A familiar foe emerges in the Israel-Iran proxy war

Today, in the midst of a shadow war with Iran and its proxies playing out in Lebanon, Syria and increasingly Iraq, this age-old feud is once again challenging Israel’s strategy.

Iran's proxies, including Hezbollah, are empowered throughout the Middle East  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's proxies, including Hezbollah, are empowered throughout the Middle East
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has often been said that Israel lives in a troubled neighborhood. Multiple regional wars and violent conflagrations with at least half a dozen neighboring states and armed groups certainly depict a country ill at ease with its neighbors.
Yet the most persistent military challenge in Israel’s 71-year-history has been neither a neighboring enemy nor a regional foe. While the old Arab adversaries Egypt and Syria have been eclipsed by Iran and its proxies, the only challenge to have featured in almost every major military campaign that Israel has fought has been enemy anti-aircraft missile systems.
Since 1948, the Israeli Air Force has been instrumental in Israel’s defense, whether in winning wars, deterring adversaries or keeping enemies at bay. The IAF has conducted air offensives from the Sinai in the 1960s and the Bekaa Valley in the 1980s, to hundreds of airstrikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years.
But the IAF’s ability to tilt the scales of battle in all of these theaters has depended on achieving air superiority by circumventing enemy air defenses through deception or destruction. When it has failed, the price of overall victory has soared.
Today, in the midst of a shadow war with Iran and its proxies playing out in Lebanon, Syria and increasingly Iraq, this age-old feud is once again challenging Israel’s strategy to deal with its chief regional adversaries. It could goad Israel into riskier unilateral military action or even help solidify bonds between Russia and Israel’s adversaries.
A historic duel
The seeds of rivalry were planted in 1967 when Israel’s decisive victory over Egypt in the Six Day War owed everything to the IAF. A sophisticated electronic warfare attack tricked the displays of Egypt’s Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft missile batteries, allowing Israeli bombers to decimate Egyptian airfields without prior detection or resistance.
Israel learned during the War of Attrition with Egypt (1967-1970) that it could not always operate with impunity. When Egyptian forces pummeled Israeli positions along the Suez Canal with artillery, Israel retaliated with its state of the art US-made fighter jets. But Egypt’s air-defense network, strengthened by the Soviet Union, downed numerous Israeli jets and left no alternative for Israel but to sue for an uncomfortable ceasefire.
Defensive missile systems continued to offset Israel’s aerial advantage during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The Soviets had by then supplied more surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems to Syria and Egypt. Cairo established an impenetrable defensive shield by placing them on the west bank of the Suez Canal. The costs for Israel were severe, as nearly half of total aircraft losses occurred in the first three days of war.
On the Syrian front, the challenge was equally formidable. On the second day of war, Israel resorted to Operation Model 5, hoping to target and destroy the bulk of Syria’s artillery batteries. It managed only to eliminate one battery and incur heavy losses, with nine of its airmen captured.
The Yom Kippur War was a watershed moment. Although Israel ultimately won the war, it was clear that the road to victory was protracted and more costly without immediate air superiority. The IAF therefore shifted tactics by substituting aircraft maneuvers and covert commando raids with electronic warfare and stand-off guided missiles to combat defiant air defenses.
The first battlefield test of the new approach came during the First Lebanon War in 1982. The IAF launched an unprecedented offensive to eliminate all 19 Syrian SAM batteries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Within two hours, Israel destroyed 15 batteries and 90 enemy aircraft. It was the first time that an air force had ever eliminated a Soviet-supplied air-defense network.
An old feud in a new era
Today Israel conducts a whack-a-mole air campaign, chiefly in Syria, to prevent Tehran from constructing offensive infrastructure close to its border and to intercept the transfer of precision missile technology to Iranian proxies. That means Israel’s US-supplied state-of-the-art fighter jets are once again going head-to-head with Syria’s Soviet-era air-defense systems.
Amid a congested airspace controlled by Russia, which backs the Assad regime, Israel regularly employs electronic warfare and stand-off missiles to circumvent or destroy the SAMs. Tellingly, the IAF has conducted hundreds of airstrikes with the loss of only one fighter jet.
But Israel’s tactical mastery has not been risk-free. In February 2018, a stealth Israeli strike triggered Syrian-operated SAMs to mistakenly shoot down a Russian surveillance aircraft, killing 15 Russian airmen. Moscow promptly supplied the regime with its formidable S-400 air-defense system, one of the latest generations of Russian SAMs, indicating that its tacit tolerance of Israel’s operations had reached its limit.
A similar trend is now emerging in Iraq, where Israel is suspected of striking Iran-backed militias that enjoy considerable autonomy from Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has blamed Israel for a spate of recent attacks against those groups. The strikes have reportedly prompted the Iraqi government to seek a Russian air-defense system, which could significantly complicate Israel’s freedom of operation.
To overcome the SAMs, Israel may be compelled to resort to ever-greater deception and aggression – cyber, kinetic or a combination of both. Such action would be directed against forces operating the systems from secondary adversaries Iraq and Syria and possibly even Russia, an ostensible partner. While few doubt Israel’s technological ability to do so, fewer would suggest that provoking Baghdad and Damascus to seek more sophisticated defensive weaponry, and perhaps even strengthening their bonds with Russia, is a favorable outcome.
History shows that Israel’s missiles and cyber prowess can overcome enemy defenses to achieve air superiority and win wars. But today it is still unclear if it is enough to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Iraq and Syria, much less without provoking greater regional resistance. Israel should therefore beware the law of unintended consequences lest it indirectly arm its newest regional adversary with the protection of its oldest military challenge.
The author is a foreign affairs writer focusing on geopolitics, diplomacy and conflict. He holds an MA in International Studies & Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London.