The Syrian Civil War Is Coming to a Close, but Israel’s “Campaign between the Wars” Must Go On

April 5, 2019 | Amos Yadlin and Ari Heistein
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In January, the outgoing IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot took the unprecedented step of speaking on the record about the systematic Israeli airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria, which have been occurring for several years. These strikes, now discussed openly by Israeli officials, serve to impede the Islamic Republic’s efforts to take advantage of its intervention in the Syrian civil war to move men and materiel into positions from which to attack the Jewish state. Although the civil war may be coming to a close, Amos Yadlin and Ari Heistein argue that the “campaign between the wars”—as these operations are known in IDF lingo—must continue, but may face new challenges:

Under the leadership of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of its Quds Force, Iran’s aim has been to equip proxies based on Israel’s northern border in Syria and Lebanon, and perhaps in Gaza as well, with advanced missiles. These missiles could serve to deter attacks on Iranian nuclear sites, while a nuclear weapon would eventually give [Iran’s] conventional forces on Israel’s borders the ability to act with impunity. . . .

Jerusalem clearly cannot depend on Moscow to achieve or guarantee its goal of security on the northern border, notwithstanding its posturing as a useful mediator in Syria. As we were drafting this article, Israel struck Quneitra, just 500 feet from the 1974 cease-fire line between Syria and Israel, killing both Iranian and Hizballah operatives. This February 2019 strike was only the latest reminder that Russia’s promise to distance hostile forces from Israel’s border remains unfulfilled. Meanwhile, the unpredictable nature of the U.S. government’s decision-making process in this arena should make Israeli strategists wary of depending on Washington for anything beyond a green light to strike when necessary and diplomatic support in international forums. . . .

As the dust settles at what appears to be the end of civil war in Syria, Israel must rethink its strategy and tactics in the “campaign between the wars.” The decisions made over the next year may determine the strategic balance of the region for decades to come. As one of us wrote . . . four years ago, “Assad’s demise and the collapse of the radical axis is the best strategic outcome Israel could expect.” That, unfortunately, did not come to pass. Israel’s next prime minister must deal with the reality we have, not the reality we hoped for.

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