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Scene of alleged Israeli attack in Syria
Alex Fishman
Israel is up to its neck in Syria
Op-ed: The 'let them bleed' philosophy regarding the various parties fighting for control in Israel's northern neighbor has its exceptions.

"Let them bleed" – that's the official policy Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon has dictated to the security establishment in light of the events in Syria. On a strategic level, in other words, we are not intervening on anyone's behalf.

 

 

From Israel's perspective, this is a war Iran is waging against members of the global Jihad and Syrian Islamist groups with the purpose of safeguarding its most senior client in the Middle East – the regime of President Bashar Assad.

 

Israel has yet to decide which of the protagonists it would prefer to see as its neighbor on the northern border. Until such a decision is made, therefore, let them continue killing one another.

 

Israel may not be intervening in the civil war in Syria; but when it comes to Jerusalem's interests, so it's been said at least, Israel is up to its neck in the Syrian chaos. Nothing happens on the border with Syria by chance. It is extremely unlikely that the IAF jet that killed four terrorists trying to plant a bomb on the Golan Heights border last week was scrambled to the location purely by chance.

  

Forces at scene of attack where four terrorists tried to infiltrate Israel from north (Photo: Avihu Shapira) (Photo: Avihu Shapira)
Forces at scene of attack where four terrorists tried to infiltrate Israel from north (Photo: Avihu Shapira)

 

Druze Syrian nationalists, under the guidance of Hezbollah, carried out a similar attack some 18 months ago, seriously wounding an Israel Defense Forces officer. It's safe to assume that the members of that terror cell are no longer with us too – and that they did not die of natural causes.

 

The timing of the attack in January 2015 on the convoy carrying Jihad Mughniyeh, who was responsible for Hezbollah activity on the Golan, was not coincidental either; it took place just three days after a very belligerent interview by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in which he threatened to punish Israel for its alleged attacks in Syria.

 

Someone in the Middle East took him seriously and decided to chop off that punitive arm Nasrallah was talking about. Ya'alon said a few days later that Hezbollah's infrastructure on the Golan Heights had been destroyed. He was right; but it didn’t remain that way for very long.

 

The war between the wars

In terms of intelligence gathering and operational input, Israel is making huge efforts along the border with Syria to prevent the fighting from spilling over into its territory. This daily struggle, which the IDF refers to as "the war between the wars," appears to be the reason why Unit 504 (Military Intelligence's human intelligence unit) was recently decorated for its work.

 

The results of Unit 504's work are clearly evident along the border. It has created a viable deterrence factor and has prevented infiltrations. Indeed, ever since most of the Syrian Army was driven back from the border area and its positions were taken by radical Islamic organization such as Jabhat al-Nusra, there has not been a single incident of a Jihadi group attacking Israel. This seems to indicate that Israel has total control – intelligence and operational – over both sides of the border.

 

There are two exceptions to the "Let them bleed" strategy – when Israel's sovereignty is violated, and when certain weapons systems from Syria spill over into the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

 

In most of the instances in which foreign media sources report that Israel has attacked targets inside Syria – apart from actions designed to deter or exact retribution – these are low-profile military operations, which do not leave behind fingerprints and for which Israel does not take responsibility.

 

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Photo: Yaron Brener) (Photo: Yaron Brener)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Photo: Yaron Brener)

 

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria some four years ago, this tactic has proved itself to be effective. In some cases, the party that is attacked assumes that Israel was responsible but refrains from carrying out revenge attacks, since opening up a new front against Israel is not high on its list of interests.

 

Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are well aware of Israel's red lines. As long as Israel sticks to its own rules and only carries out low-profile attacks that do not directly serve the interests of the anti-Assad rebel forces, they are prepared to swallow their pride.

 

It's safe to assume that both the selection of targets and the way in which the military operations are carried out are designed to boost the deterrence factor, to send a message to the other side that it should not try to transport weapons that might restrict the IAF's freedom of operation in Lebanese airspace.

 

This calculated gamble has proved itself thus far – and therein lies the danger. The more time that passes, the more the operational arm and the decision-makers in Jerusalem tend to fall in love with the results, increase the stakes and take more risks.

 

The selection of targets will become less and less strict; relying on the weakness of the enemy will up the ante, and Israel could find itself becoming an integral part of the conflict in Syria.

 

Hezbollah militants near Syria-Lebanon border (Photo: AP) (Photo: AP)
Hezbollah militants near Syria-Lebanon border (Photo: AP)

 

Yes, Hezbollah may end up with fewer advanced and accurate missiles in Lebanon, but the Golan Heights will become a battle zone. The defense minister and the prime minister have a key role to play in guiding the defense establishment to ensure that this does not happen.

 

The wave of foreign media reports about Israeli strikes in Syria began in January 2013, when Israel was alleged to have carried out an attack on a convoy carrying anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah. The convoy was attacked in the area of Damascus. There have been nine or 10 reports about similar strikes since then. Israel has not claimed responsibility for any of them.

 

The frequency of these reports is increasing. A sequence of such incidents, even if Israel does not take responsibility for any of them, creates Israeli involvement in the situation in Syria – even if Israel does not mean to do so.

 

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