Israel’s strategy for confronting the Iranian military buildup to its North

Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel in a speech from his hidden bunker on August 23, 2019.

Update from AIJAC

08/19 #04

Last weekend saw four separate attacks on Iran-linked targets in Lebanon. Syria and Iraq which many sources have attributed to Israel. AIJAC has prepared a detailed factsheet explaining what is and is not known about what happened, and the context and history. This Update follows up by looking at the broader implications of recent events in terms of Israel’s general strategy for confronting the build-up of Iranian-affiliated forces, bases and military manufacturing capabilities in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

First up is Israeli strategic analyst Seth Frantzman, who says the recent Israeli strikes show an Israeli policy of driving Iran’s military build-up out of the shadows, making it clear to Teheran that it cannot hide what it is doing. Part of this involves Jerusalem being increasingly public about what its own forces are doing in striking Iranian military assets – such as in taking responsibility for a strike on an Iranian drone based at Aqrabe near Damascus last Sunday. He says Israel’s new strategy jibes well with the US strategy of maximum pressure on Teheran, and the only alternative appears to be allowing Teheran’s creeping annexation of neighbouring states. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up is American foreign policy expert Ilan Berman, who puts the recent Israeli strikes in the context of a current IDF re-think of its strategic doctrine. The new strategy focuses on “victory of time over space”, meaning the goals of the country’s military action are now to: “reduce the duration and damage of war to a minimum, and [to] defer the next war for many years.” Berman especially focuses on how this doctrine relates to the alleged recent Israeli strikes in Iraq. For his discussion in full, CLICK HERE.

Finally, top Israeli scholar  Dr. Jonathan Spyer argues that recent events highlight that Israel and Iran are already effectively at war. He says that only limited parts of the forces of both nations are involved, and the battleground is located in three states that are “fragmented, partly collapsed, and thoroughly penetrated by neighbouring powers” – Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. He then discusses the roles of both the US and Sunni states like Saudi Arabia in this limited war. For Spyer’s always insightful take on what is happening between Israel and Iran overall, CLICK HERE.

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Israel’s Strategy against Tehran: Revealing the Iranian Threat

By 

National Review 

August 27, 2019 6:30 AM

The Iranian al-Quds force base at Aqrabe, near Damascus, attacked on Sunday.

No longer will Iran and its allies be able to hide in the shadows.

On Thursday, August 22, members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force took a drone to an area near the Golan Heights, seeking to attack Israel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) monitored the men, took video of them walking through a field, and struck back two nights later. The air strikes targeted a villa in southern Syria that Jerusalem says was being used by the IRGC and Shiite militias. This includes Hezbollah, a Lebanese ally of Iran that has played a major role in Syria in recent years.

The air strike is part of an increasingly firm stand Israel is taking against Iran’s regional ambitions in the Middle East. This includes several recent air strikes in Iraq that Iranian-linked paramilitaries have blamed on Israel. It also includes near-daily reports in media from Lebanon to Kuwait asserting that Israel is targeting Iran’s network of proxies and their bases in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Jerusalem is no longer secretive about this widespread campaign. In January former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot said Israel had carried out thousands of air strikes on Iranian targets.

Now IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has warned Israel that these strikes will be Israel’s last. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah has threatened retaliation. This is part of a rising Iranian-backed chorus against Jerusalem, which includes real threats such as continuing rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza. It also includes threats by Iranian proxies such as Iraqi-based Kata’ib Hezbollah against U.S. forces in Iraq.

What is Israel’s strategy in all this? The goal is to draw Iran and its allies out of the shadows. Over the past decade, inflamed by the 2015 Iran deal, Tehran has increased its weapons transfers to Hezbollah, sent thousands of advisers to support the Syrian regime, and helped mobilize a network of militias in Iraq. Some of this was used to fight ISIS, or enemies of Bashar al-Assad. But with the ISIS war and Syrian conflict winding down, these groups are turning their threats toward Iran’s adversaries. Tehran is obsessed with destroying Israel, as can be seen in its frequent statements and militaristic parades. It has launched drones from Syria into Israel in February 2018, rockets in May 2018, and a rocket in January 2019. Hezbollah threatens that its 150,000 rockets can strike all of Israel.

Air strikes on Iran’s network of proxies force the network out of the shadows. It can’t hide in villas in southern Syria, or launch drones at night, or stockpile ballistic missiles in Iraq if it is looking over its shoulder and increasingly making mistakes through its aggressive and open threats. Iran is used to playing a double game of moderates and hard-liners, sending its smiling foreign minister to the recent G7 while boasting of its allies’ drone technology striking Saudi Arabia.

More than anything, Iran wants to preserve its regional power, based in proxies and allies that are often Shiite coreligionists. Its long-term goal is to get Hezbollah and its Shiite paramilitary allies in Iraq into more government positions and build up their parallel-state structures of armed fighters and bases. A war with the U.S. or Israel, or a direct confrontation with Saudi Arabia, as opposed to using proxies such as the Houthis, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, is not in Tehran’s interest. This is the strategic calculation that underpins Israel’s actions, but it can go only so far. A game of whack-a-mole against Iran’s drones and missiles is just a setback for Tehran. If Tehran doesn’t gamble on a major conflict with Israel, it will continue its creeping annexation of neighboring states.

SETH J. FRANTZMAN  is the author of AFTER ISIS: AMERICAN, IRAN AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE MIDDLE EAST (2019) and the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a writing fellow at Middle East Forum.

The Israeli-Iranian cold war heats up

BY ILAN BERMAN

The Hill, 08/27/19 09:30 AM EDT

Last month, Israeli fighter jets bombed a series of weapons depots north of Baghdad, Iraq, destroying facilities that were being used by the Iranian regime to ferry weapons to proxy forces in Syria. The event was a milestone, marking the first time the Jewish State is known to have carried out airstrikes on Iraqi soil since its destruction of Saddam Hussein’s fledgling nuclear program back in 1981. But it is also an important barometer of a broader Israeli campaign against Iran’s proxies and influence in the region — a national effort that is now picking up serious steam.

The funeral of Abu Ali Aldebai, a commander of the the PMF pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, who was killed in a UAV attack on August 25 in Anbar province in Iraq that some have attributed to Israel. 

Israel’s activism, showcased in the mid-July airstrike in Iraq as well as other recent sorties against Iranian-linked targets in neighboring Syria, is understandable. Over the past several years, Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of its strategic ally, Bashar al-Assad, has allowed Tehran to entrench itself deeply along Israel’s northern border. While officials in Jerusalem initially hoped that the United States or Russia (which also heavily backs the Assad regime) might be able to force Iran’s exit from the Syrian theater, they have gradually reconciled themselves to the notion that the Iranian presence there is becoming more and more permanent.Indeed, the Iranian regime has been working diligently to solidify its footprint in, and hold over, the Syrian state. It is doing so through a multi-pronged strategy that involves extensive investment in various sectors of the Syrian economy, the acquisition of strategic territory in places like Deir Ezzor, and the resettlement of foreign Shi’a so as to progressively alter the demographic composition of the country. These efforts have succeeded in greatly strengthening Tehran’s Syrian stake — and expanding the potential threat it poses to Israel in the process (something that Israel’s bombing of Iranian drone facilities in Syria over the weekend makes abundantly clear).

In response, Israel’s government has increasingly begun to go on the offensive. A recent paper by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, the country’s most influential think tank, provides a good explanation of exactly why. Israel, the study notes, is seeking the “victory of time over space.”

Since the 1980s, the study outlines, Israel’s wars have shifted away from deterring conventional Arab armies toward “asymmetrical fighting against terrorist organizations.” In such conflicts, the country’s goals are essentially twofold: to “reduce the duration and damage of war to a minimum, and [to] defer the next war for many years.” In other words, as far as Israel is concerned, the best defense is a good offense, and this is precisely the strategy that it is putting into play against Iran.

An Israel F-15: Airstrikes in Iraq may be only a part of a wider new Israeli strategy of “victory of time over space.”

In this context, Israel’s recent airstrikes in Iraq are likely just the beginning. Indeed, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida recently reported that the Israeli government is now also contemplating military strikes in the southern Persian Gulf against targets associated with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, another Iranian proxy which has received significant military and financial support from Tehran.

Politically, meanwhile, Israel’s expanding activism speaks volumes about America’s Iran policy. Over the past several months, the Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic has undeniably had a significant impact on country’s finances and overall economic stability. What is far less clear, however, is whether the United States is having any real success in rolling back Iran’s broader activities and assets in the region, of which its extensive network of proxies remains a major part.

To judge by the growing pace of Israel’s activities against precisely those forces, it isn’t. That makes Israel’s July military strikes a portent of things to come, as officials in Jerusalem increasingly seek to take matters into their own hands.

Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.


The Iran-Israel War Is Here

More than a decade of civil strife has opened up the region for the escalating state-to-state conflict.

By Jonathan Spyer

Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27, 2019

The scene of a drone attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Aug. 25. (PHOTO: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Israel and Iran are at war. Israeli strikes this week in southern Syria, western Iraq and eastern Lebanon—and possibly even Beirut—confirm it.

This war is a very 21st-century affair. For now it involves only small circles among the Israeli and Iranian populations. Parts of the air force, intelligence services and probably special forces are active on the Israeli side. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its expeditionary Quds Force and proxy politico-military organizations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are engaged on behalf of Iran.

The war marks a hinge point in Middle Eastern geopolitics. For the past decade and a half, the region has been engaged mainly with internal strife: civil wars, insurgencies and mass protests. These are now largely spent, leaving a broken landscape along the northern route from Iran to Israel.

The three “states” in between—Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—are fragmented, partly collapsed and thoroughly penetrated by neighboring powers. Their official state structures have lost the attribute that alone, according to German sociologist Max Weber, guarantees sovereignty: “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.” These nations’ territory has become the theater of the Iran-Israel war.

The regime in Tehran favors the destruction of the Jewish state, but this is a longstanding aim, dating to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and before it, in the minds of the revolutionaries. What’s brought it to the fore is that Iran has emerged in the past half decade as the prime beneficiary of the collapse of the Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese states. This has substantially increased its capacity to menace Israel, which has noticed and responded.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has no peer in the Middle East—and perhaps beyond—in the practice of irregular warfare. Its proxies today dominate Lebanon (Hezbollah), constitute the single strongest politico-military force in Iraq (Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU), and maintain an independent, powerful military infrastructure in Syria, in partial cooperation with the Assad regime and Russia. This nexus, against which Israel is currently engaged, brings Iran de facto control over much of the land from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean and to the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel.

Iran treats this entire area as a single operational space, moving its assets around at will without excessive concern for the notional sovereignty of the governments in Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus. Lebanese Hezbollah trains PMU fighters in Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militias are deployed at crucial and sensitive points on the Iraqi-Syrian border, such as al-Qa’im and Mayadeen. Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah personnel operate in southwest Syria, close to the Golan Heights.

Israeli attacks in recent days suggest that Israel, too, has begun to act according to these definitions and in response to them. If Iran will not restrict its actions to Syria, neither will Israel.

There is a crucial difference between the Israeli and Iranian positions in this conflict. Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is deep, long-term and proactive. Tehran seeks the transformation of these areas into Iranian satrapies, and it has made considerable advances toward its goal. Israel’s involvement is entirely reactive, pushing back against Iranian domination and destroying the missile caches that bring it within Iran’s range. Israel has no interest in the internal political arrangements of Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, except insofar as these constitute a danger to Israel itself.

This imbalance defines the conflict. Iran creates political organizations, penetrates state structures, and seeks to make itself an unchallengeable presence in all three countries. Israel has been wary of entering the mire of factional politics in neighboring countries since its failed intervention in Lebanon leading up to the 1982 war. Jerusalem instead uses its superior intelligence and conventional military capabilities to neutralize the military and paramilitary fruits of the Iranian project whenever they appear to be forming into a concrete threat.

Israel is largely alone in this fight. The U.S. is certainly aware of Israel’s actions against Iran and may tacitly support them. Yet the Trump administration shows no signs of wishing to play an active part in the military challenge to Iranian infrastructure-building across the Middle East. This White House favors ramping up economic pressure on Tehran, but both its occupant and his voter base are wary in the extreme of new military commitments in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is targeted by the Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement, another Iranian proxy closely assisted by the Revolutionary Guard. The Saudis’ interests are partly aligned with Israel’s, but Saudi Arabia is a fragile country, requiring the protection of its allies rather than constituting an asset for them.

So it is war between Israel and Iran, prosecuted over the ruins of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. But it won’t necessarily stay that way. A single kinetic and successful Iranian response to Israel’s airstrikes could rapidly precipitate an escalation to a much broader contest. State-to-state conflict has returned to the Middle East.

Mr. Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and at the Middle East Forum. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.