Collision Course in the North Between Israel and Iran

Almost a month has passed since the drama in the skies of Israel and Syria, when Israel knocked down an Iranian drone that had penetrated its airspace and bombed Iranian targets in Syrian territory, and Israel lost a fighter jet to Syrian anti-aircraft artillery. In this time Syria hasn’t reported a single Israeli aerial attack on arms convoys, missile warehouses or army bases, reports that have been quite frequent in the last five years.

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This hiatus will probably be transient. The underlying conditions on Israel’s northern front remain unchanged, even after that extraordinary exchange of firerpower. The decided advantage of the pro-Assad axis in the Syrian civil war gives its forces security and bolsters their drive to win, in compensation for their efforts invested in saving the Syrian tyrant back when his chances looked slim.

In a review that army intelligence delivered to the political echelon, the Israeli and Iranian moves were described as two powerful strategic trends that were all but fated to collide: the Iranian insistence on establishing a military presence in Syria, and the Israeli insistence on preventing it, stated time and again by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his AIPAC speech this week: “We must stop Iran. We will stop Iran.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds what he claims is part of an Iranian drone shot down in Israeli airspace at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, 2018. LENNART PREISS/AFP

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Why didn’t the shoot-out on that Shabbat descend into war? Because both Israel and Iran are being very careful and trying not to go there. It’s the early days for the Iranian project in the region and Tehran doesn’t seem to want a direct military confrontation with Israel at this time. Watching the Iranian moves in recent years shows it can change direction, sometimes halt entirely, following Israeli threats or attacks linked to the air force.

From Israel’s perspective, even though the stated intention is to foil Iran’s plans in Syria and Lebanon, neither Netanyahu nor Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman nor the top military brass aspire to a broad confrontation whose end cannot be foretold. Most Israeli deterrence moves are under the radar, sometimes barely gaining mention in the press. Israel would probably prefer things to go on without direct clashes.

Both Israel and Iran have to factor Russia into the equation. Moscow is the big winner of the civil war in Syria, and the only world power still in touch with all parties involved. The last thing that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants is for an Iranian-Israeli war to imperil his No. 1 strategic triumph in the region in recent years: saving the Assad regime. That seems to have been the message delivered to Jerusalem and Tehran as that day of fighting up north wore on. The belligerents conducted themselves accordingly.

Israel forces prepare in the Golan Heights February 2018Gil Eliahu

Amos Yadlin, head of the Institute for National Security Studies, tells Haaretz that Iran is building up its forces and increasing its influence in Syria using three combined models: those of Hezbollah, Iraq and North Korea. In 2014 and 2015, Hezbollah and the Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard set up terror cells based on local Druze units in the Syrian Golan Heights and Palestinian organizations. When activists in these networks were killed in actions ascribed to Israel, Iran abandoned the attempt to implement a Hezbollah-type model in Syria.

The second model, based on a test run that went very well in Iraq, touches on deploying Shi’ite militias obedient to Iran throughout Syria. The militias, which rely on recruits from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, helped tilt the war in Assad’s favor. But the number of their people in Syria is not large, some counting it below 10,000.

Lately the third approach, which Yadlin called the North Korea model, was added. It is reminiscent of the Pyongyang missile threats against Seoul. Iran seems to want to renew Assad’s arsenal of long-range missiles, most of which were used or destroyed during the civil war. It also wants to build missile assembly lines on Israel’s border. This turning point is happening during the quiet years assured by the Vienna agreement of 2015, which put off the Iranian nuclear threat by at least seven to 10 years.

Even optimistically assuming that Tehran keeps its word, when the agreement expires Iran will be in a better position: It will be able to continue pursuing its nuclear ambitions and create a double missile threat, from Syria and Lebanon, making Israel think two or three times before attacking the Iranian nuclear sites.

The arsenal of missiles is supposed to grow and be deployed over more fronts, and in part to become more accurate. Speaking at the Munich security conference in late February, Netanyahu gave his view of the Iranian goal: to equip Hezbollah with guided missiles whose accuracy (“probable circular error”) is tens of meters.

Talking with U.S. President Donald Trump this week, Netanyahu again pressed him to declare that America would abandon the nuclear agreement in May. Meanwhile the EU wants to lead an initiative enforcing monitoring in Iran and restrictions on its missile program, as wells as its dissemination of technology among terrorist and guerrilla groups in the region. These are goals marked for the years to come, based on the understanding that the battle with Iran will slog on for years and that the Vienna agreement provided, at best, a hiatus, not a comprehensive solution.