THE DEFEAT of the opposition rebels and the recapturing of Aleppo have boosted the morale of the regime of Bashar Assad and his Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian allies.
Now they are contemplating their next move in Syria’s bloody civil war, which in March will mark its sixth year, having already resulted in over 450,000 dead, nearly one million wounded, and 10 million who have been uprooted from their homes.
Assad’s victory in what used to be Syria’s largest city increases the chance of reducing the war to a manageable crisis, though all experts tend to believe that the rebels, especially the Islamist groups, are not going to lay down their arms and thus the war is far from over.
Israel is already very concerned about the emerging reality on its northern border. The worries derive from two related aspects: one is the possibility that Assad’s army will try to regain control of the border region, which at the moment is predominantly under the control of various rebel groups.
Of even greater concern to the IDF is that the new developments in Syria will allow Hezbollah to return its focus to the Lebanese arena.
The Shi’ite Lebanese movement has been diligently maintaining the cease-fire along the Lebanese-Israeli border for the past decade, since the war of 2006. It has done so for two reasons: first and foremost, the heavy blow it suffered at the hands of the IDF in that war. Despite the misplaced claims at the time that the war was an Israeli failure, its deterrence has continued to hold.
The second reason is Hezbollah’s preoccupation with the Syrian civil war, in which it has suffered heavy losses – some 1,700 combatants killed and a further 6,000 wounded. This is a heavy toll for an army of 40,000 (the Israeli military considers Hezbollah an army for all intents and purposes, and no longer just a militia or a terrorist organization).
It means that nearly 20 percent of Hezbollah troops were disabled in the war. On the other hand, Hezbollah gained valuable military experience and practice, as well as improving its capabilities and preparedness for a future battle with Israel.
Not that another round between Israel and Hezbollah is expected soon. Israeli intelligence believes that Hezbollah is not ready yet, and as a matter of policy is not interested in renewing hostilities in the foreseeable future. Not to mention that a decision to start a new war with Israel will be made primarily in Tehran. Hezbollah, as perceived by Iran, is basically an extension of Iranian power, an advanced post on the Mediterranean shores and a constant threat against Israel.
Nevertheless, the IDF continues to prepare for a future conflict in Lebanon. The biggest threat facing Israel is Hezbollah’s huge arsenal of rockets and missiles of all sorts and ranges. This arsenal is estimated to number between 80,000 and 100,000 rockets, most of which is made up of shortrange rockets of up to 40 kilometers. But Hezbollah also has a substantial number (more than 1,000) of long-range missiles that can reach up to 300 kilometers with heavy loads – warheads of 200 to 300 kilograms.
Even worse, from the Israeli perspective, is the tremendous effort by Iranian and Hezbollah experts to improve the accuracy of the missiles.
Israeli intelligence already knows that most of Israel’s strategic sites – including the nuclear reactor in Dimona, power stations, airports, water plants, as well as IDF bases including IAF air fields and emergency depots – are covered by these missiles.
Against this background, an important and interesting debate is taking place among the top echelon of the IDF and the Defense Ministry. At its center is the question whether to increase the number of IDF rockets and missiles as a response to the expected future scenario of a war with Hezbollah.
The debate is primarily a matter of operational considerations, but it also has a financial dimension. The debate emerges more than six months after new Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman took office. Liberman is trying to make his imprint on Israel’s defense doctrine and the IDF’s operational plans.
The new debate can be defined in short: “Bombs or rockets and ground missiles.”
Liberman knows that the next war with Hezbollah will be very tough, especially in the north. According to IDF war scenarios, the north – roughly defined as an area within the range of 40-60 kilometers from the border – will be heavily hit by thousands of rockets. The IDF estimates that in the first five days of the war a daily average of 1,000 rockets and missiles will be fired against Israel.
They will kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people, cause heavy damage to property, and rural communities are expected to be evacuated.
Among the targets likely to be hit are IDF bases and, in particular, air force bases. Under such a heavy bombardment, the Israel Air Force may face operational limitations.
In that event, less IAF sorties mean less bombs and less firepower to be directed at Hezbollah. Therefore, Liberman believes that the IDF has to diversify the range of measures at its disposal in order to punish the enemy and inflict on it the necessary firepower.
For such a purpose today, the main, if not only, meaningful arm for both strategic and tactical aims available to the IDF is the air force. But a senior Israeli security official has told The Jerusalem Report that under heavy rocket fire, the air force may not be sufficient to empower the IDF with the requisite operational freedom and maneuverability.
The official adds that the IDF needs to increase its arsenal of mid-range rockets and missiles – up to 200 kilometers. The proposal advanced by the senior official is that in the coming years, the IDF will purchase hundreds of such rockets which are capable of carrying warheads of 200-250 kilograms of explosives.
Both Israel Military Industries (IMI) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) have already produced families of rockets and missiles, which are mainly for export to foreign armies. Firing them against Hezbollah concentrations can be a proportional and suitable response to the expected launching of rockets and missiles against Israel, and can fill in the gap, which may be created if IAF will face its limitations.
Extended and impressive firepower doesn’t have only military implications but also psychologically on the civilian population, as Israel itself witnessed in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.
Not only was the Israeli public taken by surprise but also the defense establishment, when at around 2 a.m. on January 18 Tel Aviv and Haifa were hit by a salvo of Iraqi Scud missiles. It was the first time the Israeli home front had become a war zone since the 1948 War of Independence.
According to “Friends in Deed: Inside the US Israel Alliance,” a book published in the US, in 1994, which I co-authored with Dan Raviv of CBS news, the US became alarmed when US intelligence detected apparent preparation for action by the IAF. Secretary of State James Baker and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney placed calls to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, and urged them to be restrained and not retaliate. The US administration feared that an Israeli attack would complicate their war effort and split the coalition, which they had built against Saddam Hussain and included most of the Arab states.
In the hours that followed, Baker and Cheney exchanged more phone calls and messages with Shamir and Arens. According to the book, when the Americans sensed reluctance on the Israeli side to be accommodating, they suggested to Arens that if Israel felt no choice but to attack Iraq, Israeli made ground-to-ground Jericho missiles should be used. Some US officials thought this would satisfy Israel’s desire for revenge.
It would be a biblical revenge of an ‘eye for an eye.” They assumed that Israel had the capability to launch them against Baghdad and other cities.
However, eventually Israel didn’t retaliate and stayed out of the war. What the US officials didn’t know at the time was that the Jericho missiles – which Israel to this day has not admitted to possessing – were not yet fully operational, and thus Israel did not have a ready option for an unmanned strike against Baghdad.
The current debate within the IDF is also aimed at avoiding a repetition of the Iraqi precedent, and to make the Israeli military ready and equipped for all eventualities.
The debate is dividing the IDF. The air force is against the idea of purchasing the rockets, and, as usual, claims that its mighty power will be sufficient in the next war, while the army and especially the artillery corps is advocating in favor.
The arguments for and against also involve a financial aspect. The cost of one mid-range rocket system is about 3 million shekels. Purchasing hundreds of rockets means adding an additional 2 billion shekels to the defense budget, which, with the new US military aid of $3.8 billion annually, will be 73 billion shekels.
If and when Liberman sides with the army and against the air force, he will have to convince the already squeezed treasury to allocate the sum or to make the purchase of the rockets at the expense of other IDF procurement projects. For example, delaying the purchase of F-35s at a cost of some $500 million would free up the required funds.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman
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