Syria will join in next Israeli battle with Hezbollah, top officer says
Combined enemy forces could lob 3,000 rockets a day at Israel, says senior IDF man, detailing need for army rethink on northern front
Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.
Amid rising tension on Israel’s northern borders, a senior IDF officer said Thursday that Syria will likely enter the fray if Israel is forced to wage war with Hezbollah in the near future. He also said the investigations of the two most recent cross-border ambushes, along the Lebanon and Syrian borders, point to a string of missteps by the Israeli forces in the area.
The official also indicated that a shift in Iran toward détente with the West, dismissed by some Israeli leaders as a ploy, is “authentic.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, detailed two recent attacks on Israeli army patrols along the northern border, saying that they pointed to a need for the IDF to shift its tactics and up readiness on the increasingly volatile border.
“There are a million lessons, and they are not very good,” he said of the conclusions still being drawn from the March 14 and March 18 roadside bombs, in the Har Dov region, just west of Mount Hermon, and in the nearby Golan Heights.
The first ambush, reportedly sprung several hundred yards within Israel, was largely absorbed by the armored jeep the soldiers were traveling in.
The second left four soldiers wounded, one seriously. “The most difficult problem as a senior officer,” he said, “is how to get into the head of the platoon or company commanders, who do not have the experience, who did not serve in south Lebanon, who did not hold the security zone, who never met a roadside bomb in their lives. How do you explain to them the threat and the manner in which they are supposed to act?”
He said the army was still in the midst of investigating the incidents and that the findings will likely be presented to the General Staff officers next week. Until then, he said, he did not want to speak unequivocally, “but there is no doubt that, in light of this threat, we have to act differently” – with the challenge being to adapt “as quickly as possible” but also in a manner that is “as orderly as possible.”
The officer, speaking to several journalists, focused on Syria and the way the war in that country is reshaping the Middle East and altering the nature of Israel’s security challenges.
Calling the conflict there “an ancient battle” for supremacy within Islam, he said the two sides were stuck in a status quo that is claiming 1,000 lives per week, with “neither side capable of winning” and the violence “spilling out” beyond the confines of Syria – to Lebanon, Israel and other countries.
He described Bashar Assad’s regime as being kept afloat by a combination of Iranian military direction, Hezbollah forces, and Russian arms. Speaking of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, the officer confirmed that the Iranian general has had an enormous impact on the war effort. “The person running the entire campaign is a man by the name of Suleimani, a Revolutionary Guard,” he said. “He is primarily based in Syria and he is the forward representative of Iran” – which chooses where to fight and where to withdraw.
The fighting itself is often done by Hezbollah troops. The organization, which he portrayed as increasingly under Iran’s direct control, maintains between 3,000-5,000 troops on Syrian soil and has lost 500 men in the war, with 2,000 more wounded, according to Israeli estimates.
This sacrifice has formed “a blood bond” between the Alawite Syrian president and the Shiite organization. The relationship between the two, once based solely on interests and fundamentally unequal, the officer said, has shifted to the point where Assad “is willing to pay any price for them to stay. He is willing to take chances.”
This allegedly includes the transfer of advanced weapons that Israel has said are a red line from its perspective and also a perceived willingness to enter a war between Israel and Hezbollah. In the event of war, he said, “we think that Syria will try to assist as it is able.”
The Assad regimes, both father and son, have studiously kept out of every conflict since the 1982 Lebanon War, largely fearing that any involvement would imperil its survival. The bond today, though, is such that the officer said the army is now operating under the assumption that a war with Hezbollah could well trigger a Syrian response in the form of one-ton missiles on Tel Aviv or terror along the border.
Such a war would resemble previous campaigns, but Hezbollah, which possesses the eighth largest arsenal of rockets in the world, has instituted several changes in its battle doctrine, all of which will make the war more gruesome.
Still feeling that rocket-based terror is the most effective form of offense against Israel, the organization has continually sought to increase the quantity, accuracy, and destruction capacity of its 100,000-rocket arsenal, he said. “If in Operation Pillar of Defense we faced 1,500 rockets in a week, against Hezbollah it’ll be 3,000 a day,” he said, referring to the eight-day engagement with Hamas in Gaza in 2012.
Additionally, Hezbollah’s invaluable combat experience in Syria –“certainly a matter that very much concerns us” — coupled with its decision to move its arsenal into populated areas, often sandwiched between residential floors of buildings, means that the IDF will have to operate forcefully in Lebanese towns and cities in the next conflict. “It’s going to be ugly,” the officer said.
‘Iran change not nonsense’
The official submitted that Iran, like Turkey and Egypt, is in the midst of a struggle between fundamentalist religion and modernity. It still dominates the so-called axis of evil, still spreads terror across the world to a greater extent than any other nation, and still aspires to nuclear arms. “But the change there, one cannot say it is nonsense. I think the change in Iran is an authentic change,” he said.
“The young people in Iran want to be part of the world. They want Facebook, McDonald’s, Hollywood movies. They do not want to be ostracized. They want to be part of the world. And we have to remember that the Arab Spring started there, with the Iranian students… People like to say it started with [Tunisian street vendor Mohammad] Bouazizi. Not true. The first on the streets were the students in Iran. We shouldn’t get confused. It started there,” he said, speaking of 2009 Green revolution, in which students unsuccessfully protested election results.
The country, he said, is animated by an internal contradiction that Iranians have made their peace with. “Is it still the most dangerous country in the region? Yes. Are there many internal forces at work there? Yes. How will it end?” he asked. “I don’t know.”