Analysis: Preparing for the ‘Eastern Front’

Changes in the region, the rise in Islamic power could have an impact on the future stability of the western- aligned government in Iraq.

By
December 26, 2011 03:21
3 minute read.
Smoke rises from a terrorist attack.

Smoke bomb iraq baghdad 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen )

In March 2007, the IDF presented its new multi-year plan aimed at rehabilitating the military following the Second Lebanon War. As expected, the plan emphasized the need to invest in the ground forces, to renew training and to develop and procure new offensive and defensive capabilities.

One of the interesting changes to the plan though, was its strategic assessment of the Middle East. While American plans to withdraw from Iraq were unclear then – George W. Bush was still president and Barack Obama was a first term junior senator from Illinois – the IDF inserted Iraq back into its strategic calculations.

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Then head of the IDF Planning Directorate Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, the author of the multi-year plan, explained that as long as the US remains in Iraq, Israel has little to be concerned about in terms of a military threat from that country. But, he said, who knows what will happen when America leaves.

Today, Nehushtan is commander of the Israel Air Force and in April, he will step down after a four-year term, leaving behind a force that might not only have to deal with Iran’s nuclear program but also with a potential future threat from Iraq.

Israel’s concerns regarding Iraq are split into two categories.

On the one hand, there is the long-term strategic concern that following the US withdrawal, the government in Baghdad will have difficulty reigning in the different factions that make up the country and that Iran will take advantage of the power vacuum and move in to solidify its control. A more powerful Iran would not bode well for Israeli and Western attempts to convince Tehran to stop its nuclear program.

The second concern is the possibility that Israel will once again have to take into consideration what is referred to in the IDF as the “Eastern Front,” another term for Iraq as a military threat. Iraq was in fact the primary threat that the IDF believed it faced until the mid-1990s following the First Gulf War, when Israel began to shift its focus to the evolving missile and nuclear threat in Iran.

While Iraq is not believed to be strong militarily today, that could and is already beginning to change. By 2015, Iraq will take receipt of 18 F-16 fighter jets. Israel, for its part, is not actively lobbying Washington against the deal as part of an understanding that it is in the US interest to bolster the Iraqi government and to ensure that it continues to retain some level of influence over Baghdad.

At the same time, there is concern in Israel that changes in the region and the rise in Islamic power could also have an impact on the future stability of the western- aligned government in Iraq.

At the moment, this does not require the development of special capabilities since the same fighter jets that Israel would need to use to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities – if it decides to – would also be used in a future confrontation with Iraq.

It is likely that the greatest investment would need to be in intelligence collection – mapping out the country, preparing target banks and learning about Iraqi air defense systems.

In the 1990s this information was consistently updated but in recent years – with the American presence in Iraq and the shift in Israel’s focus to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – Iraq has fallen to the bottom of Israel’s list of priorities.

This is of course not an immediate threat but with the Middle East undergoing historic changes, Israel needs to be prepared.


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