime minister genuinely understands that Iran is aiming to increase its dominance in the countries to its west. This should be borne in mind when looking at Netanyahu’s statements last week in support of an independent Kurdish state. Such a state, with ties to the West and perhaps also to Israel, could help halt Tehran’s aspirations for expanding its influence over a contiguous territory.

Meanwhile, with the growing Iranian presence near Israel’s borders, new thinking may be needed about Israel’s military objectives between wars, which are currently focused on halting the Iranian effort to upgrade Hezbollah’s arsenal of precision missiles. In the longer term, it’s also a question of how best to build the force: Is the IDF’s present mixture of armored and infantry forces right for the shifting challenges it is facing?

Andrew Exum is a former officer in the U.S. Army and was a Pentagon official during the Obama administration. In an article in The Atlantic magazine this week, he says Hezbollah’s behavior is increasing the likelihood of another war with Israel. Exum says the war will break out because Hezbollah is determined to arm itself with vast quantities of missiles and rockets that are causing fear in Israel, and to ignore all of Israel’s warnings to desist from doing so. He says every American official who visited Israel in the past two years was warned by his hosts that a war is on the way, and that it will be a very hard and ugly one with great civilian suffering on both sides.

Planes before APCs

Next week, the Knesset Subcommittee for Readiness and Continuous Security headed by Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, will submit its report on the army’s “Gideon” multi-year plan. At the last moment, political wrangling arose over the Likud MKs on the committee adding their signatures to the report, due to the criticism of Operation Protective Edge that it includes. The political dispute is a minor one. But one of the main questions that arises from the report, which the IDF gave Shelah much assistance in preparing, has to do with the degree of involvement that the politicians should have in making critical decisions about how to build the country’s military force.

In the 2014 Gaza war, the IDF spent 51 days operating in Gaza under the logic of a war of attrition, not a war for a decisive victory. The army’s mode of operation did not match the plans, while the composition of the units did not match the missions, a flaw that was especially glaring when it came to dealing with the tunnel threat. The report points out the danger of this kind of thing repeating itself, given the meager involvement of political officials in the multi-year plan.

If the administration here worked more properly, the political level would define for the military the achievement required of it on every front in the event of war, and that would serve as the basis for determining the plans for all sectors and the plans for building the force, with much involvement from the army. But in the current situation, the General Staff is compelled to enter the vacuum left by the political officials and to decide on the army’s direction itself. Sometimes the situation is even worse: The 11 billion shekels that Netanyahu and his first defense minister, Ehud Barak, invested in preparations for an attack on Iran also came at the expense of the preparedness for the conflict in Gaza. Meanwhile, over those same years, the amount of personnel in the permanent army grew precipitously (later forcing Gantz and Eisenkot to trim more than 5,000 permanent army jobs).

Israel had an air force capable of striking underground targets in Iran – an important thing in itself – but its ground forces went right ahead and sent Golani troops into Gaza’s heavily armed Shujaiyeh neighborhood in old, unfortified M-113 APCs, while some newer equipment was left behind unused. In the course of the war, the IDF deployed nearly 1,500 old APCs in the south. Only several dozen entered Gaza, and the use of the APCs was stopped altogether the day after the APC was hit in Shujaiyeh and seven Golani soldiers were killed. This, too, is an issue of priorities and proper management.

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