The latest series of reports from Syria are somewhat foggy. At first came the report of a pre-dawn aerial assault Sunday near the Damascus international airport, attributed to Israel. The Syrian regime, which over the past two years has admitted relatively openly to Israeli strikes (even when Israel itself tried to remain ambiguous), this time claimed an electrical short as the cause of the explosions.
The explosions, in what was described as a weapon storehouse, were heard clearly throughout Damascus, but unlike previous strikes, no Syrian anti-aircraft fire was documented, either at planes or at missiles.
But if the report of an aerial assault in the Damascus area sounded a bit dubious, on Monday it was joined by another report, this time of an attack on a convey of Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias, bombed near the American base near the enclave of Al-Tanf in southern Syria. Eight people were reportedly killed In that incident, including Iranian fighters and militiamen. In the past such aerial bombings on convoys in this area were attributed both to Israel and to the United States. This is the road by which convoys bring fighters and weapons from Iran and Iraq and from there to Syria and Lebanon.
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The east-west land corridor that Iran has been trying to strengthen over the past two years is now drawing more international attention. Just last weekend Reuters reported on an Iranian move to transfer medium-range missiles to Iraq, apparently as an interim area between Iran itself and its weapons stores in Syria, which are frequently bombarded by Israel.
Senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have over the past few days gone back to expressing themselves publicly about the Iranian presence in Syria. Against the backdrop of visits by American envoys to Israel and of senior Iranians in Syria, it was once again reported that Israel is not entirely happy with the arrangement with Russia to keep Iranian forces in Syria away from Israel’s border. Moscow has kept its pledge to move the Iranians a distance of 85 kilometers (and according to another version, 100 kilometers) from the border with Israel in the Golan, but this pledge does not include Damascus.
The bottom line of the recent developments is that the brief interlude in the fighting on the Syrian border is apparently over. The period between February and July, during which Iranian action in Syria increased and following the re-taking of the Syrian Golan by the Assad regime, saw a great many incidents, some of which involved “leaking” of fire or aircraft from Syria into Israeli territory. But in recent weeks, after Assad completed his takeover of southern Syria, relatively quiet has prevailed.
And now it seems that Israel is signaling that it has gone back to operations as usual. As long as it identifies a danger, which to Israel also means deviating from understandings with the Russians, Israel reserves the right to respond. That is what Lieberman said yesterday in an interview in the framework of the Israel News Companies’ “influencers” conference.
Lieberman makes his choice
Meanwhile, the defense minister is considering the upcoming appointment of the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. Last week, in an unusual step, Lieberman told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth that he had already decided who will be the next chief of staff. He was keeping the name to himself. Only after the High Court of Justice hears a petition Thursday against the composition of the committee that decides senior government appointments, and hopefully issues a ruling, will Lieberman make public the names of the two final candidates. These will be his candidate and one other, in the unlikely event that the first appointment is struck down by the committee for ethical reasons.
On Monday, rather disingenuously, Lieberman confirmed that he had indeed decided on the appointment but because his memory “at my age is not great,” he couldn’t remember “at this second” who the man is. What is the logic in leaving four candidates in suspense and keeping the information to himself? The defense minister was not asked and did not say. In the army, meanwhile, they are analyzing the texts of these interviews as if they were intelligence data. From the few hints dropped by the defense minister, it emerges that he’s looking for an officer who will convey to him that the IDF under his command will be able to win wars, lead a revolution in the ground forces and will not bother him too much about strategic imperatives.
Not that anybody knows for sure, but as was reported last month, most members of the General Staff believe that the two names to be submitted to the committee will be Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi (the current deputy chief of staff) and Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon. If Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former military secretary, reaches the final lap, it will be perceived as the result of pressure brought to bear by the prime minister himself.
As for the fourth candidate, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, he sounded on Monday like someone who has been relieved from the pressure of the competition (not that this bothered him very much in the past). In a speech to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Golan said: “Anyone who has dealt with combat understands that wars cannot be won only through intelligence and precise fire. Technology alone apparently will not win wars.” That is, the IDF needs to improve its ground maneuvering, an issue that is now under extensive discussion by experts.
Golan had a surprise ready for anyone who expected him to be careful of examples from a certain period of history. In wartime, he said, Israel needs “leadership like that of Winston Churchill in World War II.” It seems that this statement, at least, won’t turn Netanyahu against him, considering the prime minister’s well-known admiration for the British leader.