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Re-emergence of a military peer opponent on Israel’s frontiers

Iran's Syria and Hezbollah activities have resurrected a military peer opponent on Israel’s frontiers
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp celebrate after a missile launch in July 2012 (AP/IRNA, Mostafa Qotbi)
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp celebrate after a missile launch in July 2012 (AP/IRNA, Mostafa Qotbi)

Israel has fought a lot of wars since its declaration of independence in 1948. Given the state of affairs in the Middle East, it will probably keep fighting them, time and again.

Over the decades, the nature of Israel’s wars changed dramatically. Until the 1970s, Israel constantly operated in an environment where major conventional war against peer opponents, in the form of other Middle Eastern states, was a very realistic possibility. Periodically, this possibility tended to actually materialize.

The last clash of this kind was the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel repelled the Egyptian and Syrian offensives in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Then things changed. In 1978 Israel and Egypt reached a reconciliation, which eliminated the latter from the list of Israel’s potential military opponents. Syria was not strong enough to attack Israel alone, and Jordan gradually followed Egypt’s pass, making formal peace with Israel in 1994. While Israel did clash with Syria in 1982, the ground war between the two was limited, taking place only in Lebanon, not the Israeli-Syrian frontier.

Since then, Israel’s military opponents have been non-state armed organizations, lacking the scale and resources of large national armies. Unlike the Arab states that Israel had fought between 1948 and 1973, these forces threatened only safety of Israeli citizens, not the very existence of the Israeli state.

Iran’s present entrenchment in Syria might change this state of affairs. In the process of saving the Assad regime, Tehran has turned it into a satellite. It has also turned Syria into an operational area of the Iranian proxy military organizations, and even of the Iranian regular forces, in particular those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

These new developments have the potential to bring back the era of peer-opponent warfare for Israel. During the Lebanon War of 2006, Israel Defense Forces discovered that they could take territory held by the entrenched Hezbollah units only with considerable difficulty, even as this Lebanese group kept firing multiple missiles into Israeli territory. Today, Hezbollah is much stronger than it was in 2006. More importantly, it is not the only potential opponent Israel could face in its next northern war.

Iran’s proxy military groups in Syria include tens of thousands of troops, recruited by Iran from various Shi’a populations across the Middle East and South Asia. Backed by Iran, having gained experience in the Syrian War, and based in the friendly Assad-held territory, these forces could be added to Hezbollah in the next big clash with Israel. In fact, the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah said as much in his recent statement. There is nothing unrealistic about his threat.

Participation of the Iranian proxy forces in Syria in a war against Israel would result in an extensive Israeli air campaign against Syrian territory. Israeli land forces probably would cross into Syria as well. Such a scenario could lead to Assad’s regular troops joining the fight. The regime has been in no position to contemplate such action while facing the threat of destruction in the Syrian War. Now, thanks to Iranian and Russian intervention, it is becoming free of such threat, for the first time since 2011.

This does not exhaust the list of Israel’s potential military opponents. Iran is now in the final stages of establishing a geographically contiguous zone of influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This process will result in a land area between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean Sea where Iran’s proxy and regular forces will be able to operate freely, resulting in a fundamentally new geopolitical reality for Israel.

Besides sponsoring armed groups in Syria, Tehran has done a similar thing in Iraq. Constituting a major segment of the Iraqi paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), these Iraqi Shi’a proxies of Iran have taken part in the fight against ISIS, and presently are threatening the Iraqi Kurds regarding contested territories, such as Kirkuk. Like Iran’s proxy groups in Syria, their Iraqi counterparts also have tens of thousands of fighters. Unless engaged against Iraqi Kurdistan at the time of Israel’s next war, they could be directed by Iran to join the battle in support of Hezbollah and the proxy forces in Syria.

Finally, the contiguous zone of influence in the northern Middle East will allow Iran to freely move around the region not just the proxy Shi’a groups, but also its own regular military forces. In fact, once the areas on the Syrian-Iraqi border are cleared of ISIS, Tehran will be technically able to use land roads to send troops and equipment directly from the territory of Iran to Israel’s border.

This was not the case during the rule of Saddam Hussein; nor during the American military control of Iraq in 2003-2011; nor during the previous stages of the Syrian War, raging since 2011. But now, for the first time in modern history, this is the case. From now on, it will be a matter of choice for Tehran whether it wants to engage Israel only through Hezbollah and other proxy groups, or to throw its own regular forces into the fray.

Perhaps, Iran will avoid going with such a scenario during Israel’s next war. But if Iran’s zone of influence, running through the Fertile Crescent to Israel’s northern borders, turns out to be a long-term state of affairs, Israel will once again face a realistic possibility of a full-scale conventional warfare against a peer opponent.

About the Author
David Batashvili is an international relations analyst. He previously worked at the National Security Council of Georgia and is currently with Civil Georgia online magazine.
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