Don't 'poke the bear' in Syria | by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

In Syria, the Russians maintain the principle of reasonable employment

About two weeks ago, Israel Air Force planes attacked a number of targets in Latakia, the Syrian port city. In the course of the attack, the Syrian air-defense system fired a number of anti-aircraft missiles, one of which hit and knocked down a Russian intelligence plane and killed 15 crew members. The Russians quickly blamed Israel for the incident, as there was a security coordination mechanism between the two countries. The tension with Russia has forced official Israel to publicly address the issue it maintains in the space of ambiguity – the campaign between wars.

Senior officials in the political echelon, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, have been talking to their counterparts in Russia in an attempt to explain what happened, and the IDF has even uncovered an IAF investigation into the operation. According to the findings of the investigation, the plane was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, and at that time the IAF planes were in Israeli territory.

The Russians are trying to "milk" the incident as much as they can in order to establish new ground rules in the North. Their decision to provide S-300 air-defense systems to Syria is just an example of their ability to do so. Nevertheless, it appears that Israel has adopted a policy similar to that of the government headed by Shimon Peres, who announced after an incident during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, in which the IDF fired artillery at the UN facility in Qana village, Lebanon, that the IDF fired in order to extract an Israeli Special Forces team from the Maglan unit, under Naftali Bennett’s command, and accidentally hit the facility, killing about 100 Lebanese civilians. Peres said at the time, "We are very sorry, but we are not apologizing."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close ties with President Vladimir Putin, as well as other senior Israeli officials with their Russian counterparts, are important, but countries are not formulating policies based on good relations but on the basis of interests. Israel has its own interests in the northern sector, including preventing Iran from establishing itself in Syria and preventing the arrival of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, which often clash with Russian interests. Russia has so far shown great understanding of Israel’s needs, which was expressed almost openly on May 10 of this year after Netanyahu returned from a parade in Moscow’s Red Square to commemorate the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany.

Netanyahu’s former military secretary, Brig.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano, said in his farewell address to the prime minister that when they returned to Israel, the IDF repulsed a rocket attack fired by the Iranians on its forces in the Golan Heights, and then launched a "seven-fold strike." This retaliatory operation, Operation House of Cards, during which Israel Air Force planes attacked more than 50 Syrian targets belonging to and used by the Iranian Quds Force, was defined by Toledano, a non-sentimental paratroopers officer, as one of the two most exciting events in which he took part as the prime minister’s military secretary. On the other event, he said then, he is still not allowed to tell. 

In Syria, the Russians maintain the principle of "reasonable employment," which means deploying and operating a minimum of military force so as to facilitate the promotion of strategic goals and interests. They have no intention of investing more resources than they already have. Israel, which enjoys the advantage of domesticity, can certainly draw its red lines so that they take them seriously into account and allow it the freedom of action to protect them. 

Zvi Magen, Israel’s former ambassador to Russia and currently a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, told "Israel Hayom" that at the end of the day, "The Russians know that Israel can cause them big troubles in Syria, and the last thing they need is confrontation with us. These are just some of the reasons why I believe the changes will be minor."

Although the incident demonstrated the potential volatility and complexity of the northern front, Israel’s freedom of action in the North is likely to continue. However, there are some insights from the event.

The first, it is obvious, is that when one operates on such a large scale of attacks as Israel does in Syria, even when it tries to implement a "zero-fault" policy, failures occur. Second, it is also obvious that it is best for Israel to exercise extreme caution and avoid "poking the bear," as the saying goes, especially when it comes to the Russian bear, and not to stretch the rope unnecessarily.

The campaign between wars as became a central pillar during the tenure of Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. Last month the IDF revealed that in the past year-and-a-half, Israel has conducted about 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. But even though the concept was established and anchored in the days of the current chief of staff and his predecessor, Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel implemented it in the past, even if not at such broad scales. Brig.-Gen. (res.) Emanuel (Mano) Shaked, former head of the Paratroopers and Infantry Corps of the IDF in the early 1970s, who died last month, was responsible for what can be described as a beta version of the campaign between wars concept.

The most famous operation he commanded was Operation Spring of Youth, against terrorist targets in Beirut in April 1973. Years later Shaked, who served in the Palmah and commanded a battalion in the paratroopers, described how during the preparations for the raid in Beirut, chief of staff David Elazar visited the paratroopers force under the command of Lt.-Col. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (later the chief of staff), who was tasked with destroying the PFLP headquarters and asked if there were gaps and problems.

One of the officers, Lt. Avida Shor, said there is "a house adjacent to the house we need to demolish, where there are civilians," and was worried they might get hurt. Shor suggested reducing the amount of explosives to reduce the risk to the civilian population. Gen. Elazar left the decision to Shaked, the commander of the operation, who decided in accordance with Shor’s proposal.

In the raid, Lipkin-Shahak’s force got into trouble. A small party led by Shor opened fire and killed the sentries at the front of the PFLP headquarters, but immediately afterwards they were fired from behind. Terrorists in a car with a machine gun, which the force did not know existed, hit them, killed Shor and another soldier and wounded a third one. Lipkin-Shahak, who maintained his composure, decided to continue with the mission, and later said that immediately after the force was exposed, "There was an exchange of fire and throwing grenades from the high floors of the building, so we shot at the building and took over its bottom, and the fire stopped."

The force evacuated the wounded and killed, prepared the headquarters for an explosion and retreated under fire. The building was destroyed and dozens of terrorists were killed. No damage was caused to the adjacent building. Even then, the Russians did not show much sympathy for Israeli policy, and in the "Pravda" newspaper the raiding forces were also described as "gangsters." But condemnations are one thing and freedom of action is another. That rule applies now as well.

The writer is founder and operator of the blog "In the Crosshairs" on military, security, strategy vision and practice.

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", October 06, 2018)

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