Don’t mess with us

Israel can avoid using military means and do well by building up a deterrent presence in the region.

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Two or three days after the recent Israel-Iran-Syria debacle, a strange article appeared in an Israeli newspaper: “The Iranians have exhausted their current agenda, and are not interested in its continuation. Iran and Syria have achieved their goal in the public consciousness with the downing of the Israeli jet, and this is satisfactory for us.”
The above was stated as the opinion of Israeli security experts, which is of course absurd.
Neither Iran nor Syria initiated this rapid deterioration. Granted, Iran was the one that launched the drone into Israeli territory, but no one can swear that this was the first time Iran sent a drone into Israel – it’s just the first time one was destroyed. Therefore, the assessment that Tehran is “satisfied” by this event indicates that the writer has not correctly interpreted the situation. Iran and Syria shouldn’t be pleased with this situation, but Israel should be. The continuation or cessation of attacks is first and foremost up to Israel, and is not dependent on the feelings of the Syrians or Iranians.
In any event, the tense day that Israel experienced last weekend on the northern border was the first direct confrontation between Israel and Iran. We can assume that both countries are evaluating the situation and making decisions about to what extent are they willing to let this conflict grow.
Now for some historical background: Since World War II, the number of wars between countries has diminished greatly, and most conflicts are now asymmetric. In other words, for the most part, they are conflicts that take place between a regime and guerrilla or terrorist groups. In some cases, such as in Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon, these organizations function almost like semi-states, and they integrate terrorist and guerrilla activity alongside their efforts to secure territory.
This asymmetry is reduced when the challenging force succeeds in amassing military capabilities and becomes a viable military power itself. At times, the weak side even has an advantage in that it is quick and nimble and extremely uninhibited. It is not curtailed by international conventions or afraid to use excessive force or to harm civilians.
The nature of the confrontations has changed. Israel is not dealing with countries or organized armies, but with terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic State. Most of our enemies no longer believe they’ll be able to defeat Israel. Some even rely on Israel’s military might to fight against a common enemy: Iran.
Iran is geographically distant from Israel and has never been considered an enemy state. But its development of nuclear capabilities and its public declarations that it plans to harm Israel have turned it into an enemy. Iran has advanced technologies, strong economic power and a determination to spread its ideology and revolutionary message. It’s no wonder that Iran has come into conflict in these areas with Israel, which is considered a regional power that has developed capabilities to neutralize threats from thousands of kilometers away. In the past it has done so with Libya, Sudan and Iraq, and now with Iran, as was reported by foreign sources.
The war in Syria has been the greatest catalyst for change that Iran has achieved. The stationing of Iranian forces on Israel’s northern border is tantamount to the crossing of a redline, which Israel cannot stand for. The recent trip by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to major capitals around the world was meant to clarify Israel’s stance and plan of action if the conflict were to exacerbate. And indeed Israel followed through when the opportunity presented itself.
This new war has an additional characteristic: It is a battle for awareness and psychology no less than it is a physical military conflict. Many of the battles are taking place in the traditional media and the growing social networks. These efforts are detracting from the intensity of the physical confrontation. Each action on the battlefield is planned and directed according to the type of psychological effect it will have. Since the traditional definition of victory, “the total surrender of one side,” is no longer possible, we are left with “partial surrender” as the goal.
Each side aims to mold its reality in a way so that it appears as if it has achieved victory. The goal is to instill fear in the enemy – especially in civilians – and to deter it from attacking in retaliation. If the Iranians had been successful in infiltrating Israeli territory with their drone, they surely would have used this to disrupt the Israeli public’s feeling of security and trust that the security establishment and the IDF can protect them.
Iran has tried to challenge the safe skies of Israel’s security establishment. Israel must make it clear to the Syrian military and government on the one hand, and to the Iranians and its commanders in Syria on the other, that its intentions are serious. The Iranian people watching these events unfurl from afar should be able to understand that its extremist religious and government leaders are once again pushing Iran toward war, this time with Israel, which will come with a hefty price in the blood of loved ones. This could lead to another civil uprising in Iran, not long after the previous one.
Looking back, Israel was not sufficiently aware of the psychological component of this conflict. While pictures of the downed Israeli F16 received high exposure in the international media, the downing of the Iranian drone and the destruction of half of Syria’s air defense systems have remained in the shadows. To the casual observer who judged these events by what he read in the newspaper, it might appear that the Iranians were satisfied with the results, and that is unfortunate.
There might be more in store for this troika of Israel, Iran and Syria. I don’t foresee a full-scale war breaking out, since this is not in the best interests of Syria or the US, which will try to prevent it before the entire region escalates into chaos. It’s possible that once the dust settles, Israel and Iran will begin planning their next steps. Iran now understands that Israel is serious and determined, while Israel realizes that Syria has gained a bit of self-confidence and is willing to take more chances, such as shooting missiles at Israeli airplanes.
Now that Iran is encouraged by Syria’s achievements, it will try to reach as close to Israel’s border as it can. There might not be a war, but these types of battles will probably continue to take place from time to time. It won’t be quiet on the northern border, even with the fake backdrop of Israelis enjoying themselves while skiing on Mount Hermon.
For Israel to get through the current campaign as best as possible, it must invest resources in building up a positive public awareness. There will be significant consequences to this battle. Israel can avoid using military means and do well by building up a deterrent presence in the region. Israel’s international image needs to be: Don’t mess with us.
The author, an MK from the Zionist Union, is a former IDF Spokesman, and currently serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. MK Shai’s book Media Wars is about Israel’s battle for awareness.