Since 2012, Israel has been running an intense campaign against Iranian influence on its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli Defense forces have named it “the campaign between wars”. The civil war in Syria changed the rules of the game for everyone involved. Iran, which invested heavily at the Assad regime’s battle for survival, used the chaos in Syria for its own benefit, smuggling convoys of sophisticated weapons through Syrian territory to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. Israel took advantage of the war to create a constructive ambiguity of its own. According to various media reports, it conducted hundreds of airstrikes, mostly without claiming responsibility, against the Iranian-run convoys.
By late 2017, things began to change. The Assad regime regained control of most of Syria, relying on help from Russian airpower, Iranian commanders and Shiite foot-soldiers, from Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported militias. Israel has aimed most of the attacks against Iran’s “Accuracy Project”, in an attempt to upgrade the accuracy of Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles arsenal, which lacked this capability. Being a small country, Israel is particularly vulnerable to attacks against its strategic infrastructure. In most cases, it doesn’t have alternative sites, such as more airports or power stations. The Israeli campaign had been described as a success. According to the IDF, Hezbollah only has a few dozens of high-accuracy rockets today.
But then, Israeli intelligence realized that Iran had other ambitions. General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC”s “Quds” force, started a calculated effort for Iranian military entrenchment in Syria. In many areas of the war-torn country, the Iranians were building military bases for their Shiite militias, while also deploying mid-range rockets, UAV’s and anti-aircraft systems, many of them meant to challenge the Israelis. The IDF started attacking those military sites as well. By 2018, Israel and Iran were involved in direct warfare in Syria, for the first time. Mostly, Israel had the upper hand. It is estimated that dozens of Iranian targets in Syria had been hit. At least three attempts for Iranian retaliation, launching rockets from Syria towards Israeli territory, were unsuccessful. In most cases, Israel maintained its policy of vagueness. The majority of the strikes remained undeclared, therefore reducing the public challenge to Iran.
Yet the Israeli counter-campaign failed to deter Soleimani from his goal. On September 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the platform at the annual United Nations General Assembly to uncover three underground sites recently built in Beirut. These, he claimed, were production lines the Iranians had built with Hezbollah, to improve the accuracy of the rockets closer to their “customers”, instead of exposing the systems to Israeli airstrikes while moving them on Syrian soil. A few days later the Lebanese government invited diplomats and journalists to visit those sites, claiming Netanyahu had lied about their nature. Some who attended the visit told me the fresh smell of paint had been rather evident.
Be that as it may, the Iranians persisted. Convoys kept attempting to smuggle weapons. There were also signs of new attempts to establish production lines on Lebanese territory. At the same time, Shiite militias began deploying long-range missiles in western Iraq, pointed towards Israel. Tehran, the Israelis claimed, had successfully established a “land corridor” connecting Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, under its effective operational control.
Israel increased its efforts. During a 24 hour period, between August 25th and 26th, three Israeli strikes were reported: against a Shiite militia on Iraq’s border with Syria, against an IRGC cell, attempting to launch attack drones at Israel from the Syrian border in the Golan Heights and in Beirut, where apparently a vital piece of equipment for the rocket production line had been hit. On September 1st, Hezbollah struck back, launching anti-tank rockets at an Israeli armored Jeep from the Lebanese border, yet missing.
This, however, is far from the end of the story. Netanyahu, entangled in a second election within five months (and perhaps facing a third one, due to political stalemate) is also extremely concerned about three forthcoming indictments for corruption. Under enormous personal pressure, he has deserted some of his customary cautiousness and sometimes hints quite bluntly to Israeli responsibility for the strikes. There have also been questions regarding his judgement, usually praised for being extremely calculated. As Ha’aretz has reported, a week before the second election he proposed a massive campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The security chiefs had their doubts whether the PM’s change, of course, had to do with his political troubles. Finally, the Israeli Attorney General prevented Netanyahu’s plan by insisting that the PM convene his security cabinet to vote on his suggestions. Netanyahu took a step back, yet the security apparatus remains sceptic of his intentions, as the political situation becomes more and more impossible to handle.
After the latest round of violence on the Lebanese border, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, insisted that the “equations” he has proclaimed in the past against Israeli aggression were now irrelevant. In the future, he said, his organization will use tougher means in retaliation. This Sunday, a senior IDF officer, Brigadier-General Dror Shalom, was interviewed by “Israel Today”, a newspaper considered as Netanyahu’s closest media outlet. Iran, warned Shalom, may decide to launch rockets from Iraq towards Israel. “We are getting closer to war. The picture is much gloomier than before”, he added. Stay tuned.