Earlier this year, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, was faced with a new and growing threat. Iranian forces were expanding their foothold in Syria, adding to their ground troops a poor man’s Air Force elements – Remotely Piloted Vehicles, Surface-to-Air Missiles and rockets whose range included the Golan Heights.
These forces did not belong to the regular Iranian military. Rather, they came under the command of the Revolutionary Guard Quds Force’s chief, Qassem Suleimani, who is also in charge of the Lebanese Hezbollah units in Syria, as well as a motley crew of other Shiite militias there. They all came to help bolster Bashar Assad’s regime against his enemies, be they the various opposition groups or the Islamic State.
Suleimani, however, considered a leading Tehran hard-liner battling President Hassan Ruhani for influence, also had an ulterior motive, planning to use Syria as a launch pad against Israel.
This is of course quite a turnaround from those long-gone days of Turkish-Iranian-Israeli cooperation against Arab countries, including Syria. In the late 1950’s IDF officers secretly visited Ankara to draw contingency plans for a two-pronged attack against a mutually hostile Syria. Those files were shelved following the 1960 military coup against the Adnan Menderes government. Now, under Erdoğan, such bilateral or trilateral convergence against a common adversary is virtually unthinkable.
Following Israel’s collaboration with Shah Reza Pahlevi, ousted by Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, Iran turned from being Israel’s de facto ally to its mortal enemy, developing long-range ballistic missiles, working on a nuclear weapon program and helping anti-Israeli organizations in the Levant – Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Conventionally-tipped Shehab missiles may or may not be intercepted by Israel’s ballistic missile defense, bolstered by American assets.
The nuclear problem was, at least up to now, taken care of to Eisenkot’s satisfaction by the 2015 JCPOA, which put off the threat a decade away and gave the IDF, for the first time in many years, a stable planning, budgeting and training window. Even after President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the IDF has kept its distance from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pet project of portraying Iran as an immediate nuclear threat.
Suleimani’s Syrian gambit had the potential of changing the equation. Ever since its 1949 Armistice Agreements with its neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon – Israel had a particular problem with powers with no common border with it, or “Third Circle” targets in the Israeli military jargon (second circle being remote parts of neighboring countries, such as the Upper Nile or the easternmost desert in Syria).
The textbook example of this strategic headache to Israeli defense planners has been Iraq, traditionally considered the runner-up to Egypt in Arab military power. It fought Israel in 1948 but refused to sign an Armistice Agreement with it, and sent forces to fight it again in latter wars, which drove Israel, with the Shah’s blessing, to help the Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting Baghdad’s troops in the Iraqi-Iranian border area. In the 1950s and 1960s, one of Israel’s defense doctrine tenets was a refusal to allow an Iraqi military presence in Jordan.
Now that Iran in Syria had replaced Iraq in Jordan, the IDF was quick to respond before a new reality is set in stone. Eisenkot’s strategic goal was to uproot the Quds Force’s offensive capability in Syria altogether. In addition, Israel has demanded that the Iranians and their proxies keep away from the Golan Heights – dozens of miles away. The declared aim of sending them home forthwith is unenforceable.
Eisenkot’s game plan against Suleimani was dubbed “Checkmate” in Tel Aviv – a challenge to the Persians in their own war of wits.
The IDF drew the Iranians into a trap. In early February, a Quds Force drone was launched from Syrian Air Base, where the Iranians had a compound of their own, on a secret mission, the details of which are still under wrap in Israel.
The sortie was not intended to be revealed, but the IDF ambushed the drone, intercepted it and went on to attack the Iranian launch unit and the anti-aircraft systems, both Iranian and Syrian, protecting it. When an Israel Air Force F-16 was shot down by a Syrian missile, the Israeli offensive was enhanced. Israel expected the Iranians to retaliate, since casualties and prestige were involved, and they did, firing dozens of rockets at Israeli targets on the Golan, none successfully. Again, Israel counter-attacked, destroying Iranian and Syrian targets.
The specter of escalation towards a full-fledged Israeli-Iranian war in Syria had the intended effect – on Russia.
The whole idea was to make President Putin realize that Suleimani was upsetting the applecart finally about to be steadied thanks to the Russian effort over the last three years (the Iranians and Hezbollah were certainly important in that regard, and without them Assad would have probably not survived, but now they are expandable, and of course, Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears). If Assad is to cling to power in postwar Syria, the Quds Force has to go.
With face-saving being so important in this region, and the various foreign forces in Syria nominally there at their host’s pleasure, perhaps a symbolic presence of Iranian troops not threatening Israel would be allowed, so as to deny that all Iranians have been expelled.
This could also serve as a cover for a residual Turkish force south of the border, per an agreement between Putin and Erdoğan, reluctantly blessed by Assad.
Eisenkot found the perfect lever to put pressure on his rival and probably force him to submission. The conditions were apparently right – a senior Israeli defense official said that on Suleimani’s eviction from Syria, Putin, Assad, Trump, Netanyahu and Ruhani have a rare common cause. Checkmate.
Source » ahva