Most, if not all, Israeli strategists and generals know very well that the era of the classical 20th century wars, which involved huge tank battles and infantry assaults to conquer enemy territories, is over. Five times Israel found itself in such scenarios, in which there was a clear distinction between the blood, sweat and horrors of the front lines and the relative tranquility of the home front. It happened in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982 in Lebanon.
In all these wars, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fought at least on one front, or simultaneously on up to four fronts, with its neighbors from Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.Since then, the nature of war and the face of Israel’s enemies have completely changed. For the foreseeable future, wars in this century will be asymmetrical conflicts between the mighty IDF and the inferior militias and guerrilla forces of Hezbollah, Hamas and Jihadist groups.Instead of four formal armies of its neighbors, it seems that Israel now faces challenges in seven arenas of conflict: two Palestinian fronts in the West Bank and Gaza; two Hezbollah arenas in Lebanon and Syria, with the backing and sponsoring of Iran; ISIS in Sinai; Iranian efforts in the Red Sea to supply weapons to Hamas; and most recently, an Iranian presence in Iraq.Since June, media reports have been emerging about mysterious explosions and attacks on several military bases in Iraq used by pro-Iranian local Shi’ite militias. Some of the reports claim that the targets were Iranian missiles being stored on the Iraqi bases on their way via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Other reports suggested that the targets attacked were workshops and assembly lines managed by Hezbollah and Iranian engineers to improve the accuracy of the Hezbollah missiles.It is hard to conclude from the media reports what exactly was attacked and how the attacks took place. It is not clear whether these were airstrikes and, if so, carried out by missiles, drones or war planes, or the targets were bombed by mortar shells or explosives planted there. One should also not rule out the possibility that what occurred there were just accidents caused by some malfunction or fires or some sort of technical failures.The unexplained incidents are magnified by the silence of the Iraqi and Iranian governments refusing to provide their version of what happened. The Baghdad government refused to go beyond the statement that the explosions occurred on military bases. The Iranian regime did not bother to comment and settled for what its controlled media publish, which was very little and echoed the stories and reports circulated in other countries.Nevertheless, in reports across the Middle East the immediate suspect was Israel, despite the fact that this time, and against their nature, the lips of the Israeli military chiefs and cabinet ministers were sealed tight.The finger-pointing at Israel is not without reason. In the absence of precise information and facts, the incidents in Iraq have to be judged by four variables. These are interests (who has the biggest interest in bombing Shi’ite militias in Iraq), declarations and hints, intentions, and capabilities. Analyzing them may unveil their mystery and lead to the logical conclusion that indeed Israel is behind the attacks.Israeli military and political leaders led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have repeatedly declared in the last five years that Israel would not tolerate Iranian efforts to establish its own bases in Syria or to allow the presence of its Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah there, which will be used to open a second front (alongside Lebanon) in case of a war.Since the first attack in April 2014, it is estimated that the Israel Air Force (IAF) has carried out nearly 500 airstrikes in Syria. The targets were mainly workshops, bases, and convoys of long-distance missiles, which Iran had intended either to deploy in Syria or deliver to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to be used against Israeli civilian and military targets in case of all-out war. The IAF strikes were also targeting advanced systems aimed to improve the precision of the long-distance missiles already in the possession of Hezbollah.Israeli intelligence estimates that the Lebanese Shi’ite movement has roughly 150,000 missiles and rockets, most of them based on the Soviet/Russian and Chinese versions of the Katyusha or Grad.The Katyusha multiple rocket launchers are a type of rocket artillery first built and fielded by the Soviet Union in World War II. Multiple rocket launchers such as these deliver explosives to a target area more quickly than conventional artillery, but with lower accuracy and require a longer time to reload. They are fragile compared with artillery guns, but are inexpensive, easy to produce, and usable on any chassis.The Katyusha-Grad rockets carry a warhead of up to 20 kg of explosives, are capable of hitting targets up to 40 km away, and have been used extensively by the PLO, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the battles from Lebanon, Sinai and Gaza against Israel since the 1970s.However, Hezbollah has also an arsenal of around 1,000 rockets and missiles with heavy warheads of up to 250 kg of explosives, with a range between 40 km and 300 km, capable of hitting almost any civilian, military or strategic site in Israel, be it air fields, power stations, refineries, air force bases and Israel’s two nuclear reactors in Sorek, south of Tel Aviv, and in Dimona in the south.
It now seems that the combination of IAF strikes, Israeli leadership’s determination and Iran’s domestic and regional troubles (US sanctions, and its military and financial involvement in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria) has forced Tehran to rethink its policy.
The heavy damage inflicted on its presence in Syria most probably led Iran to the conclusion that they can achieve almost the same goals by creating an alternative in Iraq. Iran can launch missiles from Iraq, which is located 400 km to 500 km from the Israeli border. It can build bases and warehouses to store its missiles and improve them in Iraq, instead of in Syria.The Israeli military and the government already noticed the shift in Iranian thinking a year ago and began to monitor it. Netanyahu, who is seeking his fifth term in office in the September election, mentioned Iraq a few times in his statements, most bluntly when he threatened Iran in a political clip a few months ago: “We will act against you in Iraq, wherever and whenever. We will act against you to defend ourselves.”Based on the media reports mentioned earlier, it now seems that Netanyahu ordered the military and the intelligence community to act in Iraq.As Israel has the interest, the motives and the intentions to stop Iran “wherever,” so too does it have the capabilities.The Iraqi army participated in the 1948, 1967 and 1973 Arab wars against Israel by dispatching large forces to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians. Iraq provided money, training, weapons and logistics to Palestinian terror groups such as Abu Nidal. It launched 39 missiles against Tel Aviv and Haifa during the Gulf War in 1991, in retaliation for the IAF strike that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor built near Baghdad in 1981.Israel also destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor, which was located near the Iraqi border, in 2007.From 1965 to 1975, Israel also maintained intimate military ties with the Iraqi Kurds, who were fighting then for autonomy. One can assume that Israel continues to maintain such contacts today.So all in all, in terms of its capabilities, the Israeli military has no serious difficulties in operating in Iraq. The only obstacle could be American interests. There are approximately 5,000 US troops in Iraq. If the anti-Iranian operations attributed to Israel will stand in the way of the American presence there – the US Embassy in Baghdad was already attacked by rockets and mortar shells in retaliation for the Israeli strikes – Israel might be forced to halt its actions.American officials confirmed, for example, that Israel was behind recent aerial attacks against Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. Some Israeli security officials interpreted the leaks as an expression of displeasure and hints to stop them.In a rare public admission, Netanyahu announced on August 25 that the IAF had struck in Syria a day earlier to prevent the Iranian Quds Force from launching an attack on Israel with drones carrying explosives.“Iran has no immunity anywhere,” Netanyahu declared. “Our forces operate in every sector against Iranian aggression.”In Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, vowed retaliation after alleging that an Israeli drone had hit a Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut.The IAF’s preemptive strikes show that Iran has decided not to sit idly by in the face of what seems to be Israeli attacks against its assets in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere – and to retaliate against Israel. Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He tweets at @yossi_melman