On Oct. 25, Israel launched a major national military drill dubbed “Lethal Arrow.” It is supposed to simulate conflict on multiple fronts, focusing on northern Israel. The coordination level among units is supposed to improve the Israel Defense Forces offensive capabilities. It is one of a number of recent exercises that have been preparing numerous Israeli units for future conflict. All this comes amid continued Israeli opposition to Iranian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah entrenchment near the Golan Heights in Syria and recent tensions, since July, with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The military drills and continued tensions with Iran and Hezbollah lead to questions about the last several years in which Israel has sought to conduct a “war between the wars,” designed to confront Iran’s threats. Gadi Eizenkot, Israel Chief of Staff from 2015 to 2019, spelled out the goal of what he called the “Campaign Between the Wars” in a 2019 article co-authored with Gadi Siboni, a colonel in the IDF Reserves and fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. The goal included three parts: Delaying war while weakening the enemy’s buildup, enhancing Israel legitimacy for exertion of force and creating optimal conditions for the IDF if war finally does come.
Part of what we know about Israel’s efforts against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria comes from Eizenkot. During an interview in Jan. 2019, he said Israel had “struck thousands of targets” without taking credit and this was seen as reference to more than a thousand airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Air Force chief Major General Amir Eshel had referenced these airstrikes in Aug. 2017, with claims Israel had struck arms convoys in Syria destined for Hezbollah “nearly 100 times.” If we take those two statements as data points, kind of a book-end of information, we can chart the progress from the hundred airstrikes mentioned in 2017 and the “thousands” mentioned in Jan. 2019. This appears to point to an increase in activity to prevent Iran building up forces that threaten Israel from Syria and also attempts to interdict weapons transfers via Syria to Hezbollah.
The Syrian regime consolidated its control over southern Syria in the summer of 2018. It was at this time that Israel’s then Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Iran against imposing a “chokehold” on Syria, and setting up “terror infrastructure.” Israel carried out major airstrikes in Syria after rocket fire from Syria in May 2018. An F-16 returning from airstrikes even crashed in northern Israel in Oct. 2018. Iran’s increasing role in Syria was revealed by its use of a drone flown from T-4 base in Syria into Israeli airspace in Feb. 2018, a third Khordad air defense system shipped to T-4 in April 2018, and a Hezbollah “killer drone” team dispatched to southern Syria near the Golan in Aug. 2019. All of this culminated in Israel’s reiteration of declarations in Oct. 2020 that it wouldn’t let Iran and Hezbollah entrench near the Golan. This time, it was Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz warning Iran. The need to reiterate Israel’s position illustrates that Israel’s policy of reducing Iran’s entrenchment is contested and may not be achieving long-term results.
Israel must take into account larger regional factors and global powers in its struggle to stop Iran’s entrenchment. Israel had opened channels of communication with Russia to make sure there would be de-confliction during Israeli airstrikes in Syria, since 2015 when Russia entered the Syrian civil war by increasing support for the Assad regime. Tensions with Russia help reveal some of the challenges facing Israel in Syria. In Feb. 2020 Russia said an airstrike endangered a passenger airliner near Damascus. Russia also objected in Dec. 2018 following a serious incident in which Syrian air defense shot down a Russian military plane in Sept. 2018 while trying to shoot down an Israeli jet. Moscow, increasingly annoyed at Israeli airstrikes that might undermine the Syrian regime, claimed Israel was overflying Jordan in Nov. 2019 to conduct the strikes. Syrian air defense fired so wildly at Israel that one of its missiles fell in Cyprus in July 2019 and one fell in Jordan in March 2017.
The above details reveal several converging sets of circumstances. First, there are Israel-Hezbollah tensions. Since the Syrian civil war broke out Hezbollah has made it clear that attacks on its forces in Syria will result in retaliation. In 2015, Hezbollah killed IDF soldiers in the disputed Mount Dov area along the Lebanese border near the Golan. After Hezbollah alleged Israel struck a vehicle in Syria in April 2020 it cut holes in Israel’s northern border fence. In July 2020 tensions rose against after the Lebanese terror group said one of its members was killed in Syria. This was followed by the Oct. 2020 tensions. The pattern of incidents shows that Hezbollah is trying to deter Israel by making it clear that airstrikes on its facilities or casualties among its members give it a reason to respond from Lebanon or from Syria.
Second, there is the growing proof of Iranian entrenchment in Syria. In Syria the proof of Iranian entrenchment is often revealed through satellite images that have been published in media. The images and intelligence assessments are often conducted by ImageSat International. Other images published at the BBC in Nov. 2017 first revealed an Iranian base in Kiswa near the Golan border. Images of Iran building a base near Albukamal in Syria near the Iraqi border were also revealed between Sept. 2019 and May 2020 via Fox News relying on the ImageSat images and assessments. A report in June 2018 also revealed how Iran was constructing a “land bridge” via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon through Albukamal.
Third, there are the various areas of influence in Syria, whereby Russia has bases in Latakia and Iran has infrastructure at T-4, Damascus and elsewhere, while the U.S. has several bases as well. In 2017, reports indicated Israel had asked Russia to guarantee that Iranian elements would be kept 60 km from the Golan as the regime returned to the area. Russia played a role in these areas of southern Syria after the reconquest by working with the Syrian 5th corps, former Syrian rebels who joined the regime. The 60 km demand was bracketed to the West by the U.S. presence at Al-Tanf base. This strategic base near the Jordan and Iraq border is a footprint of U.S. influence that any Iranian presence would have to go around.
A fourth part of this puzzle is Iraq’s role in facilitating weapons transfers to Syria and Hezbollah. Iraq is a key conduit on the “land bridge” and reports over the years have revealed the way this corridor of Iranian influence is generated in Syria on way-points from Albukamal to Mayadin, to T-4 and Damascus and Lebanon. In July and August 2019 reports emerged of Israeli airstrikes in Iraq after pro-Iranian militias blamed Israel for weapons depots that mysteriously exploded. In Aug. 2018 and Dec. 2019 Iran was alleged to have moved ballistic missiles to Iraq. These would have been moved to militias sympathetic to Iran, such as Kataib Hezbollah. The US killed Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani in Jan. 2020 in Baghdad.
The end of the land bridge for Iran is the weapons factories and storage facilities in Lebanon. These have also been well documented by the IDF through details revealed in Aug. 2019 and Sept. 2020. The threat to Israel today from these sites is in the form of precision guided munitions.
The long-term Iranian entrenchment does not appear to have been reduced, despite the large number of airstrikes. The airstrikes have caused extensive precision damage but have resulted in few Iranian casualties or other casualties. Only a handful of Iranian advisors in Syria have been killed over the years and as per the statements from Hezbollah, very few of their members have been killed either. Over time, reports indicated that Israel destroyed large amounts of Syrian air defense, including the Russian-supplied Pantsir air defense system and other systems. Although Russia supplied S-300s to Syria in 2018, it was not clear if the regime ever put them to use. However, the war between the wars in Syria was never designed to decimate low value targets, but rather to employ Israel’s pinpoint precision based on the best intelligence and surveillance. Not much is known about how that is employed, but Israel’s advances in use of algorithms, artificial intelligence, scene-matching and automatic target recognition have all helped achieve this level of precision.
As Israel has sought to challenge Iran’s entrenchment in Syria it also unveiled a new multi-year plan called Momentum. Details of the plan were released in 2019 and early 2020 with a focus on utilizing the IDF’s advances in fifth generation F-35s with Israel’s increasingly precision lethality and unique air defense capabilities. Israel would create more F-35 squadrons, conduct more joint training with the U.S. and also unveil new air force special forces units, more combined arms exercises, exercises using more computers, better communications networks and also more “multi-dimensional” units using unique drones and intelligence pushed to front line units faster. Israel also established a “third circle” directorate aimed at tailoring an IDF headquarters unit to focus on Iran’s threats. This would build on long-distance strategy developed in Israel’s Depth Corps over the years.
The assessment of the “campaign between the wars” strategy, now in progress for half a decade, has to take into account whether the campaign have been successful, objectives met or whether this is a conflict that looks more like “whack-a-mole” or a war of attrition. It is unclear if Israel has delayed war or weakened the enemy’s build up, which were goals. Israel has carved out a legitimacy in the use of force, a fact aided by discussions with Russia and support from the Trump administration. Israel has also used the breathing space to focus on technological developments and training. However, the continued need for airstrikes, which now number many more than the figure Eizenkot revealed in Jan. 2019, illustrates a continued threat from Syria.
The question about the delayed war is what is Iran’s timetable. Iran appears satisfied to continue to arm and improve Hezbollah and also to eat away at the Syrian state, co-opting regions of Syria for its own networks that plug-in to its allied militias in Iraq and Lebanon. Pro-Iranian militia leaders from Iraq, such as Qais Khazali, travelled to Lebanon in 2017 to threaten Israel. It is clear from the comments in 2019 after alleged Israeli airstrikes in Iraq that these militia leaders see Israel as a central enemy, especially if they are able to evict the U.S. from Iraq and concentrate on Israel. Similarly the Syrian regime wants the US out of Tanf to create contiguity in its territory. Russia, focused on northern Syria, can accommodate Israel for now.
It is less certain if Iran would have wanted to launch a conflict earlier had there been no campaign between the wars. It certainly would have established a much large footprint in Syria had its facilities not been targeted. As Iran has set up shop, Hezbollah has had to recuperate from losses in Syria’s war over the years. When Iran did order salvos fired at Israel or a drone penetration, it used rockets with relative lack of sophistication. Iran has been achieving new precision with its missiles, as illustrated by attacks in Koya in Iraq in 2018, against U.S personnel at Al-Asad base in Iraq in Jan. 2020 and against ISIS in Syria in 2017 and 2018. These missiles, the Shahab, Zulfiqar, Qiam and similar types Iran improved over the last ten years are increasingly lethal and they may get a boost as Iran is able to get out from under an arms embargo and renew work with North Korea. Iran’s use of drones and cruise missiles to target Saudi Arabia in 2019 and its technical advice and weapons trafficking to the Houthis in Yemen reveal capabilities far beyond what it has so-far used against Israel. This may be due to being deterred by knowledge of the Trump administration’s total support for Israel and distraction by the US presence in Iraq. It may be testing its ordnance on what it sees as weaker countries that it is less deterred by.
How much of Iran’s material in Syria that has been destroyed is not replaceable? If the air strikes have hit factories, warehouses and storage facilities, as satellite images appear to show that they have, how many of these missiles and other munitions cannot be replaced? There is lack of information on this key issue but reports about Hezbollah’s attempt to build more precision guided guided missile threats through indigenous production seems to show Iran may have shifted strategy to move infrastructure to Lebanon, where airstrikes have not taken place.
Will the window close on Syria’s airspace being open to airstrikes? Syria has a long way to go in this respect because of the US and Turkish presence and Russia’s focus on the north while Iran gets a free-for-all between Albukamal and T-4 and Damascus. This triangle of Iranian influence, from the Golan to T-4 to Albukamal is the center of concern for Iran’s entrenchment. The tensions with Hezbollah near the Golan indicate that demands that Iranian networks be kept away from the Golan have not been fulfilled due to a power vacuum in southern Syria. The Alma Research and Education Center and other reports have shown that Hezbollah infrastructure, dubbed the Hezbollah “Golan file,” remains in place. If the campaign between the wars was designed to deter or remove Hezbollah entrenchment, as several Israeli defense ministers have said, then that has not happened. The overall campaign is also open ended.
This could mean that Israel’s efforts in Syria begins to look more like other open-ended conflicts, such as the U.S. has fought during the Global War on Terror. Unlike Israel’s involvement in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s, it doesn’t involve any boots on the ground. It is an air war, like the U.S. conducts in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere against threats. However, unlike the U.S. conflicts, this is a war that is not in a far off country – but directly next door. Hezbollah’s attempt to impose a price for any casualties in Syria does not appear to bode well, creating a constant cycle of crisis whenever Hezbollah wants to entrench. It also presents a Iran with opportunities to threaten Israel and to knit together its Iraqi proxies with pro-Iranian elements in Syrian and Lebanon.