Shi'ite factor poses tough challenge for Israel

The Shi’ite axis features an underlying dimension that makes it a more challenging foe than Israel’s Sunni rivals.

Residents of Kirkuk with Shia flags celebrate the Iraqi advance, as many Kurds fled the city. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Residents of Kirkuk with Shia flags celebrate the Iraqi advance, as many Kurds fled the city.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Assessments of the threat posed by Iran’s encroachment on Israel’s borders tend to focus on military and economic parameters.
In this context, we hear about proxy armies deployed in Syrian territory, plans to set up precision missile plants in Lebanon, and oil revenues being used to finance terrorists throughout the region. However, the Iranian-Syrian- Lebanese coalition congealed under Russia’s protective wing boasts not only substantial military muscle, but also a progressive conceptual core based on the tenets of Shi’ite Islam.
Hence, beyond calculations of brute power, the Shi’ite axis features an underlying dimension that makes it a more challenging foe than Israel’s Sunni rivals.
Sunnis tend to see history as regressive, therefore embracing and seeking to restore a utopian past. Other Sunni dogmas highlight the cyclical nature of time, thus stripping it of progress or ultimate purpose. In contrast, the Shi’ite worldview is more reminiscent of Jewish and Christian thinking.
Shi’ite Muslims (and Syria’s Alawites, essentially a Shi’ite sect) are oriented toward the future, believe that history is progressive, and are more receptive to non-Islamic ideas.
The 10th-century Shi’ite sages known as Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity) advised their followers to “shun no science, scorn no book, nor cling fanatically to a single creed,” defining the ideal person as “Persian in origin, Arab in religion... Hebrew in experience, Christian in behavior...Greek in science....”
While science largely lacked an institutional base in the Sunni world, non-Islamic philosophical and scientific tradition was integrated into instruction programs at Shi’ite institutions of higher learning. Consequently, the Shi’ites have made disproportionately immense contributions to Islamic civilization’s scientific heritage, with medieval Shi’ite regimes such as the Fatimids, Buwayhids and Hamanids actively supporting scientific inquiry. This tradition explains why scientific research flourishes in contemporary Iran as it withers away in Sunni countries, and why Tehran has been able to develop advanced research institutes, an independent military industry and a nuclear program.
IDF Gen. Yair Golan has neatly summarized the way Israel views its Shi’ite adversaries, describing Iran as a “higher form of civilization” and noting its competent scientists and solid academic infrastructure. Golan concluded that the Iranians are “very similar to us” and therefore “much, much more dangerous.” The February 10 skirmish on Israel’s northern border, ignited after a state-of-the-art Iranian drone taking off from Syria violated Israel’s airspace, was the latest reminder of the potential danger posed by an enemy more technologically advanced than some of Israel’s past foes.
To make matters worse for Israel, Iran’s interests are now closely aligned with those of a formidable global player. Russia’s aggressive intervention to preserve Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime turned the tide of the Syrian war, and has boosted the Shi’ite coalition’s sense of confidence. Moscow has ostensibly agreed to keep Iranian forces away from the Israeli border, but has stated that Iran’s presence in Syria is “legitimate.” Cognizant of Russia’s clout, Israel has thus far avoided a broad assault against the strategic advances of its rivals, instead opting for sporadic strikes.
Paradoxically, Russia’s presence in Syria could minimize short-term friction and hostilities, if Israel and Iran play along. Moscow seeks to further entrench its regional presence, and would prefer that all parties show restraint and maintain a semblance of stability. Yet under a deceptive veneer of relative quiet, Israel could ultimately wake up to the nightmare of a hostile Shi’ite behemoth right on its doorstep. This menacing entity would extend across borders, boasting a heavily armed multinational force underpinned by a sophisticated and forward-looking doctrine. Israeli leaders have made clear that an Iranian- led conglomerate on Syrian soil is unacceptable.
So far, Israel has focused its efforts to counter the Shi’ite threat on preparation and deterrence, holding large war drills and hoping that its strikes and warnings prompt key players to reconsider their moves. These measures have had some success, but Israel may have to resort to large-scale military action to fully thwart the grand designs of its opponents. However, a major campaign will come with a price.
Officials and media have been cautioning for some time now that Israel’s population centers will be pounded by missiles in case of an all-out war. Such assault could exact a high civilian death toll and inflict a harsh psychological blow. Moreover, Russia may step in to limit IDF operations and end the hostilities before Israel can secure an unequivocal victory.
However, the consequences of inaction may be worse. Israel’s government is now faced with a grave dilemma, as the moment of decision approaches.
Yigal Walt is a political researcher and former news editor. Tamer Nashef is a researcher specializing in the history of religion and science.