Why lift the fog around IDF ac­tions in Syria?

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - ANAL­Y­SIS • By HERB KEINON

Up un­til this week­end, the drill in Syria has been pretty pre­dictable.

Ex­plo­sions could be heard some­where in Da­m­as­cus, or in air bases or in other lo­ca­tions through­out the coun­try. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights would re­port a mis­sile strike or other ex­plo­sion. Ac­cusatory fin­gers would nat­u­rally be pointed at Is­rael, and Jerusalem would re­main quiet, nei­ther con­firm­ing nor deny­ing.

It was called the “pol­icy of am­bi­gu­ity,” and was meant to get a job done and a mes­sage across, with­out brag­ging about it, with­out tak­ing credit and thereby forc­ing the other side – be it Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, Hezbol­lah or the Ira­ni­ans – to save face and re­spond. In this way, the IDF hit scores of tar­gets since es­ca­lat­ing its cam­paign in Syria in 2017,

when the Ira­ni­ans stepped up their in­volve­ment in the coun­try. Out­go­ing Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said as much in an in­ter­view with The New York Times over the week­end, say­ing that “we struck thou­sands of tar­gets with­out claim­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity or ask­ing for credit.”

Eisenkot’s ad­mis­sion to thou­sands of at­tacks, and say­ing that in 2018 alone Is­rael dropped 2,000 bombs in Syria, rep­re­sented a break in this pol­icy of am­bi­gu­ity.

Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu took this break to a fur­ther level on Sun­day, telling the cab­i­net that over the last 36 hours the IAF hit an Ira­nian arms ware­house at the Da­m­as­cus In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

If Eisenkot spoke in gen­eral terms – per­haps in­ter­ested in some credit be­fore leav­ing his po­si­tion – Ne­tanyahu sud­denly brought it down to the specifics. And al­though this was not the first time Is­rael has taken re­spon­si­bil­ity – it did so in Septem­ber when at­tacks near Da­m­as­cus led to Syria’s down­ing of a Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence plane – this was de­cid­edly not am­bigu­ous.

Why? What is to be gained from this?

Be­fore an­swer­ing, it is im­por­tant to pay care­ful at­ten­tion to Ne­tanyahu’s ex­act words at the cab­i­net meet­ing.

“Just in the last 36 hours, the air force at­tacked Ira­nian ware­houses with Ira­nian weapons at the in­ter­na­tional air­port in Da­m­as­cus. The ac­cu­mu­lated num­ber of re­cent at­tacks proves that we are de­ter­mined more than ever to act against Iran in Syria,” he said.

He was very spe­cific. Is­rael did not at­tack Syr­ian po­si­tions, but rather Ira­nian ware­houses with Ira­nian weapons. This was a mes­sage to Rus­sia, which has an in­ter­est in the sur­vival of As­sad, that its ac­tions were not aimed at As­sad or at weak­en­ing him – Is­rael was not look­ing to harm Rus­sian in­ter­ests – but rather at the Ira­ni­ans, whom Jerusalem has made clear it would not al­low to en­trench them­selves mil­i­tar­ily in­side Syria.

Ne­tanyahu’s com­ments came at a cab­i­net meet­ing where the gov­ern­ment bid farewell to Eisenkot. He stressed that he and Eisenkot had worked to­gether against var­ied threats in or­der to re­in­force the coun­try’s se­cu­rity.

“We worked with im­pres­sive suc­cess to block Iran’s mil­i­tary en­trench­ment in Syria,” he said, stress­ing the “we.”

“We worked to­gether against the man­u­fac­ture of pre­ci­sion weapons in Le­banon. We worked to dis­man­tle Hezbol­lah’s tun­nels weapon in Le­banon, in Op­er­a­tion North­ern Shield. We took ac­tion against Ha­mas tun­nels on the Gaza bor­der. We thwarted hun­dreds of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Judea and Sa­maria and we car­ried out many other ac­tions, open and covert.”

If the in­cli­na­tion of the pub­lic – after read­ing and lis­ten­ing to Eisenkot’s part­ing in­ter­views – was per­haps to credit him for the IDF’s im­pres­sive achieve­ments, Ne­tanyahu came along at the cab­i­net meet­ing and un­der­lined that it was not just Eisenkot, it was a team – it was “we.”

This plays well into the hands of those who be­lieve that Ne­tanyahu’s break­ing the pol­icy of am­bi­gu­ity is tied to the April 9 elec­tions. La­bor MK Ayelet Nah­mias-Verbin, a mem­ber of the Knes­set For­eign Af­fairs and De­fense Com­mit­tee, cham­pi­oned this school of thought when she slammed Ne­tanyahu for ad­mit­ting that Is­rael car­ried out the at­tacks on Satur­day, say­ing that he is “harm­ing the army’s ma­neu­ver­abil­ity, pre­fer­ring his own po­lit­i­cal in­ter­est over se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.”

And Ne­tanyahu’s po­lit­i­cal in­ter­est in tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for suc­cess­ful at­tacks is clear.

But not ev­ery­one agrees with this in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

For­mer For­eign Min­istry di­rec­tor-gen­eral Dore Gold said that there are al­ways mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions around elec­tions, “and now, given the na­ture of the threat, it is cer­tainly rea­son­able that those mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions that have started al­ready a cou­ple of years ago will con­tinue.”

He said that those at­tribut­ing po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions to Ne­tanyahu’s go­ing pub­lic now with the at­tacks would be on stronger ground “if these mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions just started now.” But, he said, “con­sid­er­ing this is a con­tin­u­a­tion of past pol­icy as ar­tic­u­lated by the out­go­ing chief of staff, I think these ar­gu­ments lose ground.”

Gold said that when Is­rael takes credit for an op­er­a­tion of this sort, “it be­comes part of its de­ter­rence pos­ture – there is no longer a doubt, and it is now clear that Is­rael will do what is nec­es­sary to pre­vent the buildup of an Ira­nian mil­i­tary pres­ence on Syr­ian soil.”

Tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, he said, “adds cred­i­bil­ity to Is­rael state­ments about not al­low­ing Iran to con­vert Syria into a satel­lite state.”

The tim­ing, he said, is not con­nected to the elec­tions, but rather to the US in­ten­tion to re­move its forces from Syria.

“I think the dis­cus­sion of a US with­drawal has per­haps given the Ira­ni­ans a sense that they now can just take over Syria,” he said. Is­rael’s tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for at­tacks sends them a clear mes­sage that they can­not. It also sends a mes­sage that even with lin­ger­ing ten­sions with Moscow over the spy plane in­ci­dent, Jerusalem will not be de­terred from tak­ing ac­tion in Syria when it is deemed nec­es­sary.

Ja­cob Nagel, who for­merly served un­der Ne­tanyahu as his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, also men­tioned the with­drawal of the US troops as one of the rea­sons to take credit now.

He said that Is­rael has for a long time spelled out its red­lines in Syria: that it will not al­low a ter­ror­ist pres­ence on the Golan bor­der; that it will not al­low the trans­fer of pre­ci­sion arms from Iran to Hezbol­lah; and that it will not al­low an Ira­nian mil­i­tary buildup in the coun­try.

Re­gard­ing the rea­son for tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for at­tacks now, Nagel said: “Is­rael wants to make clear to ev­ery­one who will lis­ten that we are de­ter­mined, and will not al­low our red­lines to be crossed.” •

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel

© PressReader. All rights reserved.