AT THE SYRIAN BORDER, Golan Heights – Who knew that the future of warfare would present itself with such serene beauty – like one of those warm 19th-century David Roberts’ landscapes of the Middle East.
How so? I’m traveling along the Israeli border road at the intersection of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and off in the distance there’s a freshly snow-capped Mount Hermon, begging for skiers. It’s framed by Lebanese and Syrian villages nestled into terraced hillsides, crowned by minarets and crosses. The only sound you hear is the occasional rifle burst from Lebanese hunters.
But this is no Roberts’ painting. It’s actually the second-most-dangerous spot on the planet – after the Korean Peninsula – and it’s the idyllic backdrop to what 21st-century warfare looks like.
Because hidden in these villages, hillsides and pine forests you can find a state – Israel – trying to navigate a battlefield with a rival state’s army (Syria), a rival regional superpower (Iran), a global superpower (Russia), super-empowered mercenaries and maniacs (Hezbollah and ISIS) and local tribes and sects (Druse and Christians).
I came to this crowded intersection because it could blow up at any moment. If the confrontations in Syria and Iraq between a broad global coalition and ISIS was the big story of 2017, the big story of 2018 will surely be the brewing confrontation between Israel and an Iranian/Hezbollah/Shiite coalition spanning the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel.
For the last two years 1,500 to 2,000 Iranian advisers operating out of Beirut and Damascus, Syria, have been directing thousands of Lebanese pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah mercenaries, Syrian army forces funded by Iran and some 10,000 pro-Iranian Shiite mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan – to defeat Sunni Syrian rebels and ISIS in the Syrian civil war.
Personally, I am not anti-Iranian. I respect that Iran has legitimate security concerns in the Persian Gulf. But I have a couple questions: What the hell is Iran doing over here, helping to snuff out democracy in Lebanon and any hope for power-sharing in Syria, and now posing a direct threat to Israel? And how much is Russia, Iran’s partner in crushing the uprising in Syria – but also a country with good relations with Israel – going to use its advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles, now covering Syria and Lebanon, to protect Iran and Hezbollah?
Both questions came to the fore this week. Listen to what Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, who just met with Vladimir Putin for the seventh time in two years, said after they met Monday: Israel will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Syria and turn Lebanon into a “factory for precision missiles. … I made clear to Putin that we will stop it if it doesn’t stop by itself.”
So far, the Israeli military command has played this 3-D chess game of 21st-century warfare extremely well – managing to stay out of Syria’s civil war while also surgically bombing attempts by Iran and Hezbollah to upgrade their missile capability against Israel. But Israeli officers will tell you that Hezbollah and Iran have played their side of the board very well, too. And they keep trying to inch forward.
So what’s Israel’s strategy to keep its conflict with Hezbollah and Iran on a low flame? First and foremost, it’s been to reinforce to Hezbollah and Iran, through many channels, that they can’t out-crazy Israel. That is, if Hezbollah and Iran think they can place rocket launchers in densely populated Lebanese and Syrian villages and towns – and expect that Israel will not take them out if it requires large collateral civilian casualties – they are as wrong today as they were in 2006.
Israeli military planners are more convinced than ever that the key reason Hezbollah has avoided major conflict with Israel since the big Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006 is that Israel’s air force – without mercy or restraint – pounded Lebanese infrastructure, Hezbollah offices and military targets in the southern suburbs of Beirut – not to kill civilians but not to be deterred by them, either, if they were nested amid Hezbollah weapons or headquarters.
Yes, it was ugly and brutal, say Israeli planners, but it worked. This is not Scandinavia. “The reality here starts where your imagination ends,” said one Israeli officer. Sometimes only crazy can stop crazy. And Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, definitely got the message. He declared after the 2006 war that he never would have set off that conflict had he known beforehand that Israel would inflict that much damage on his Shiite supporters and their property – “absolutely not,” he said.
Israeli military planners hope he remembers that, and that Iran does, too. They say that if Tehran thinks it can launch a proxy war against Israel from Lebanon and Syria – while the Iranian homefront is untouched – it should think again. Israel has not purchased Dolphin-class submarines that can operate in the Persian Gulf, and armed them with cruise missiles, for deep-sea fishing.
But Iran is a determined and wily foe. It has been perfecting its ability to convert dumb surface-to-air missiles, with 1970s technology, into smart, precise surface-to-surface rockets, by reconfiguring them with GPS links, inertial navigation systems, dynamic wings and smart cards. Iran’s ally in Yemen, the Houthis, has used these types of rockets in recent months.
The Israelis told Putin that they would not allow Iran to build such rocket facilities in Lebanon or to transfer such precision missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon via any depots or factories in Syria, and that Russia should not interfere with Israeli operations against them. It’s not clear Putin made any promises.
This is no small matter. Today, if Hezbollah, with its less-precise area rockets, wanted to hit a specific Israeli military building or high-tech factory from Lebanon, it would probably have to launch 25 dumb missiles. By deploying the Iranian upgrades it would have to fire only one – with a very high probability of hitting the target within 30 meters, meaning it could inflict heavy damage on Israel’s infrastructure in a very short period of time.
War is not inevitable. For the last 12 years, Israel, Hezbollah and Iran have been engaging in what one Israeli officer called a “kinetic dialogue,” where both sides try to contain the conflict and not humiliate the other.
When, on Jan. 18, 2015, Israel killed an Iranian general and several Hezbollah fighters in Syria, Hezbollah responded by firing a missile at an Israeli army vehicle along the border, killing two Israeli soldiers. It was the biggest escalation since the 2006 war.
But Israel, after careful thought, chose not to retaliate for the retaliation. Iran and Hezbollah, having made their point, stopped, too. That’s the kinetic dialogue in operation. But how long can that be trusted to work?
Israel, Iran and Hezbollah are all stronger than they were in 2006. But they each also have more to lose by a new rocket war. Israel’s “Silicon Wadi” – its vast network of high-tech companies along its coastal plain – has become a giant growth engine. And Hezbollah and Iran have now assumed virtual control over the Lebanese and Syrian states. No one wants to lose its gains.
That should be a source of optimism. But, alas, there are just too many chances for miscalculation on this crowded 3-D chessboard to be sanguine that the next 12 years will be as quiet as the last 12.
As one Israeli military officer on the Syrian-Israel border remarked to me, “We want to keep the temporary status quo forever, because everything else looks worse.”