All quiet on the northern front... for the moment

Security and Defense: Hezbollah, Damascus's relationship has boomed since 2006, Lebanese guerrilla group now maintains bases in Syria.

IDF soldiers at Syrian border Naksa Day 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
IDF soldiers at Syrian border Naksa Day 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
One of the ways former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi used to evaluate the success of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 was by talking to schoolchildren.
“Do you know what air sirens sound like?” he would ask kids at kindergartens and elementary schools throughout the North, and then point out that in September 2011, the children entering first grade would be the first to do so without ever having set foot inside a bomb shelter.
This is, without a doubt, a great success. In a reality where Israel fights enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas, which cannot be completely destroyed, the thinking in the IDF is that success in a war with one of them should therefore be judged by the length of the subsequent quiet. With Hezbollah, it has so far lasted five years, and with Hamas just barely two.
But this success is overshadowed by the unprecedented military buildup in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is believed to have obtained around 50,000 rockets and missiles of different sizes and ranges.
The situation along the Gaza border might be relatively quiet, but since the revolution in Egypt earlier this year, the tunnels under the Gaza-Egyptian border are bringing in similarly unprecedented amounts of explosives, missiles and other arms, according to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
While Ashkenazi was not involved in the management of the war – he returned to military service in its aftermath – the military and political leadership of that era have used the quiet to try and obscure the failures and mistakes and prove that in fact, despite it all, the war was a success.
This perspective, however, ignores the changes in the Arab world since the war, such as the ongoing demonstrations in Syria that are keeping Hezbollah’s patron, Bashar Assad, busy fighting for survival, as well as the indictments filed recently against members of the guerrilla organization for its involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. At the moment, it is in both Assad’s and Hezbollah’s interests to refrain from another war.
As the years pass, though, and the threat grows, there is also a constant challenge within the IDF to make sure it is preparing for the war of the future and not the war of the past.
“The next war will be completely different,” Maj.- Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who finished his term as head of the Northern Command this week, would tell his staff. “Hezbollah will be better prepared, but so will we.”
Serving as the head of the Northern Command is not an easy job for any IDF general. On the one hand, it is possibly one of the most fascinating positions, requiring constant preparation for war on two fronts – Lebanon and Syria. On the other hand, considering the cadre of officers who stepped down following the war in 2006 – including the head of the Northern Command at the time, Udi Adam, and head of the Galilee Division, Gal Hirsch – it has proved a potentially risky post for one’s career.
Eizenkot was brought in following the war and given two major tasks – to rehabilitate the command and to ensure that it would be better prepared for war the next time. The general assessment in the IDF is that it is, but as it hasn’t had to face any real tests over the past five years, it is difficult to say for certain.
The IDF investment since the war has been on three different but parallel tracks.
The first track has been the investment in military training, with the IDF holding annual brigade-level and division-level exercises the likes of which had not been held since a decade before 2006.
The second track has been the investment in new technology meant to provide Israel with an edge on the battlefield.
This includes the Trophy active protection system, which can intercept anti-tank missiles, the new Namer armored personnel carrier based on the Merkava Mk 4 tank, and the new Tzayad digital command- and-control system, as well as new gear for infantry units and upgraded missile defense systems like Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow 3 – all expected to be operation by 2015.
The third track has been in the intelligence sphere, with the creation of larger target banks than the ones the IDF had on the eve of the Second Lebanon War. Additionally the IDF has made a point of publicizing its success in gathering intelligence on Hezbollah targets, as part of an effort to instill fear in the group’s leadership and bolster the army’s deterrence.
The major change, though, will likely be in the way a future war is fought.
On the one hand, if the claims that the target banks have multiplied are true, the IDF will have the ability to bomb hundreds and possibly even thousands of Hezbollah targets immediately at the beginning of a war.
On the other hand, this will most likely not be enough to stop the rocket and missile attacks against the North and Center, which will therefore require the immediate insertion of large numbers of ground forces into southern Lebanon. These ground forces will likely be forced to enter the built-up areas in southern Lebanon where Hezbollah has positioned its command centers and missile launchers, if it wants to be able to stop them.
The strategy will then be to end the war as quickly as possible, but only after exacting a heavy price from Hezbollah. This will only be possible if the damage caused to Hezbollah is so extensive and costly that it would be safe to assume deterrence has been restored for an extended period.
One of the major questions that will most likely be determined during the war is whether the IDF should or will attack Syria.
In the last war, Israel refrained from doing so, and even stressed avoiding war with its northern neighbor as one of the war’s goals.
However, the relationship between Hezbollah and Syria has boomed since 2006, and the Lebanese guerrilla group now maintains bases in Syria, where it stores some of its advanced and so-called strategic weaponry.
The possibility of bombing these bases will most definitely come up in the first days of a future war.
Current Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz shares the opinion of his predecessor Ashkenazi that diplomatic intervention in either Lebanon or Syria would be beneficial for Israel in preventing a future war.

The possibility of peace negotiations with Syria have for the most part disappeared due to the ongoing violence there, but the IDF would prefer to see progress on any one of Israel’s potential peace tracks. At the moment, there is none (not necessarily Israel’s fault).
There are also serious questions of what type of political process Israel could even expect in a country like Lebanon, which, as can be seen by the new government formed in Beirut, is so clearly controlled by Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, the thinking in the IDF is that this period of quiet should be taken advantage of to try and initiate a political process with these countries as well as with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The argument is that the absence of such a process could eventually lead to another war and if Gantz can, he would like to prevent that from happening.