In recent months, writers have poured sweat and ink over the pages of The New York Times and other leading Western journals about the possibility of war between Israel and its adversaries in the region; but the truth is that Israel has been at war in Syria for years. The fight has been almost entirely one-sided, with Israel striking its enemies whenever it pleases, receiving little to no backlash from Hezbollah, Assad, Iran or Syria’s emerging hegemon, Russia. Although US media outlets have paid more attention to Israel’s role in Syria since Assad downed an Israeli fighter jet in February, mainstream journals have largely blacked out Israeli airstrikes in Syria in recent years (a prime example being Thomas Friedman’s recent falsification of history in the Sunday Times). Hence, in order to even begin an intelligent discussion on these issues, we must start by reviewing the record of Israel’s conduct in Syria and Lebanon since the outbreak of the civil war.
Over the past six years, Israel has launched at least 100 attacks against convoys in Syria that were allegedly carrying weapons (perhaps advanced missiles) to Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias. In February, the Guardian reported that Israel had been conducting near weekly strikes in Syria for the past 18 months, and there’s little reason to think that the rate of attacks has since ebbed. These attacks, which escalated under Trump, target Syrian government forces, Hezbollah and, as of late, Iran.
Israel often launches these strikes, as well as reconnaissance missions, from the sky over Lebanon, violating sovereign Lebanese airspace on a daily basis. Lebanon has proved powerless to deter Israel. Last September, Israeli jets buzzed so low over southern Lebanon that they broke windows, causing a panic. Syria sometimes fires at Israeli jets flying over Lebanon near the Syrian-Lebanese border, but Assad’s anti-aircraft fire always misses, with the noted single exception. Nonetheless, Israel retaliates massively against Assad for even attempting self-defense, often destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. After Syria shot down the Israeli jet in February — a major offense since it put a small blemish on the otherwise almighty image of the Israeli military — Israel took out nearly half of Assad’s anti-aircraft missile defenses, thus giving Israel nearly unfettered access to the Syrian and Lebanese skies. The latest reports suggest that Russia will soon supply the Syrian government with new S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems. Israel has promised to strike Syria if these batteries were obtained and deployed by Assad, showing once again that the enemy’s attempts at deterrence and defense, however feeble, are red lines for the Israeli military.
The one check on Israeli air power has apparently been Russia. Jerusalem and Moscow maintain open lines of communication in order to avoid any friction between the two nuclear-armed powers. Reportedly, had Russian President Vladimir Putin not called Netanyahu and told him to rein in the airstrikes, Israel would have bombed even more targets in Syria in retaliation for the downing of its jet. However, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently told Israeli news site Walla, “We will maintain total freedom of action [in Syria]. We will not accept any limitation when it comes to the defense of our security interests,” not from Russia or any other country. Thus far, Israel’s strikes against Russian allies in Syria (namely, Assad and Iran) have apparently elicited little more than firm rhetoric from the Kremlin. Given the lack of Russian military response to Israel, we can infer that Putin isn’t willing to risk a direct, all-out war with Israel, and consequently the United States, in order to protect its Middle Eastern partners from Israeli bombing. This tactical decision may result from a conclusion by Putin that the United States no longer aims to oust Assad, and so he chooses to tolerate Israel’s aggression in service of his larger goal of keeping his Syrian client in power.
In recent years, the border between Israel and Lebanon has remained mostly quiet except for occasional minor skirmishes, which Israel then escalates as a matter of policy. For example, in 2015, after Israel assassinated an Iranian colonel and a high-ranking Hezbollah officer in the Syrian Golan Heights, Hezbollah launched six guided missiles into Israel, killing two Israeli soldiers and injuring several civilians. In response, Israel fired heavy artillery and mortar shells filled with the chemical weapon white phosphorus across the Israel-Lebanon border, killing a UN peacekeeper. (The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon has documented repeated use of white phosphorus by the Israeli military in Lebanon, an especially ugly munition that Israel admitted to using during the Second Lebanon War.) Occasionally, we hear hardliners on both sides calling for the annihilation of the other country — led by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on the Lebanese side and Education Minister Naftali Bennett on the Israeli side — but most agree that neither Hezbollah nor Israel are presently eager to act on these genocidal threats.
Lastly, we have to acknowledge accounts of Israel continuing to support various Sunni rebel groups in the Syrian Golan Heights. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon admitted in 2015 that Israel had been sending medical and humanitarian aid to jihadist groups in southern Syria. According to a paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies (Tel Aviv), there have been widespread reports of understandings and coordination between Israel and al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Back in 2014, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), alongside al-Nusra, seized control of most of the Syrian Golan Heights using the weapons, cash and ammunition supplied by the CIA via the Military Operations Command (MOC) based in Amman, Jordan; since Donald Trump shut down the CIA-led MOC base, it appears that Israel has replaced the United States as the supplier of weapons, ammunition and money to non-jihadist Sunni groups in southwest Syria (although, of course, this supply chain reaches back to the United States, directly or indirectly). Furthermore, Israeli journalist Elizabeth Tsurkov reports that rebels have said that Israel sometimes provides these Sunni groups with direct military assistance against southern Syria’s local ISIS (also known as Daesh) affiliate, launching drone strikes and arming them with high-precision and anti-tank missiles. Tragically, these rebels have been hoping that Israel would help them overthrow Assad, but with 70 percent of the country now back in his hands, that is no longer on the table.
A Bull in a China Shop
So, with the near history in clear view, how do we interpret Israel’s present aims in Syria?
Late last year, Major Gen. Amir Eshel, then the outgoing commander of the Israeli Air Force, spoke about current Israeli military doctrine rather honestly. He described the Israel Defense Forces’ approach as that of “a bull in a china shop.” Eshel told Haaretz, “When Israel has a vested interest, it acts irrespective of the risks. I think that in the view of our enemies, as I understand things, this language is clear here and also understood beyond the Middle East.” In other words, the Israeli military is playing the “madman” of President Richard Nixon’s (in)famous “madman theory,” which says that if your adversary thinks that you are a loose cannon, that you are willing to do anything (e.g., drop a nuclear bomb, resort to the use of chemical weapons, inflict massive destruction in response to minor provocations, etc.), then the adversary might be willing to stand down. (This theory actually dates back to Machiavelli.)
This method of “peace through deterrence” fits well within Israel’s core expansionist, militarist doctrine of the Iron Wall, not to mention US neoconservatism. But we have to be careful about our language, because “deterrence” is a polite-sounding, policy-planning term that often obscures outright aggression and brutality. Hence, when Israeli snipers kill dozens of Palestinian protesters in Gaza and injure thousands, Israel is said to be deterring Palestinians from crossing its border. It is deterrence, yes, but that term alone fails to capture the larger picture of Israel incarcerating almost 2 million Palestinians in Gaza for over a decade. Similarly, one could say that the Trump administration is deterring migrants from crossing the US/Mexico border by kidnapping their children upon arrival in the United States, or that a mafia don is deterring a shopkeeper from pledging allegiance to a rival don by breaking her nose; but the liberal-hearted would probably cringe at such a milquetoast characterization of these analogous scenarios, revealing how progressive some people are, except on the issue of Palestine.
Israel claims to be acting in the name of defense and national security. However, to my knowledge, few people have tried to seriously argue that Israel’s attacks against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah really constitute preemptive self-defense under international law, seeing as these arguments collapse upon even cursory analysis. No UN Security Council resolution has sanctioned the attacks and hardly anyone pretends that Israel faces an imminent attack from Assad and company. (Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the drone that penetrated Israel’s airspace in February was armed and Iranian, this attack would’ve come after Israel had already repeatedly attacked Iran in Syria.) On the other hand, Assad could much more plausibly make the case for preemptively attacking Israel, seeing as Israel has already aggressed against his regime repeatedly for decades, including the most recent intensification of hostilities.
Among Israel’s stated “vested interests” in Lebanon and Syria are the following: blocking Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weaponry (e.g., guided missiles) and building a factory to produce the same; keeping Shi’ite militias away from its northern border; and preventing Iran from establishing a military foothold. Additionally, Israel had threatened to attack Lebanon if its citizens choose wrongly in the country’s recent parliamentary elections. In late January, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis told Haaretz that if Hezbollah manages to “elbow out the Sunni camp in the upcoming May 2018 elections,” then the Israeli army “is ready and prepared … and will be improving its readiness this year.” So, according to the general, the self-proclaimed “only democracy in the Middle East” considers democracy in Lebanon a red line if it goes against Israel’s vested interests, just as Israel and the United States found the outcome of the free and fair Palestinian elections of 2006 intolerable (Hamas won) and then tried to stage a coup.
We can uncover further objectives from Israeli/US actions. The United States, with its attack dog Israel, definitely wants to weaken Assad as much as possible before the dictator re-establishes full control of the country. Israel has accepted Bashar al-Assad at its northern border for most of his tenure. When the Bush Jr. administration approached then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his input on the prospect of toppling Assad, Sharon said that Israel preferred the devil it knows. Whether or not this same preference still exists in Jerusalem today, the United States no longer appears to be offering regime change in Syria as an option, likely wanting to avoid direct confrontation with Assad’s main backer, Russia. However, under the cloud of the ongoing civil war, the US-led coalition is succeeding in undermining their enemy Assad, so that when the dust settles, there will be a weak regime on Israel’s northern border.
The conventional analysis says that the last major war between Israel and Hezbollah began because each side miscalculated how the other would respond to provocation. In an atmosphere today where all parties are armed to the teeth, a similar miscalculation could lead to a very bloody all-out war in which civilians (Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese) would likely perish in great numbers. While Hezbollah possesses a significant arsenal of missiles, it is clearly no match for Israel, which has one of the mightiest militaries on the planet. It would be grossly irrational for Hezbollah to start a war now or in the near future. However, if Hezbollah felt backed into a corner — say, by Israel assassinating more of its leaders in the wake of Hezbollah’s success in these past elections — Hezbollah might lash out thinking that it’s fighting for its survival, potentially triggering Assad and Iran to come to its defense. Again, the great powers Russia and the United States loom large in this scary array of alliances.
On the other hand, we could see Israel and the United States consciously initiate war with Iran et al. Warmongering rhetoric has been emanating from the Trump administration for months. In February, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former national security adviser, said, “the time is now … to act against Iran.” Trump has since replaced McMaster with ultra-hawk John Bolton, who has been calling for regime change in Tehran for years, most recently in front of a conference of Iranian defectors in late March. Not to be outdone by the White House, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has laid the groundwork for war herself, speaking belligerently while standing in front of a hunk of an Iranian-supplied Houthi missile a few months ago. Haley very likely coordinated her PR stunt with Netanyahu, who performed with a hunk of alleged Iranian hardware at a security conference in Munich. Netanyahu’s presentation, along with the announcement by the Israeli military that the downed Iranian drone was armed (contrary to its initial statement), suggest that the Israeli government may be preparing its public for a major war with Iran. Indeed, Israel’s major strike against Iran in Syria last month, which killed another senior Iranian officer, and Israel’s seismic strike against Assad and Iran on April 30 are both major provocations that succeeded in eliciting a restrained military response from Iran. So, it would appear that Israel, with the backing of the new Trump war cabinet, aimed and succeeded in inciting its enemies into attacking Israel on its own soil. Not satisfied with the low-grade hostilities thus far, in response to Iran’s restrained retaliation, Israel launched another massive attack on Assad and Iran, yet another dangerous provocation.
Meanwhile, diplomatic options remain on the table. The Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu and the Israel lobby in the United States staunchly opposed, has now been acknowledged as an overwhelming success by virtually the entire world, including the Israeli military. The US and Israel have now nixed that particular diplomatic route for the time being, again revealing their desire for war, not peace. Nonetheless, at a later date, this multinational agreement could be reinstated by the United States. And we have even more opportunities for peace through negotiation available to us. For example, almost all the countries of the Middle East support making the region free of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; unfortunately, two countries remain notably absent from this consensus — Syria and Israel. Israel would almost definitely refuse to give up its nuclear and chemical weapons arsenal of its own volition, but its boss, the United States, could pressure Israel into joining this agreement in a deal that would see Russia compelling its client, Syria, into doing the same. Lastly, ending the occupation, including immediately and unconditionally lifting the brutal, decade-long siege of Gaza in accordance with international demands, would remove one huge cause of contempt for Israel in the Arab world.
Unfortunately, the present regimes in Washington and Jerusalem have little to no appetite for diplomacy. Instead, present trends will probably continue, bringing us closer and closer to the precipice of sustained, high-key war between very well-armed regional powers.