Israel faces a complex series of challenges and opportunities in the Middle East. With the Arab Spring and the Islamic State threat reduced over the last several years, Israel has seen off one challenge but now must face growing Iranian influence that has filled the vacuum left by other adversaries. At the same time, Jerusalem has a close ally in the White House and is making impressive inroads throughout the world.
On May 27, Israel targeted a Syrian air defense vehicle and launcher that was located just kilometers from the Golan Heights. This came after the IDF said the Syrians had fired on an Israeli warplane that was on a routine flight in northern Israel. The incident came and went without much notice, but it had more important implications. It showed that the Syrians were willing to test Israel's response. The response came quickly and was clear: any attacks on Israel are viewed with severity.
Israel's main threat today comes from the north, particularly the network of Iranian allies that stretch from Hezbollah in Lebanon across Syria to Iraq and then to Tehran. The importance of this network of Iranian allies cannot be exaggerated. This includes more than a dozen physical Iranian bases, as well as allied militias and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel. For many years Israel sought to warn about this growing presence. Iran's presence was focused on supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad in his civil war against the Syrian rebels between 2012 and 2018. By the summer of 2018 the Syrian regime was able to sweep aside Syrian rebels near the Golan, and Israel faced the prospect of a victorious Syrian regime backed by Iran with Iranian proxies putting down roots near the border.
In an interview in January with The New York Times, outgoing Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said the IAF had struck thousands of targets in Syria over the years. This was an unprecedented and largely hidden air campaign that Israel conducted for years, but it had increased between 2016 and 2018. Much of the campaign appeared aimed at Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah, but there were increasingly troubling incidents between Iran and Israel last year.
For instance, an Iranian drone entered Israeli air space in February 2018 and was shot down. In response, Israel launched air strikes on Syria and on the site from where the drone had flown. An Israeli F-16 crashed when returning from the mission, showing the dangers of Israel's airstrikes in Syria.
While Israel was able to strike at Iran's threats, it also had to contend not only with Syrian air defense but also warnings from Russia, a key Syrian ally, for Jerusalem to be clear about its intentions. One example occurred in September 2018, when a Russian plane was downed by mistake by the Syrian air defense when the Syrians tried to fire at Israeli airstrikes in the north of the country.
Israel's air defense systems also were used between 2017 and 2018 to confront threats from Syria. The Arrow missile was first used to intercept a Syrian air defense missile that was headed for Israel in March 2017. In July, David's Sling, which intercepts intermediate-range threats, was used for the first time operationally. An Iron Dome system was even spotted on video by a man skiing on the Hermon in January. He was shocked to see the system shooting an interceptor to hit a rocket fired from Syria.
The overall picture of Iran's threats and Israel's responses is that Iran has hijacked both Syria and Lebanon in its attempt to solidify its dominance in the region. Hezbollah never misses an opportunity to not only threaten Israel, but also to paint itself as the main backer of the Palestinians and central opposition to US policies.
In a speech in mid-May at an event celebrating Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that his group opposed the US decision to hold a conference in Bahrain aimed at driving its "Deal of the Century." Israel responded days later, on May 29, by showing off a giant tunnel that Hezbollah had built under the border. Israel has found several such tunnels since it launched operation Northern Shield in December 2018.
This year Israelis face a more complex battlefield than in 2018 because the conflict in Syria has gelled. The instability of the Syrian conflict gave Israel a degree of flexibility – in crises came opportunity. But the crises in Syria is largely over. Russia is selling Turkey its S-400 air defense system and working on major energy projects with Turkey. Russia and Turkey have agreed on a ceasefire in northern Syria. The US in eastern Syria does not appear to want conflict with Iran's proxies along the Euphrates. In addition, Iran is able to smooth the way through Iraq to closely knit together its economy with Syria's. US sanctions mean that Iran and Syria need each other now, and they both need Iraq.
In Iraq, the Iranians have used the IRGC to establish a network of Shi'ite militias. Many of these groups are led by men who served with the IRGC in the 1980s against Saddam Hussein. These Iraqis formed a close bond with Iran, and today these Shi'ite leaders, such as Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr Organization and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Kata'ib Hezbollah, are political leaders and militia leaders in Iraq. In early 2018 the militias they run became official paramilitaries, paid by Baghdad. That means that Iran's influence in Syria has the imprimatur of official recognition. Several of these Iranian-backed militias are designated terrorists by the US. The US also designated the IRGC as a whole as a terrorist group in April.
While US pressure against Iran dovetails with Israel's concerns, the strategy of Washington and Jerusalem are different. Jerusalem wants to stop the threat in Syria and Lebanon. It also doesn't want Iranian ballistic missiles to be based in Iraq, for instance. While the US threatened to respond to any Iranian threats with "swift and decisive" action in May, Israel knows that any real conflict between the US and Iran could mean Iran would use its proxies to attack Israel, finding Israel a smaller target than the US.
Israel benefits from the Iranian threat by finding new allies among the Gulf Arab states. Some of these countries, like Israel, see both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. This means they also share Israel's concerns about Hamas and its 13-year rule in Gaza – Hamas has roots in the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sometimes called Ikhwan in the region, the Brotherhood inspires not only extremism but also anti-Israel terrorism and antisemitism in the region. The challenge for Israel is that those sympathetic to Hamas, such as Turkey's ruling AK Party, are important countries in the region. They represent a different challenge than Iran. Theirs is more an ideological and economic challenge. Hamas, which receives lip service support from Ankara and financial support from Qatar, has proved incapable of challenging Jerusalem militarily, but it can still fire hundreds of rockets across the border.
Israel surmounted a major challenge in the last eight years during the Arab Spring and its aftermath. The cynicism behind Jerusalem's refusal to experiment with a new peace deal may have averted instability in the Palestinian Authority or a third intifada. But can the demands of Palestinians be postponed forever? This long-term question looms over Israel in Ramallah and Gaza City.
Israel's other enemies, whether supporters of the Brotherhood in the region or part of Iran's tentacles, both seek to undermine Israel's security in Gaza and the West Bank. It is only a matter of time until Israel is tested again. Jerusalem must make sure that any challenge from Gaza or Ramallah does not come at the same time as tensions flare in the north, or it will face several threats at once. This is its challenge in the coming year.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.