Israel and Iran in a shadow war … for now
The recent Israeli bombing of targets near Damascus was aimed at an advanced weapons shipment heading for Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, but was unusual in its pattern. Unlike past operations it was carried out during the day, and instead of airstrikes the Israelis used surface-to-surface missiles. These could be regarded as mere technical details, but they carry more significance than meets the eye.
In its long battle to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring huge quantities of increasingly sophisticated weapons, Israel has had to strike a balance between operational and political considerations. The former dictate that when quality intelligence is obtained and there is only a narrow window of opportunity to eliminate another transfer of advanced weaponry from Iran to Lebanon, Israel must act, and act swiftly. Nevertheless, in a highly congested theater of war, with Syrian, Russian, US and Iranian military personnel all operating with competing political interests, Israel’s aim is to avoid upsetting allies or escalating tensions with foes, which might lead to direct confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah or clashes with Russian or American interests.
Last week’s strike targeted the Al-Dimas, Qudsaya and Al-Mezzah military air bases west of Damascus, nearthe Beirut–Damascus highway that leads to the main border crossing between Syria and Lebanon; from there it is only a short distance to the Hezbollah’s stronghold of the Bekaa Valley. For years this area has been a major corridor for transferring weaponry from Iran through Syria to Lebanon, and it is a major source of concern for Israel that in any future war with Hezbollah these arms will target dense population centers with devastating affect. It also factors into the wider context of Israel’s conflict with Iran and the latter’s drive to develop nuclear military capability.
While much attention is focused on the international efforts to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear military capability, the West, despite some hard talk, seems unable to translate its rhetoric into a course of action that will bring the Iranian leadership back to the negotiation table, let alone stop enriching uranium. In the meantime Israel is engaged in what has become known as the “war between wars.” The aim is to either avertor delay a full-scale war, or reduce its destructive consequences if it becomes inevitable. Israel is also employing this approach to the Palestinians, but in its most intense mode and more complex political environment in its engagements with Iran and the Hezbollah.
By maintaining ambiguity about its responsibility for these operations despite carrying out a relatively large number of airstrikes in Syria, Israel is relieving the pressure felt by those on the receiving end of these bombings to retaliate. This serves the main purpose of undermining the Iranian presence in Syria, which is central to Tehran’s disruptive and destabilising strategy in the region, one element of which is to keep relations with Israel in a state of high tension while avoiding a full confrontation. A major component in Israel’s response to this is to keep the regime in Tehran guessing about its intentions — about when and how it is going to hurt it and expose its vulnerabilities. The targeting of certain high-profile individuals has been attributed to Israel, whether in Syria or in Iran itself, as was the case with the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and a number of such scientists before him. In addition Iran blames Israel for cyber attacks, not only on its nuclear installations, but also on essential services such as one that interrupted fuel distribution to petrol stations, or disrupted operations this year at the Iranian port of Shahid Rajaei in the Strait of Hormuz.
For now Iran remains evasive about its intentions to sign a new nuclear agreement and stop its uranium enrichment to weapons-grade level. Israel would like to see the US turn the screw on Iran by intensifying sanctions, and planning for a military option, as Israel would be happy for it to be known that such an option was a genuine possibility. In this context the leadership in Tehran is exploiting the volatile situation in Lebanon by using a willing Hezbollah as a tool to deter or at least mitigate Israel’s operations against Iran. Hezbollah has made itself totally independent of the Lebanese state and possesses that country’s most powerful military; in maintaining constant brinkmanship with Israel it serves its own interests and those of Tehran, but at the expense of Lebanon as a whole.
Israel has avoided striking at Hezbollah inside Lebanon because this would almost inevitably lead to a devastating war. However, Israel has made it clear that any large-scale launch of missiles by Hezbollah would lead to a massive retaliation such as Lebanon had not experienced in its history. But for now, Israel would rather cut off the supply of weapons en route to Lebanon and hit targets in Syria, where the decade-long chaos enables more room for military operations without instigating any full blown confrontation, and gives Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah no pretext to translate his bragging of being the defender of Lebanon into a war with Israel.
In a similar vein, the Israeli Air Force prefers to operate at night to minimize loss of life on the ground while accomplishing its missions, and with less chance of detection and hence some level of plausible deniability. Employing surface-to-surface missiles last week may have been the result of operational calculation, avoiding facing Iran’s advanced air defense system batteries that were installed recently in Syria and whose capabilities Israel is unsure about. It may also have been about limiting any embarrassment caused to Moscow by the ability of its planes to evade Russian-made air defense systems operated with Russian experts’ assistance. Russia has no interest in seeing Tehran consolidate its position in Syria, and hasn’t taken any steps to contain Israel’s military clipping of Iran’s or Hezbollah’s wings, but at the same time wouldn’t like to be embarrassed by Israeli air operations, especially as it would like to sell its air defense systems to other countries.
For now Israel has probably recorded another success in its low intensity war with Hezbollah, and by extension with Iran. Nevertheless, the sides are edging closer and closer to a more intense confrontation. Neither is interested in that for now, but in time the momentum may carry them toward such an outcome.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg