Why lift the fog around IDF actions in Syria?
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.” •