Time to put a higher price tag on Iran in Syria

Israel’s primary interest in managing the current mind game with Iran in Syria is to minimize the threat to security interests while preventing all-out war with Hezbollah (let alone with Iran).

February 17, 2018 21:43
Time to put a higher price tag on Iran in Syria

Fragments of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile found in Alonei Abba, about 2 miles (3.2 km) from where the remains of a crashed F-16 Israeli war plane were found, at the village of Alonei Abba, Israel February 10, 2018.. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

Police recommendations to charge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery and fraud, although not adding grace and stability to Israeli politics may somewhat contribute to Israeli deterrence. The Iranians and Syrians probably realize that a leader facing his fiercest political challenge, that may end his political career, is a less predictable leader. But that alone is not enough for this most tense and complex stage of the Iranian entrenchment in Syria so far.

About a week prior to the events in the north, which led to the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 jet, Education Minister Naftali Bennett introduced the “Octopus Head Doctrine” during his speech at the annual Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference. Relating to Iran as an octopus stretching its arms deep into the Levant and surrounding Israel, Bennett argued in favor or striking at the head of the octopus. Meaning, if the Iranians are getting closer to us, thus threatening more easily the Israeli home front, we should get closer to the them, threatening them where they are most vulnerable.

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But is a strategy of inflicting direct harm on Iran and Iranians the most effective? And even if so, is it a cost-effective strategy to deter Iran from further deepening its influence in Syria and Lebanon, while at the same time preventing war on that front?

I believe the answer to those questions is, for now, no, for one simple reason: setting aside the fact that it will take years and many billions of shekels to develop the required capabilities (like it took in the beginning of this decade), Israel alone cannot threaten Iran with the worst-case scenario – war. While Iran, on the other hand, can threaten Israel with war quite offhandedly, via Hezbollah in Lebanon.

When the balance is that asymmetric and the risk of a destructive war is that high, Bennett’s strategy is simply not worthwhile, or wise. Israel’s primary interest in managing the current mind game with Iran in Syria is to minimize the threat to security interests while preventing all-out war with Hezbollah (let alone with Iran).

At the hight of the reprisal operations against Arab sabotage during the 1950s, which marked the beginning of Israel’s adoption of deterrence as a strategy, the IDF didn’t retaliate against the central regimes of the countries from which the saboteurs came. It didn’t eliminate the leaders, didn’t blow up palaces or parliaments, and didn’t kidnap or assassinate high-ranking officials or officers – and still it conveyed a forceful message.

If Israel had gone farther, the message would have become an insult, which in turn would have become a rallying point for a direct clash with Israel.

The same rule applies in 2018, in the face of a distant adversary. There is no need to target Iran and the ayatollah regime head on – as much as we would like to see it dissolve – to convey a message that it isn’t wise to test our resolve and our red lines.
No, to hurt the Iran regime just enough to convey that message it’s enough to threaten that which it holds most precious, the thing for which it has shed blood, sweat and tears over the past seven years: the Assad regime.

ENDANGERING ASSAD and thus targeting the Iranian regime where its most vulnerable and insecure will make the so-called Shi’ite Axis quiver at the prospect of watching the collapse of everything it has worked for so relentlessly. Moreover, endangering Assad personally will create friction within the Shi’ite Axis, virtually forcing Assad to face the Iranians himself and thus restricting their entrenchment in his territory.

Furthermore, while inflicting harm on Iran, the Iranian public, or Iranian symbols – like the popular commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani – will only unify the ranks and bolster a more aggressive approach, endangering the most expensive Iranian project of this decade (after the nuclear project) will incite the already existing criticism of Iranian society against its leadership. Thus perhaps causing it to rethink its ambition and withdraw some of its plans in the region.

Beyond the Shi’ite Axis, there have been some doubts in Israel against the backdrop of last Saturday’s events regarding the strategic understandings between Jerusalem and Moscow. However, there is no room for bafflement and surprise.

Since the Russians set foot in Syria end of 2015, it was clear that it adheres only to self-interest. But Russia has also been shedding blood and breaking sweat for three years now in Syria to stabilize Assad’s regime, waiting for the moment it can reap the political, military and economic fruits. Should this moment be put off or should its achievement be undermined, Russia will start moving. The ricochets may hit Israel, true but also, and even more so, Iran.

This is not speculations. It was proven a few years back. For any intentional or unintentional provocation from the Syrian army or Iranian proxies along the Golan Heights, Israel retaliated against local Syrian military targets. These targets were of significant value to the defense of the regime’s southern flank and the routes leading to Damascus. When the price tag was recognized in Damascus, Tehran and Beirut, the hostilities ceased.

Now, as far as Israel is concerned, there are far greater security interests at risk. The establishment of naval and air bases; of research and development institutes and manufacturing facilities for strategic and unconventional weapons; of Hezbollah-like paramilitary organizations; and the armament of Hezbollah with strategic weapons to be manufactured in Lebanon; and so forth.

In light of this, it is time to apply the strategy which proved itself in the ‘50s and ever since, and to threaten more strategic assets of the Syrian regime, which will hurt the leaders and military strategists of the Shi’ite Axis. It is time to create a new strategic equation: vital Syrian assets for any advance of Iranian interests in the northern arena that threaten Israel’s security.

The author is a graduate student in the research program of the International Relations Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and runs the blog “ofek ish maas.”

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