PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu chats with Israeli soldiers at a military outpost during a visit to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights overlooking the Israel-Syria border in 2015..
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
On January 16, the same day that Aviv Kochavi was promoted to lieutenant general and took over from Gadi Eisenkot to become the 22nd IDF chief of staff, President Reuven Rivlin received the 2019 Strategic Assessment of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) from the head of the institute, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin.
In his speech, Yadlin said: “The gravest threat we face is not the Third Lebanon War, but the First Northern War – simultaneous conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Iran, which Hamas in the South is likely to join.”
It was a dire-sounding threat and it was clear that Kochavi would not be granted the proverbial 100 days of grace. Israel’s enemies – near and far, to the North and South – would not give up simply because of a change in the IDF command.
It was therefore no surprise that on Sunday, after less than a week on the job, Kochavi was already facing his first major challenge.
Early in the day, the Israel Air Force reportedly hit targets near Damascus. Since it is unusual for Israel to carry out such actions in daylight hours, it is assumed that the timing and targets were the result of red-hot alerts and information that indicated there could be no delay.
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on a one-day official visit to Chad, where he met President Idriss Déby and officially renewed diplomatic relations between the two countries, he was updated regarding events in northern Israel. He released a statement saying: “We have a permanent policy: To strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us. This policy does not change whether I am in Israel or on an historic visit to Chad. This policy is permanent.”
Shortly after the action, the Iron Dome missile defense system successfully intercepted a missile launched from Syria toward the Mount Hermon Ski Resort, crowded with thousands of visitors enjoying the site after last week’s heavy snow.
Although the site remained open on Sunday, amid a beefed up security presence, it was closed Monday following several more reported Israeli attacks overnight on Iranian targets in Syria.
Reports say the targets belonged to the Iranian Quds Force in Syria, including weapons storage sites, an Iranian intelligence site and an Iranian training camp.
This appears to have been the broadest Israeli action near Damascus International Airport since last May.
Israeli commentators and officials have stressed that Israel is not at war with Syria and does not want a war there, but Bashar Assad’s fragile state is the playground of Iranian forces, where the Shi’ite Islamic Republic is trying to establish itself on Israel’s border and continues to transfer advanced weapons to its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
The key to preventing a further escalation seems to be impressing on Vladimir Putin’s Russia that it needs to abide by promises to keep Iran from becoming entrenched on Israel’s border and stop weapons supplies from reaching terrorist organizations that openly threaten Israeli civilians.
Israel cannot allow Iran to act without a response. On the one hand, the Jewish state needs to take action to maintain deterrence and prevent the situation from deteriorating into a form of war of attrition – similar to the situation that has developed with Iranian-sponsored Hamas in the South, where rockets are regularly launched on the Negev from Gaza. On the other hand, care needs to be taken to avoid an escalation that can quickly get out of control.
Syria barely exists as a state, but Russia is keen to maintain the calm there to help Assad keep control – while Iran, already overstretched, also does not seem keen on an all-out confrontation with Israel.
Jerusalem has to continue to make it clear that Iran does not enjoy immunity and that Russia’s presence is no guarantee for it to act with impunity.
Israel has a responsibility to perform a delicate balancing act, weighing firm action to protect its citizens while trying its best to avoid an unwanted escalation in the conflict.
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