Security and Defense: Border battles

A sniper ambush in the North; rockets in the South; and in the east, suggestions that Iran has the S-300.

Lebanon 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Lebanon 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
On July 12, 2006 a border skirmish culminating in the abduction of IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser led to the 34-day Second Lebanon War. On Tuesday, a similar border skirmish, culminating in the murder of Lt.-Col. Dov Harari, commander of a reserves battalion, led to a short round of clashes that, as of this writing, did not produce a conflict on a larger scale.
The difference between the two incidents is telling of the situation in Israel, Lebanon and the entire region in these blistering August days. It is correct to assume that had Hizbullah been directly behind the shooting of Harari and his company commander, who was seriously injured, the incident would have ended differently.
While Israel is genuinely not currently interested in a war with Hizbullah, there are some officials within the defense establishment who would have liked to use a Hizbullah cross-border attack of the likes of Tuesday’s as an excuse to smash Hizbullah.
The rationale is quite simple – Hizbullah has grown disproportionately since the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and is continuing to accumulate close to 50,000 rockets and missiles of various ranges. The longer Israel waits, the more difficult it will be to defeat Hizbullah in a future war, a war that could erupt in the event of an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities sometime in the next couple of years.
The fact that the Lebanese Armed Forces was behind the attack put Israel in a bit of a quandary.
The attack in and of itself came as a surprise to the IDF’s Northern Command, which had always assumed that Hizbullah would be the attacker and not the sleepy-looking LAF soldiers who mill around the border and their dilapidated military positions.
Israel had a number of alternatives for a response.
In the years since the end of the 2006 war and the LAF’s redeployment in southern Lebanon for the first time in decades, the IDF mapped out the LAF positions and easily, without much resistance, could have destroyed them all.
The response chosen was something in the middle and meant to achieve two objectives – to be disproportionate enough to cause the LAF severe damage and deter it from future attacks and at the same time to not be overly disproportionate to the point that it would lead to a larger conflict.
While Israel is growingly concerned with the radicalization of the LAF and the increasing anti-Israel rhetoric – possibly interpreted by a local commander as a green light to attack Israel – it is more concerned with the weaponry that Lebanon has been buying in recent years from the United States and Russia.
Last year, the US approved $100 million in assistance to the Lebanese military. The Obama administration has requested the same levels for 2011, with small increases for anti-narcotics, anti-terror and military training programs.
The money has been used to buy impressive military platforms, such as combat air-support aircraft fitted with Hellfire anti-armor missiles as well as Raven miniature unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Russia is also reportedly selling Lebanon a number of attack helicopters and according to some press reports, surveillance equipment, sold by the US to Lebanon, was used by the LAF to capture an Israeli spy ring earlier this year.
THE INCIDENT on Tuesday demonstrates just how complicated a future war with Hizbullah will be.
There are currently three different forces operating in southern Lebanon – Hizbullah, the LAF and UNIFIL.
Assuming that UNIFIL evacuates the area, as it will likely be asked to in the event of a war, Israel will be left to fight against Hizbullah and possibly the LAF, which in many cases already today collaborates with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite guerrilla group by leaking information on planned UNIFIL operations and providing logistical support to hide arms caches and rocket launchers near the border.
“If the LAF is becoming more radical and aligning itself with Hizbullah, the US would do well to reevaluate the continued military support it is providing Lebanon,” a senior defense official said.
The clashes along the border should not be viewed independently but rather as part of a trend and a larger more concerning picture regarding Israel’s current state of security.
Last Friday, Hamas fired a Grad-model Katyusha rocket from the Gaza Strip into Ashkelon, causing extensive damage; on Monday, Hamas fired six rockets from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into Eilat with some landing mistakenly in Aqaba; on Tuesday clashes erupted in the North; and on Wednesday, reports surfaced that Iran has finally obtained the celebrated Russian-made S-300 advanced air defense system.
In closed briefings with junior pilots, senior Israeli Air Force officers used this past week’s events to explain that in a future war they will be required to fly on the same day on multiple fronts.
“A pilot could start his morning in Syria, attack in the afternoon in Lebanon and then in the evening fly to Gaza,” one official said, stressing therefore the need for an air force that can be flexible and versatile and be capable of flying simultaneous missions on different fronts.
This requires complex training for IAF pilots, not just in maneuvering their planes and knowing how to correctly identify and bomb targets, but also in being able to mentally deal with the different challenges that each front poses, including the complex urban and guerrilla warfare.
The main catalyst for this potentially allout war is either an American or Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
While the US has increased its anti-Iran rhetoric lately and is talking more about a military option, this is likely just part of a strategy to help the sanctions that were passed in the United Nations in June and then independently by a number of countries.
The possibility that Barack Obama will authorize a strike is still perceived as highly unlikely in Jerusalem.
These sanctions, based on press reports this week claiming that Iranian oil exports have dropped by 50 percent, appear to be effecting the Iranian economy although it remains to be seen if they will have the necessary effect in completely stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
Either way, four years after the Second Lebanon War, it is clearer today the extent of Iran’s control over Hizbullah as well as the extent Hamas, a Sunni terror group, has conveniently aligned itself with the Shi’ites in Teheran. The past week is just a taste of what is potentially off on the horizon.
That is why it was so strange that Defense Minister Ehud Barak purposely chose Wednesday afternoon as the appropriate time to issue a press statement that he has begun interviewing candidates to serve as the next chief of General Staff and will announce his decision by the end of the month.
Considering that less than 24 hours passed since Israel’s last round of clashes in Lebanon and the fact that current Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is not scheduled to step down until February, 2011 – six months from now – what was so urgent that Barak couldn’t wait a couple of weeks or event months? Senior IDF officers went out of their way to remind the press how when Barak was chief of CGS he asked then prime minister and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin to wait until he had three months left in his tenure before announcing the chosen successor. A legitimate request considering that the moment a new CGS is named, the current one becomes something of a lame duck.
But this still begs the question why what was necessary for Barak is not necessary for Ashkenazi? The answer is quite simple but is also a great source of concern since Barak appears to be letting personal vendettas and ambitions get in the way of Israeli security.
Barak and Ashkenazi’s relationship was described by one official this week as worse than any chief of staff and defense minister relationship in recent decades.
This apparently has to with a number of factors, including IDF Spokesman Brig.- Gen. Avi Benayahu’s attempt to use the media to secure a fifth year for his boss and the difference of opinions over professional issues such as choosing a deputy chief of staff.
One IDF officer claimed that what really upset Barak was Ashkenazi’s high approval ratings and his own low ratings. Another possibility is a fear that Ashkenazi will enter politics after retiring next year even though he will have a cooling-off period of three years.
Either way, the events of the past week should have been enough to show Barak that there are more important issues to deal with than bickering with his chief of General Staff.