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)

Wars are won by preparation and not by courage alone/ by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

It takes more time to prepare the nation, the government, the public, the US and the international community for war than to prepare the military

Wars are not won by brave warriors. In 480 BCE 300 Spartan soldiers and their allies stood against the vast army of Xerxes, King of Persia, at Thermopylae in northern Greece. In the fascinating book Gates of Fire (Bantam, 1998), by former US Marine Steven Pressfield, there is a speech given by Leonidas, the Spartan king who led the force: “You are the commanders, your men will look to you and act as you do. Let no officer keep to himself or his brother officers, but circulate daylong among his men. Let them see you and see you unafraid. Where there is work to do, turn your hand to it first; the men will follow. Some of you, I see, have erected tents. Strike them at once. We will all sleep as I do, in the open. Keep your men busy. If there is no work, make it up, for when soldiers have time to talk, their talk turns to fear. Action, on the other hand, produces the appetite for more action” (Page 258).

Just as he ordered, Leonidas and his men fought valiantly, buying with their lives the time needed for the rest of Greece city-states to regroup and form a force that stopped the Persian armies and defeated them. But their heroism didn’t win the war.

The war was won by Athenians and Spartan generals who carefully designed their plan, and fought the Persians where it was convenient for them. At the naval battle of Salamis the Greek fleet, led by Themistocles, lured the Persians to enter straits between the mainland and Salamis, where they were easily defeated. Such was also the case later on, at the battle at the plains of Plataea, where the Greeks, led by Pausanias (Leonidas’s nephew), used precious intelligence about the Persian battle plan to prepare accordingly in advance, and win the battle and consequently the war.

Skilled, determined and courageous soldiers and commanders have managed to win battles, even when facing overwhelming odds like the Spartans faced at Thermopylae. For armies it is imperative to nurture and preserve these values. However, wars are won by generalship and by proper preparation of the nation. In the Six Day War Israel’s soldiers preformed wonderfully, demonstrating the ability, professionalism and daring for which the war has become textbook material for armies around the world. But that victory was gained through a process of force build-up, of intelligence gathering and a great deal of planning that led to a relevant operational concept, which combined successfully an aggressive ground maneuver and a surprise air attack. In addition the Israeli leadership understood that war was immanent and took the necessary steps to make sure the nation was ready.

One of the books dealing with this issue is To the best of our knowledge (Sifrei Aliyat Hagag and Yediot Books, 2011) by IDF Brig.-Gen. (res.) Dov Tamari, who in 1956 as a young Paratroopers platoon leader received the Medal of Courage for his actions in the Kalkilya operation, and later on commanded special forces and armor units, and Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, former chief of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

In the book, Tamari says that “statements, which praise the soldiers on the battlefield, have been uttered since the War of Independence, and their validity is problematic in my view, even though through all our wars, our fighting ability was, on an average basis, sometimes better, sometimes less, but in total reasonable. But this is not the measure for assessing wars for the purpose of studying in the present and future, but simply the military results of the war. The heroism of the soldiers alone does not produce good results. In order to achieve good results, it is also necessary for the designers of the operations and the wars, namely governments, chiefs of staff, and senior officers” (Page 208).

This brings to mind the second episode of the Channel 1 documentary series The Chiefs of General Staff, that tells the story of the IDF’s top commanders from its founding to the present. In the episode, Tamari said that during the Yom Kippur War the IDF chief of general staff, David Elazar, made two critical decisions that decided the war in favor of Israel. The first was to dispatch the 146th Armored Division to the northern front, and the second was the decision to cross the Suez Canal that led to the encircling of the Egyptian 3rd Army. Elazar, a former member of the Palmach (that always taught its members to think like generals, even as squad leaders), was also the man who convinced the Israeli government to approve the crossing of the Suez Canal.

Today, the tension on Israel’s borders is high. In Syria, an Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance, backed by Russia, is using chemical weapons against civilians and threatens to form a line of Iranian outposts in the Syrian Golan Heights. In the south, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is arming and organizing for war, using tunnels, rockets and mortars, and at the same time its leaders employ belligerent rhetoric.

IDF forces are preparing, but what about the government? Half a year before the Six Day War the chief of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Gen. Aharon Yariv, presented to the general staff and to prime minister Levi Eshkol the directorate’s assessment for the following year. According to Yariv, Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, would not initiate a war when 30,000 of his troops were fighting in Yemen.

“How long would it take for him to bring them back and deploy them in Sinai?” asked Eshkol.

Six months, answered IDF chief of general staff Yitzhak Rabin (also a former Palmach member).

“And what if he decides to hurry?” Eshkol asked.

The IDF can deploy its forces in 72 hours, answered Rabin.

Eshkol’s lesson was clear – it takes more time to prepare the nation, the government, the public, the US and the international community to the war than to prepare the military. Israel’s government should take that lesson to heart.

The author is the coordinator of the Military and Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the founder and operator of the blog “In the Crosshairs” on military, security vision, strategy and practice.

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", April 8, 2017)