Top general says IDF gearing up for war in 2018

Head of military operations says neither side wants all-out conflict, but Assad’s victories in Syrian civil war are making it far more likely

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative. IDF artillery seen preparing to return fire into southern Lebanon following a Hezbollah strike on an IDF patrol that killed two soldiers in the northern Mount Dov region along the Israel-Lebanon border, January 28, 2015. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative. IDF artillery seen preparing to return fire into southern Lebanon following a Hezbollah strike on an IDF patrol that killed two soldiers in the northern Mount Dov region along the Israel-Lebanon border, January 28, 2015. (Israel Defense Forces)

A senior IDF general on Monday warned that the chances of war were higher than ever for 2018 in light of the battlefield victories in the Syrian civil war by the country’s dictator, Bashar Assad, and his allies Iran and Hezbollah.

“The year 2018 has the potential for escalation [of military conflict], not necessarily because either side wants to initiate it, but because of a gradual deterioration. This has led us to raise the level of preparedness,” Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, head of IDF Operations, told Army Radio in a rare interview.

Assad is close to snuffing out the last pockets of rebel resistance in Idlib and, eventually, in the country’s southwest, along the Israeli and Jordanian borders, which Alon said will provide the Syrian regime’s allies an opportunity to turn their attention to Israel.

“In the northern arena, there is a change coming due to the strategic developments in the Syrian internal fighting. The Iranians and Hezbollah, who are backing [Assad], are getting freed up to start building their power,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon (photo credit: IDF Spokesman/Flash90)

“We are not allowing these things to happen without our involvement. We are acting and will continue to act,” he continued, apparently referring to reported Israeli airstrikes in Syria against Hezbollah and Iranian targets.

Though it has long opposed Iranian entrenchment in the country, Israel has taken an increasingly bellicose tone over the Islamic Republic’s actions there and across the Middle East in recent weeks, especially following a round of aerial clashes earlier this month.

On the morning of February 10, an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace only to be shot down by an Israeli Air Force attack helicopter. Israeli jets conducted a series of airstrikes in Syria, including one against the mobile command center from which an Iranian operator was piloting the drone, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

During the reprisal raid, an IAF F-16 was shot down over northern Israel, prompting the military to launch a second round of strikes, taking out between a third and a half of Syria’s air defenses, the military said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed a piece of the Iranian drone during a speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which he called for the world to recognize and take action against Iranian aggression in the region.

Alon warned that if war were to break out, Iran would likely encourage its proxies to fight Israel from Lebanon, Syria and, potentially, the Gaza Strip.

“War with Hezbollah could bring in other actors, whom we’d need to fight,” he said.

According to Israel, Iran now provides funding to the two largest terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip: Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The Israeli military estimates that each Gaza-based group possesses thousands of fighters, significant stockpiles of rockets and mortar shells, and attack tunnels, some of which enter Israeli territory and others that are designed for warfare inside the coastal enclave.

Alon said that the Palestinian groups may also be called upon by Tehran to take part in the fighting of a future war.

“Iran won’t hold itself back in Gaza. It wants to pay for its interests on the northern border in Palestinian blood,” he said.

Israel’s first two F-35 stealth fighter jets on their maiden flight as part of the Israeli Air Force on December 13, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

He said that in the case of war, the IDF would look to fight back with “maximum force in the minimum amount of time.

“We have to use the advantages the IDF has over its enemies as forcefully as possible and as quickly as possible,” Alon said.

Military officials and defense analysts have assessed that a future conflict with Hezbollah — whether it is treated as a third Lebanon war or a first Israeli-Iranian war — would be devastating for both Israel and Lebanon.

Hezbollah has a stockpile of some 150,000 missiles, which it could rain down on Israel at a rate of over 1,000 missiles a day, and has been preparing fighters to infiltrate into Israeli territory and attack a community near the Lebanese border, slaughtering the residents or taking them hostage.

Israel, for its part, has prepared a massive list of Hezbollah targets that it can strike with aircraft and artillery, and IDF ground forces have trained for fighting in Lebanese terrain.

“If the next war indeed breaks out, it will be rough. But, first and foremost, it will be rough for the other side,” Alon warned. “I don’t think any Israeli citizen would want to switch places with a Lebanese citizen during the next war.”

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