As a small, over-populated country surrounded by Arab states, Israel has learned to defend itself outside its borders. Lacking the strategic hinterland to conduct conflicts closer to home, Israel has successively sought to create buffer territories between it and its neighbors. Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was occupied from 1967 to 1979, a “security belt” was established in southern Lebanon from 1985 to 2000, and the Syrian Golan Heights and indeed the West Bank remain occupied by Israel to this day. Such annexations suited the IDF from the perspective of traditional warfare but, given the increasingly asymmetric nature of conflict, it has had to be more bold in its extraterritorial activity — at times with the acquiescence of its Arab neighbors.
Egyptian security forces have been unable to quash the Sinai insurgency of Islamist militants since its outset in 2011. Local Bedouins had exploited the chaotic situation in Egypt to launch a series of attacks on government forces in Sinai. However, since 2014 the conflict has expanded and the Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis group pledged allegiance to Daesh. Militants have since expanded their operations, most recently killing 305 civilians at a mosque last November. With the Egyptian state plagued by issues closer to Cairo and unable to keep the peace, some experts believe Israeli forces may have filled the void.
For more than two years, unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have conducted more than 100 airstrikes within Egypt’s border, all reportedly with the tacit approval of the Egyptian government, according to some experts. The missions are designed to avert a corridor opening between the militants and Hamas, but the activity in itself is more telling of Israel’s changing relations with its neighbors. In both Israel and Egypt, censors restrict public reports of the airstrikes.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, weak state structures have led to militants taking the upper hand. In Syria, where the embattled regime has lost control to militias, radical movements and in some cases foreign states, the increased prominence of Iranian forces has gone unchecked. Having established a direct theater of operations from Tehran to the Syrian-Israeli border, the collapse of the Syrian state has accelerated the growth of Hezbollah.
Middle Eastern nations should act cautiously or risk exacerbating existing conflicts and the inherent precariousness of their governments, potentially leading to the proliferation of heavy weaponry amongst militant groups.
Zaid M. Belbagi
With another Arab regime unable to counter the growth of non-state actors, Israel has engaged in its own campaign to subdue challenges to its borders. This week, the Israeli Air Force Head of Air Division Brig. Gen. Amnon Ein Dar stated the IAF had carried out thousands of missions in Syria in the last year alone. He added that Israel last Saturday carried out its “broadest attack on Syria’s defense systems since (1982)” in direct response to an Iranian drone that had ventured into Israeli airspace. The missions in the Damascus countryside are a significant watershed in the conflict, highlighting that there is increased appetite in Israel to engage without the support of Washington.
Syrian anti-aircraft crews’ shooting down of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet has done little to thwart Tel Aviv’s ambitions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since vowed to continue operations across the Syrian border, in a development that could potentially escalate the conflict further.
From the perspective of Arab states, the common threats of Daesh and Iranian operations have strangely led to an alignment of interests hitherto unthinkable. It is unlikely that Israeli incursions into the airspace of its neighbors will be met by anything more than a slap on the wrist. Israel, whose regional position is reliant on its military supremacy, will need to be careful it does not continue to lose advanced aircraft to inferior forces.
Unchecked unilateral military operations are troublesome from every perspective. It would be of great concern if recent actions were a sign of things to come. With the US less willing to engage in the Middle East, regional powers will need to take their peace and security into their own hands. As the leading recipients of foreign military hardware per capita, Middle Eastern states should act cautiously or risk exacerbating existing conflicts and the inherent precariousness of their governments, potentially leading to the proliferation of heavy weaponry among militant groups.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).