by: Itamar Eichner
Thursday, 04 January 2018 | President Reuven Rivlin received Monday the 2018 Strategic Assessment for Israel produced by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). At the meeting, the institute’s Executive Director, Major-General (res.) Amos Yadlin presented the president with the report, while the institute’s researchers reviewed key security and policy issues addressed in the report.
“The entrenchment of Iran and its proxies in Syria and the expectation it will try gaining a foothold in the Golan Heights, raise the likelihood of escalation to war, in light of the Israeli government’s red lines regarding Iranian presence in southern Syria,” the evaluation said.
“The IDF is therefore required to improve its readiness for escalation and even war in the northern theater against Syria and Lebanon. Conflict—whether limited or total—between Israel and Hezbollah with Iranian backing constitutes the security challenge to which Israel must gird itself,” the institute’s evaluation further said.
Neither Israel nor Hezbollah are interested in another war, Yadlin said. However, Israeli activities aimed at crippling Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, alongside Hezbollah freeing itself of the task to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, may deteriorate the situation towards the “First Northern War,” which will not necessarily be limited to Lebanon.
This potential war may safely be assumed to expand to conflict with Iranian forces and their vassals in Syria—perhaps even conflict with the Syrian army itself—possibly concurrently to a war against Hamas in the south.
The above factors will turn into conflict in the country’s northern frontier into a war the breadth of which Israel has not experienced since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The INSS said Israel must therefore prioritize any strategic and operative matters relating to waging war against three hostile entities in the north: Syria, Hezbollah and Iran. In the backdrop, Russia’s military presence and involvement, while seemingly neutral, will more than likely impose limitations on Israeli freedom of action.
Israel must thus make ready for three alternative scenarios for war in the north: a war limited to Lebanon, a combined war with Syria and Lebanon—including Iranian and Shiite elements operating in Lebanon—and an all-out war that involves Iranian forces as well.
Moreover, wrongly interpreting the other party’s intentions—either by Israel or Hezbollah—may lead to widespread escalation. A war against Hezbollah will lead to a heavy toll deep into Israeli territory; thousands of missiles and rockets will be launched at the north and deeper in-state, with simultaneous infiltration attempts into Israel by terror and guerilla squads for the purpose of harming border communities and essential infrastructures.
Under current conditions, the INSS stipulated, Lebanon and Syria must be treated as a single theater, as escalation on one front will invariably lead to escalation on the other, with some launches expected to come from Syria while Shiite militias and Syrian army forces likely attacking through the Golan Heights.
As that conflict is waged, Iran will be encouraging Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to lob rocket from Gaza at Israel and carry out terrorist attacks by breaching the border fence and by using cross-border tunnels, in addition to also encouraging West Bank terrorists to carry out terror attacks.
While Hamas is under effective deterrence, the INSS said it was continuing to gather its strength and that a conflict may break out—even if neither side wants it—over uncontrollable escalation stemming from a local incident, an initiative by jihad elements, difficulties in implementing the Palestinian reconciliation agreement causing to lash out at Israel or tensions surrounding the Jerusalem issue.
Regardless of the specific trigger, it must not be forgotten that socioeconomic hardship and humanitarian difficulties in Gaza will surely persist, further enflaming the mood.
Somewhat ironically, the IDF’s solution to Hamas’s offensive tunnels—currently being developed and deployed on the border—may push the organization to an earlier conflict to head off harm to this important facet of its strategic deployment.
While the Islamic State (IS) may have been defeated and lost its main strongholds in Syria and Iraq, it was this defeat that caused it to move its base of operations to regions that have not yet seen a concerted military effort to combat it.
IS presence in southern Syria near the Golan Heights, then, and especially in Sinai (in addition to the southern Syrian Golan Heights) has already been translated to numerous attacks against the Egyptian army and civilian populations. The radical organization’s presence also points to a growing potential threat to Israel, with a large terrorist attack possibly planned.
Israel is strong, stable and its borders are calm. It maintained its military supremacy in the Middle East throughout 2017, as well as its deterrence against its enemies on the border—state and non-states alike—including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic State.
The INSS’s evaluation also said President Donald Trump’s administration was extremely friendly and accommodating to Israel, and is in complete agreement with the country over most regional strategic interests.
However, the American influence in the region continues to erode. The Trump administration has yet to put together an overall strategy to realize its goals—which it has defined in principle—while its attention is constantly diverted to other, non-Middle Eastern issues.
In the past two years, Russia has been the clear winner in the Middle East, achieving primacy as the foremost state actor to shape and stabilize the Syrian theater while pushing out and weakening the US.
Moscow has taken root in Syria with a ground, naval and air presence shoring up its strategic control of the country for generations to come. In doing so, Russia has been judicious to maintain a good rapport with all other actors in the region.
However, a broad examination of the region leads to the inevitable conclusion that Israel and Russia’s interests will end up colliding due to the backing the latter is providing to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.
On Iran’s nuclear issue, the INSS said that despite hostility to the 2015 nuclear deal within the Trump administration, the agreement has been upheld by both parties throughout the past year. In addition, improving the agreement unilaterally—through Congressional legislation for example—will be difficult, with the other powers party to it not likely to cooperate.
The institute’s evaluation said the past year was characterized by a continued freeze on the Israeli-Palestinian arena, while Israel has been successful in continuing to preserve what is a convenient reality as far as it’s concerned, security-wise.
The failure of the Palestinians’ two main alternatives over the past two decades—the terror strategy on the one hand and internationalizing the conflict on the other—may lead to the adoption of a “one-state strategy.”
In the intra-Palestinian arena, meanwhile, several developments took place that may lead to meaningful moves against Israel, namely the continued disconnect—or even escalation—between the parties or the restarting of the peace process.
At the center of the political process is Trump’s desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. The question of whether the president will decide to stick with this ambitious goal yet remains, and his staff will draft a statement of principle regarding any US-brokered agreement early in 2018.
In such an eventuality, both Israel and the Palestinians—fearing the actions of an unpredictable president—will most likely focus their efforts on responses aimed at levying the burden of guilt over the president’s failure on the other party.
Posted on January 4, 2018
Photo Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Ashernet
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