This past January, an Israeli airstrike on the Syrian Golan Heights killed up to twelve enemy fighters. These were not conventional Syrian forces, of the kind stationed across the mainly quiet frontier for decades. Israel’s pilots were after something new and far more troubling: Hizballah men (including senior commanders) and an Iranian general believed to have been scouting the border area for opportunities to carry out kidnappings, rocket attacks, and infiltrations into northern Israel. Meanwhile, in the very same volatile region, al-Qaeda-affiliated guerrillas and moderate Syrian rebels have been engaging in pitched battles with Hizballah and other Iranian-backed forces.
No quieter is the region hugging Israel’s southern border. Also in January, jihadists launched a series of attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, killing at least 30. The Egyptian government accused the Palestinian terror group Hamas of involvement in the attacks.
At first glance, these two violent episodes seem unrelated, one the product of the civil war tearing Syria apart, the other the result of alliances between jihadist groups and tribes holding longstanding grievances against Cairo. On closer examination, however, both incidents, as well as other developments taking shape on Israel’s borders, can be seen as products of a larger process driving events in the region.
Since 2010, as a result of the Arab revolutions, sovereign state rule has been imploding. As it recedes, stretches of territory have emerged in which an array of forces, armed with advanced capabilities and led by religious sects, ethnic groups, and especially tribal entities, operates freely. Also moving into these essentially ungoverned zones are global jihadist entities like al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). The phenomenon is occurring across the Middle East: in Syria, Iraq, the Sinai, Yemen, and potentially in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The challenge presents unique issues for advanced conventional militaries like Israel’s—different from those posed by such familiar non-state adversaries as Hizballah and Hamas, both of which see themselves as national religious movements. Conventional armies have been drawn by the new actors into long wars of attrition and have yet to solve the problem of defeating them decisively.
This emerging reality demands a reassessment of Israel’s approach both to the security threats on its immediate borders and to those emanating from deeper inside hostile territory. Innovations in intelligence-gathering, technology, training, force structure: all are needed. And such innovations, to be effective, must emerge out of an understanding of the new trends sweeping the Middle East.
Israel’s broader region of strategic interest stretches well beyond the Middle East through a swath of Africa and Asia. From the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, from the Sahel to West Asia and the Hindu Kush, money, weapons and fighters flow to conflicts near Israel’s borders. There, as government control contracts or collapses, guerrilla campaigns, led mainly by tribes, are becoming the region’s dominant feature. Using terrorism as a core tactic, these groups enjoy the cooperation of other, like-minded organizations and the support of states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
The non-state actors operating in these ungoverned zones present no clear command or organizational structure. They, and often individual cells within them, decide independently when and where to initiate attacks. Growing and developing without ostensible logic, they spawn temporary, changing, and mobile formations that the most capable Western intelligence agencies have struggled to track. In addition, the deep cultural DNA of the tribal and ethnic fighters in these areas allows them to keep fighting indefinitely against far superior conventional forces.
The tribal and ethnic groups are not the only problem. Traditional powers can and do exploit the chaos to improve their own positions and move weapons and forces to the borders of enemy states. Foreign state actors can also manipulate guerrilla groups into forming confederations that serve their own interests.
With armed groups spread across national borders, the borders themselves have become increasingly meaningless. This, in turn, has enabled money, weapons, and fighters to flow to conflicts in close vicinity to Israel. On the frontlines of the battle against IS in November of last year, the Israeli journalist Itai Anghel reported being able to stroll back and forth across what was once the major border crossing between Syria and Iraq. If an Ashkenazi Jew from Tel Aviv can cross that border unnoticed, so can every type of weapon and fighter. The same goes for the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, blurred by Hizballah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
A quick tour of the ungoverned zones bordering Israel will give a sense of the gravity of the threat.
In the north, Syria has lost its coherence as a country. The Assad regime controls the Mediterranean coast and much of southwestern Syria. Kurds hold the northeastern corner bordering Iraq and Turkey. Meanwhile, across the ungoverned zones in much of central and eastern Syria, guerrilla armies have seized power. These are the poorest and most neglected regions of the country, where hostility to Assad and the Alawites runs high and where local tribes took an early role in protests and then in armed resistance against the regime. In this large area, with fighters largely dressed in civilian clothes and constantly battling each other as they move into new sectors, the IDF cannot readily identify the enemy.
Nor does this begin to account for the whole dizzying mix of organizations on both the pro- and anti-Assad sides of the conflict. They include Syrian Sunni jihadist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front; the nationalist Free Syrian Army (some groups within which are also supported by Islamists); the Lebanese Fatah al-Islam; the Muslim Brotherhood; Islamic State; and several Salafist organizations. All told, some 15,000 fighters from at least 80 countries have streamed into Syria, among them militants from North Africa, Turkey, Europe, and as far afield as Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, central Asia, and China.
Most of the Syrian Golan, on Israel’s border, is controlled by the Nusra Front, whose stronghold is the city of Daraa just north of Jordan. In the same region, the Assad regime still holds the Druze area of al-Hader, from which attacks on Israeli troops have originated.
The fighting in the Golan has also severely endangered the UN observer force on the Syrian-Israeli border, one of the few stabilizing influences in the region. In March 2013, 21 Philippine soldiers were kidnapped; six months later, the Irish contingent was attacked; in August 2014, 45 Fijian peacekeepers were seized by the Nusra Front, with dozens more fleeing into Israel. Since then, Austria, Japan, and Croatia have withdrawn their troops.
Iran and its proxy Hizballah, whose main role has been to prop up the Assad regime, have exploited the Syrian chaos to improve their position against Israel and create a forward base for Tehran. As arms transfers increase in both quantity and quality, Iran has managed to organize and direct into combat a force that includes Hizballah, conventional Revolutionary Guard troops as well as crack Quds fighters, homegrown Syrian militias, and unaffiliated Shiite combatants. Iran and Hizballah’s moves on the Golan Heights, temporarily stalled by the Israeli airstrike in January and a failed offensive by Hizballah, regime forces, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard advisers to take the area from the opposition, are clearly intended to open a Golan front against Israel.
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Also to Israel’s north, the government of Lebanon has been able to exercise higher levels of control than does Syria’s, but rival elements in the country could push it into looking more like its neighbor to the east. Sectarian violence is common. Lebanon is home both to Palestinian terror groups and to global jihadi organizations, some affiliated with al-Qaeda. Many are taking an active part in the combat in Syria.
But the strongest actor in Lebanon is Iran’s proxy, Hizballah. Though it has suffered as a result of its participation in the Syrian civil war, having sacrificed more than 1,100 fighters and seen its support weaken as Lebanese parents lose children in Syria, the Shiite terror organization still controls both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border, in the central portion of which it has established a permanent security zone. For now, it is unlikely that Hizballah will initiate a direct, sustained conflict with Israel, but it will continue to help other groups launch periodic attacks that remind Jerusalem of its presence. Such attacks could spread to the Israeli-Lebanese border as well.
Moving south, Israel’s long border with Jordan is relatively secure and stable, but there is no guarantee it will remain that way. Although Islamic State is not yet strong enough to invade Jordan as it did Iraq, it can spark unrest by carrying out terror attacks in the kingdom, where its fighters are already operating. Last August, Jordanian forces arrested 71 Islamist activists, including members of IS and the Nusra Front. IS’s horrific immolation of the Jordanian pilot Muaz Kasasbeh in February may well have been designed to drag Jordan deeper into a fight that could yet wash back across the kingdom’s borders.
As for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, areas of prime concern to Israeli commanders and decision-makers, they are not ungoverned zones. Still, as we will soon see, developments in Gaza affect Sinai terrorism, and there are multiple terrorist groups operating in Gaza even as the territory as a whole is controlled tightly by Hamas—itself, of course, a terrorist organization pledged to Israel’s destruction. On the West Bank, Israeli and PA security services work to ensure that the area doesn’t disintegrate in a manner akin to the Sinai or Syria.
On Israel’s southern border lies Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, rapidly turning into an ungoverned zone dominated by a tribal guerrilla campaign. The actors there fall into five broad categories. First, there are the locals, mainly Bedouin tribesmen who initially turned to terrorism for economic reasons. Next, Palestinian terrorist groups, primarily from Gaza, have used the peninsula both as a safe zone that Israel dare not strike for fear of upsetting its peace with Egypt and as a launching pad for attacks on southern Israel. Then there are jihadist groups from the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, followed by jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda from farther afield. Finally, Iran uses the peninsula as a smuggling route into Gaza and as part of the ring of hostility it has been working to create on Israel’s borders.
Sinai has long been a region of weak government control. Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak pushed Bedouin tribes away from the coast, locking them out of the lucrative tourism industry on the Red Sea. Their economic prospects damaged along with their honor, the tribes turned to terrorism against Egyptian security forces and infrastructure. After Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, tribal fighters drove security forces out of northern Sinai, killing dozens, putting up roadblocks and checkpoints, attacking police stations, and repeatedly sabotaging the gas lines into Israel and Jordan.
In doing so, the Bedouin took advantage of existing family ties, used until then to facilitate smuggling. Then, as Salafist groups managed to make inroads among the tribes, and Palestinian organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad did the same, many young Sinai Bedouin started growing beards, wearing Salafi garb, and abandoning tribal norms in favor of Islamist principles. Attacks by jihadist groups are now often carried out entirely by members of Bedouin tribes. In the aftermath of a 2013 drone strike that killed four militants, a statement released by the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group, many of whose fighters have pledged loyalty to Islamic State, identified all four dead as Sinai Bedouin from different tribes.
As for the Palestinian terrorist groups in the Sinai, their presence grew dramatically after the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, when IDF forces were removed from the Philadelphi corridor separating the Sinai from Gaza, thus freeing up the hundreds of cross-border tunnels that were Hamas’s primary smuggling route for arms and fighters. Treating the Sinai as its strategic hinterland, Hamas developed a network of intelligence operatives, recruiters, and safe houses. Weapons came from Iran, Sudan, and occasionally the Balkans, Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa.
President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, with Israeli consent, has increased Egyptian military activity in the peninsula. Last October, after the attacks by jihadists that left more than 30 Egyptian soldiers dead, Sisi redoubled his efforts, reinforcing the 12 battalions already stationed there with elite army units, including anti-terror battalions. But the problem is far from being solved, and the peninsula remains a terror hub that threatens Israel in a variety of ways. In June 2014, Egypt deployed several hundred soldiers at Taba to stop militants from firing missiles at Israeli airplanes in Eilat. As it happens, the attacks were carried out entirely by Sinai tribesmen, marking a break with the Bedouin policy up to that point of focusing their attacks on Egyptian targets. Rockets have also been fired numerous times at Eilat.
The rocket threat is likely to get worse, and not just from the Sinai and Gaza. Iran has an interest in seeing Israel surrounded by rockets targeting every inch of its territory, and is working to create that reality. Fighters in Syria have captured Scud missiles from overrun Syrian army bases; they could easily find their way into the hands of groups targeting Israel.
Nor are threats limited to ground-based weaponry and forces. Israeli ships could also see increased threats. In Yemen, the Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran, after capturing the capital of Sanaa, took control of the strategic Red Sea port of al-Hudayda, potentially giving Tehran a commanding position on Israel’s route to the Indian Ocean and its Asian markets beyond. Back in the 1970s, as Avi Issacharoff has noted in the Times of Israel, Palestinian terrorists used to attack Israeli ships passing through this waterway; Iran could well try to replicate those attacks today. Iran’s strategic position in Yemen has only improved over the ensuing months as daily flights from Tehran started landing in the country and its U.S.-supported president fled the capital.
What can Israel do to cope with the high- and low-tech threats from these ungoverned zones, with the uncertain intelligence picture, and with the ability of traditional enemies like Iran to improve their position?
The overarching principle for Israeli military units tasked with fighting in these zones or on their edges should be to imitate the guerrillas’ strengths: to create uncertainty, as they do, by continuously changing tactics and shape and favoring multiple small-unit actions over heavier maneuver. And to move quickly: as targets present themselves only for brief periods of time, the “loop” from detection, to identification, to neutralization needs to be even faster than at present, especially since it will be impossible to pick up many operations while they are still in the planning phase.
The IDF has taken steps in the right direction. In 2013, recognizing that a conventional Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights was no longer a realistic prospect, Benny Gantz , then the IDF’s chief of staff, relieved the Israeli armored Division 36 on the Syrian border, replacing it with a new formation made up of rotating infantry units and focused on border security and surveillance. These units were the first in the IDF to operate “multi-sensor systems,” which pull together radar and visual data into one concrete warning. The border fence between Israel and Syria has also been completely overhauled; it is now fifteen feet high and can withstand anti-tank missiles.
Another useful step was the 2011 rejuvenation of the Depth Corps, which coordinates the IDF’s long-range operations and its capacity to strike deep inside enemy territory. This was not an entirely new idea. Back in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, the IDF drew up plans to take over launch sites in western Iraq. One special-forces group tasked with playing a major role in the planned operation was the air force’s Shaldag (“Kingfisher”) unit, then commanded by Gantz himself.
Still, the upheavals of the last couple of years have created a demand for more drastic innovation. In the words of reservist Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, deputy commander of the Depth Corps, Israel’s opponent “has become sophisticated, agile, and diversified, and has a faint intelligence signature. . . . [This] makes it extremely difficult for state security organizations to stay informed of the rate of his learning and evolution process.”
Writing in Israel Defense three years ago, Hirsch recommended that “in the face of our unique, irregular opponent, we should develop unique, irregular organizations and regard them as our main force for these times.” Hirsch foresaw new IDF formations: smaller, technologically more advanced, with enhanced capabilities and the freedom to exploit them. “These forces may operate under their own legislation and procedures,” he wrote. “They are educated to improvise, to develop relevant knowledge, to initiate and to evolve constantly.” Only thus, with “new players and new game boards,” could Israel change the rules of the game to its advantage.
It is inevitable, for example, that Israel will again be forced to operate inside neighboring territory. Instead of heavy tank and infantry maneuver, preference will have to be given to small, mobile units. In effect, it will be guerrilla vs. guerrilla, but ideally with an Israeli advantage in training, technology, intelligence, and numbers. Dozens of IDF columns will need to operate independently and simultaneously, converging on targets from different directions, then disappearing.
This, too, is not an entirely new concept; in some respects, it is a very old one. Jewish mobile commando units formed in pre-state Mandatory Palestine—notably, Orde Wingate’s “Special Night Squads” and the Haganah’s “Fosh” field companies—operated with great effectiveness against Arab insurgents.
Other pre-state models are also still relevant. Through tunnels and breaches of the border fence, Hamas and Hizballah already pose a threat to Israeli communities on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon, and Syrian rebels could soon turn their attention to Golan villages. The infiltration and capture of a border kibbutz, even for a few hours, would be a nightmare for Israel, with dozens of civilians killed or captured.
Unfortunately, in September 2013, the IDF decided to cease deploying soldiers inside 22 border communities, opting instead to focus on improved protection of the border itself. In today’s circumstances, as in yesteryear’s, a wiser policy would be to station IDF units within those communities, capable ofresponding independently without waiting for help to be summoned via a centralized command center.
Changes can also be made to protect the borders themselves. By their nature, borders favor static and predictable defensive actions. Fixed observation posts abound and patrols are often conducted on a predictable schedule and along a predictable route. Terrorists thus know what to expect: a no-man’s land, a smart fence, cameras, observation posts, mobile patrols. Nor is it difficult to develop a clear picture of how the defenders operate: just pay a few unarmed men to touch the fence or try to get over it, and you’ll gain a good idea of how long it takes for a response and where it arrives from.
Hizballah has enjoyed success against IDF patrols since Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. That same year, it ambushed a patrol jeep, kidnapping and killing three soldiers. Six years later, it attacked two IDF armored Humvees on the border, killing five soldiers. The bodies of two of them were spirited into Lebanon in the incident that sparked the second Lebanon war. And attacks continue amid the present-day chaos. Last March, four Israeli soldiers were hurt in a blast along the Golan border fence south of Majdal Shams. In October, a Hizballah IED injured two soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area. In January of this year, an IDF soldier and officer were killed by a volley of Hizballah Kornet missiles that struck an Israeli convoy near Har Dov.
In response, Israel must become as unpredictable as the groups on its border, and there can be no clear line beyond which terrorists know they are safe.
Although the most pressing threats are still on the border, that should not keep commanders from devoting particular attention to where many of those threats originate. Better and longer-range intelligence will enable Israel to counter weapons smuggling and the formation of plots before they reach the ungoverned zones close to home. Such intelligence has already been critical, for example, to intercepting Iranian weapons ships before they unload in Sudan for the trek across the Sinai to Gaza.
Many of the tools in this effort will be technological. Though traditional satellite reconnaissance over ungoverned zones is not an answer to tribal terrorism, it can help track the movement of weapons shipments and fighters. If armed groups decide on a major attack, and especially if they provide themselves with biological or chemical agents (“the poor man’s WMD”), sensors similar to those employed by the U.S. can provide early warning.
If technological intelligence is crucial, human intelligence is no less important. In zones with a multitude of actors and combatants, understanding the culture, norms, religious beliefs, and rationales of tribes and ethnic groups can offer insight into capabilities, tendencies, and shifting alliances. It can also open a window into possible opportunities for quiet partnerships. This can be used by both Israel and moderate governments like Egypt to wean tribes away from jihadi groups, as the ties remain in place only so long as tribal interests are met and honor protected. Israel’s ability to do this is limited by the fact that tribes operating in Egypt and Syria nurse grievances against the policies of the central government, not Israel. But by offering a range of assistance, Jerusalem can work to enlist groups who might ensure that when common enemies attack Israel, they will have to fend off local militias as well as the IDF.
And that brings us to the other side of the picture—where, amid the dizzying range of potential threats, opportunities emerge. Alarmed by Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and its steadily evolving nuclear-weapons program, and stunned by the brutal efficiency of Islamic State, Western-oriented Arab states are working together and in quiet cooperation with Israel to resist, contain, and, where possible, defeat common foes. Egypt and Israel are coordinating efforts to combat terrorism in the Sinai and smuggling into and out of Gaza, and Israel has acquiesced in the introduction of heavier Egyptian formations to conduct anti-terror campaigns in the peninsula. The IDF and Jordanian armed forces work together to keep terrorists from crossing Israel’s border.
In the face of Iran’s moves across the region, both in ungoverned zones and in more traditional areas, it became conceivable that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE would form a military alliance, and in fact such an alliance coalesced quickly in response to the Houthi takeover of Yemen. Led by Saudi Arabia (but not, notably, by America) and backed by Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, and other Sunni states, it has carried out waves of airstrikes while readying a ground invasion. The coalition, whose interests align closely with those of Israel, the strongest military power in the region, will likely endure.
In this era of collapsing state control, Gal Hirsch has called upon Israel to develop new players and new game boards. But the enemies’ new game boards are already here, and so are the new and fiercely aggressive players. For the IDF, the key is to anticipate threats and to develop flexible approaches before those threats materialize. Doing so will take vision, creativity, and daring; fortunately, these are precisely the traits for which the IDF has long been known and feared.