Thursday, February 22, 2018

Staging The Wars To Come: Israel, Iran Head Toward Military Clash Over Syria

Israel, Iran head toward military clash over Syria

Iran and Israel are on a collision course over Tehran’s expanding footprint in Syria, raising the odds of a direct clash between the region’s two military heavyweights that could quickly draw in other combatants.
With Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Iran’s most potent military ally, emboldened by their success in upholding Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israel is growing more and more wary of being attacked by missiles not just from southern Lebanon but also from inside Syria.

Israel has been sporadically bombing Hezbollah positions in Syria for the past three years. But the situation reached new heights this month when what Israel said was an Iranian armed stealth drone was intercepted and downed over Israel and an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was in turn shot down by anti-aircraft fire from inside Syria during a retaliatory airstrike.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traded belligerent taunts at a major security conference in Munich this week, with the hard-line Mr. Netanyahu brandishing a piece of the downed drone and warning that Tehran “should not test Israel’s resolve.”
“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”
Mr. Zarif mocked the tough words and noted the Israeli leader’s political problems at home. Calling Mr. Netanyahu’s presentation a “cartoonish circus,” the Iranian minister said the downing of the Israeli fighter jet had crumbled Israel’s “invincibility.”
Hezbollah, which the U.S. has listed as “foreign terrorist organization” since the late 1990s, said in a statement after the downing of the Israeli F-16 that the struggle had reached a “new strategic phase” aimed at curtailing Israeli’s incursions into Syria.
With Mr. Assad’s government, backed by Russian and Iranian military muscle moving ever closer to victory in the Syrian civil war, Israeli planners also warn that Iran and Hezbollah are trying to shape the strategic landscape to their advantage.
“In the northern arena, there is a change coming due to the strategic developments in the Syrian internal fighting. The Iranians and Hezbollah, who are backing [Mr. Assad], are getting freed up to start building their power,” Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, head of Israeli Defense Forces operations, told Israeli Army Radio this week, adding that the prospect of a war with Iran this year was higher than it had been in a long time.

Richard C. Baffa, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp., said recent events underscored “the fragility of the situation and how easily miscalculation could lead to rapid escalation.”
Mr. Baffa said in an interview that neither side seeks an escalation, but he sees signs that if a war does break out, it will be much larger than the border clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
Hezbollah is able to maintain a “broader northern front that includes Syria,” he said, and the group “has far more missiles and rockets that can target Israeli infrastructure and population centers.”

Israeli officials fear Iran will demand a permanent presence inside Syria, the price it will exact for its efforts in support of Mr. Assad.
“Iran is determined to build a military presence and military capabilities in Syria the way they built Hezbollah in Lebanon for many, many years,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate.

Mr. Yadlin, who spoke on a conference call hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Wednesday, said further escalation would pit Israeli forces against an Iran-backed alliance that may even include elements of the Syrian military.

Three days before the Feb. 10 incident, the International Crisis Group warned in a report that the “rules of the game that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded” and said Russia may be in a unique position to restore them.

“What we’ve seen over the course of recent weeks is an attempt by the Iranians both to consolidate their gains in Syria but also to test the limits,” she said. “They’ve been looking to, I think, establish exactly where the Israeli red lines are and see how far they can test the tolerance of the Israelis.”

The IDF Galilee Division on Thursday completed a series of large-scale exercises designed to prepare the military for a potential rapidly unfolding war in Lebanon, the army said amid rising tensions in recent weeks along Israel’s northern frontier.
“Conscripted soldiers, along with reservists, took part in the exercise. They practiced a rapid call-up of reservists, as well as operational capabilities and readiness to fight in Lebanese terrain,” the Israel Defense Forces said.
In addition, the army’s 188th Armored Brigade conducted its own, separate exercise in northern Israel, along with troops from combat engineering, infantry and artillery.
The drills came amid heightened tensions in the country’s north, following aerial clashes between the Israeli air force and the Syrian military earlier this month, and amid an ongoing diplomatic dispute between Israel and Lebanon over a portion of the Mediterranean Sea, which is believed to contain a natural gas reserve, that each claims as its own.
“The brigade exercises were held as part of the enhanced 2018 training program. Their purpose is to prepare combat soldiers and their commanders for any scenario, and to enhance their readiness and capabilities for real-time threats,” the army said.
Col. Manny Liberty, the head of the 769th Territorial Brigade, which is responsible for defending the eastern portion of the Lebanese border, said the exercise improved both the offensive and defensive capabilities of his unit.
“We will continue to train and prepare to ensure the security of the residents of this region,” Liberty said.
During the tank brigade’s exercise, the troops simulated “a variety of scenarios, and were required to practice logistic and operational efficiency over a prolonged period of fighting,” the army said.
The commander of the 188th Brigade, Col. Gal Shochami, stressed the importance of the exercise as conflict could break out at any time.
“We must remember the meaning of the command, ‘War tomorrow,’ which tells us that any training situation may be the last before the real test of our abilities: the battlefield,” Shochami said.

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