Uncle Bibi Wants You: Israel’s Inevitable Next War with…Syria?

For the past two years, virtually every Israeli newspaper and reputable foreign policy publication has featured countless articles from fellow talking heads on the inevitability of a future Israeli war featuring either Gaza or Lebanon. This has become so prevalent that if I had a dollar for every article I’ve read about the risk of Israel “inevitably stumbling into war,” I’d have enough money to buy a swanky, three bedroom home in Gush Etzion!

While I’m clearly taking these informed observations lightly, there are compelling points to be made with regards to both.

Israel has engaged in 3 wars with Gaza (2008, 2012 and 2014) and at the moment, war seems like a real possibility, with the Gaza Strip finding itself in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, with an unpopular, crumbling political infrastructure that can’t seem to do much short of point fingers and make empty threats. Moreover, since Trump’s embassy announcement, terror groups in Gaza have been sporadically firing rockets into Israel, which thankfully, have been either intercepted by the Iron Dome or have landed in empty fields. The IDF has made it clear that they hold Hamas, the official government of Gaza, to account for all rockets that come out of the region (regardless of whether or not they were fired by Hamas). As a result, the IDF has responded in kind by launching targeted airstrikes on terrorist positions. If this continues at its current pace or escalates even further, we could be seeing our fourth Gaza incursion in 10 years.

With regards to Lebanon, Israel has managed to avoid war with them since 2006. However, a failure by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to adequately fulfil their mandate by curbing Hezbollah weapons imports threatens the future of peace. During the last war in 2006, Hezbollah had an arsenal of just 15,000 missiles. According to the Jerusalem Post, today Hezbollah is believed to have approximately 130,000 missiles. These weapons have not only increased in quantity, but in quality as well. They have a farther reach, are more accurate, have larger warheads and can be launched from deeper within enemy territory (as opposed to just from southern Lebanon like last time).

While Israel differentiated between Hezbollah and Lebanon during the last war and thus avoided targeting national infrastructure (short of some strategic targets to prevent weapons smuggling and the like), this time will be different since Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, has openly embraced Hezbollah. Hezbollah is no longer a tiny guerrilla force in southern Lebanon, but rather, a part of Lebanon’s government that’s supported by a significant portion of the country. Just as Lebanon has decided to view Hezbollah as indistinguishable from their armed forces, so too has Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Indeed, all of these factors are leading to a ticking time bomb in the minds of Israel’s political establishment, with Prime Minister Netanyahu telling Vladimir Putin a few weeks ago that Israel would act militarily if the international community doesn’t do something to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Lebanon. With all of this in mind, whenever the Third Lebanon War eventually takes place, it’ll undoubtedly be a bloody battle for both sides.

While the aforementioned wars are certainly on the horizon, this past week has seen the emergence of a new potentially imminent war with Syria; a war that is significantly more likely to take place if tensions remain at their current levels.

On February 10, an Iranian UAV flew into Israeli airspace and was promptly shot down. Israel then retaliated by sending in a few F-16 fighter jets to bomb the Iranian command-and-control base in Syria from where the drone was launched. The Syrian military responded with anti-aircraft fire, which successfully downed one of Israel’s F-16s. This is particularly noteworthy, as it’s believed that this is the first time that an Israeli fighter jet was shot down since the 1980s.

Israel didn’t take too kindly to this and launched a wave of strikes against Syrian and Iranian positions, destroying roughly a dozen military targets that Israel called “part of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.”

Now, this is where it gets into murky territory…

Israeli military officials say that Israel has the right to defend itself from Iranian aggression and that as a result, they have the right to respond when enemy combatants enter their airspace. This statement isn’t particularly controversial on its own, but it opens up a can of worms when you apply the full context.

This isn’t Israel’s first foray into Syrian territory, with The Independent reporting that since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the IDF has authorized over 100 airstrikes on Syrian weapons convoys that were going to Hezbollah in Lebanon. These airstrikes involved Israeli fighter jets explicitly entering Syrian airspace. While again, you could argue that this is justified to prevent Israel’s enemies in the north from acquiring more ammunition that will inevitably be used against them, it illustrates that Israel has consistently violated the laws that it demands others keep – which is nothing new as far as Israel’s relationship with international law is concerned if we’re being honest with ourselves.

On top of this, despite their claims to the contrary, Israel hasn’t exactly stayed neutral during the Syrian Civil War. I wrote an article several years ago commending Israel’s initiative of setting up field hospitals by the Golan Heights to aid Syrian civilians that were injured during the Syrian Civil War. I viewed this as an immensely heartwarming gesture from a country that, despite having no peace treaty with Syria and having fought debilitating wars against them in 1948, 1967 and 1973, was willing to put humanity before politics. This was further underscored by Israel’s symbolic gesture to take in 100 Syrian orphans as refugees. However, revelations have come to light that what the IDF has called “Operation Good Neighbour” is less benevolent than we were previously led to believe.

While Israel has continued to provide aid to injured Syrian civilians (and should be commended for such), according to the Times of Israel, they’re also providing aid to Syrian “rebels.” These “rebels” include radical Islamist groups like the Al-Nusra Front, AKA Syria’s stream of Al-Qaeda, AKA the “rebel group” that attacked America on 9/11. Cheeky remarks aside, the point is that Israel is directly aiding those who intend to topple the Assad Regime; that’s hardly staying neutral.

Through engaging in all of the aforementioned initiatives, it’s become quite clear that Israel can’t exactly claim to be an innocent third party in all of this. Furthermore, when looking at the bigger picture of the last seven years, it becomes difficult to assess which came first, the Israeli chicken or the Syrian egg as far as which of these nations is defending themselves from the other.

On top of this murky reality, an important question still remains. Why on Earth would Iran purposely fly a UAV into Israeli territory? After all, they’ve been making great strides alongside the Assad regime, Russia and Hezbollah to take back territory from both ISIS and the rebel forces; why would they get Israel involved when everything is going so well for them?

Israel isn’t lying about the UAV because the IDF released footage and it’s been verified that the UAV was indeed in Israeli airspace. I’d say that a technical malfunction that caused the UAV to enter Israeli airspace is more likely the case here rather than an intentional act of war by Iran. After all, it’s strategically disadvantageous for Iran to induce the Israeli military to get themselves directly involved against the Assad Regime. Ayatollah Khameini has invested hundreds of millions of dollars (not to mention countless lives) into regaining Syrian territory and establishing greater influence in the region and Israeli intervention would immediately undermine all that hard work.

Additionally, Israel’s response to the UAV was more than defensive in nature. They didn’t just shoot  down the UAV, they shot it down and then flew into Syrian airspace to bomb the command-and-control base, and then further retaliated on numerous other targets after their jet was shot down. This makes me wonder if Israel is intentionally attempting to stoke the flames of war, using the UAV incursion as a justification to neuter Iranian influence in Syria. While this sounds like a conspiracy theory, it’s important to take into account the domestic political situation currently taking place in Israel.

On February 7, Israel’s police announced that they would likely begin taking the steps to indict Netanyahu. While many scoffed, on February 13 they made good on their promise, formally indicting him on two separate corruption charges. With the proverbial hangman’s noose in sight, it would make sense that Netanyahu would do everything in his power to change the subject away from his own failings. After all, how can the Israeli people even consider changing their nation’s leadership at such a dire time, when war is right around the corner? An escalation in the north would certainly buy Bibi some more time by changing the national conversation and at the very least, would temporarily sweep the corruption charges under the rug. After all, such “pesky matters” can be addressed during sunnier days.

As such, Netanyahu has begun preparing for war, bolstering Israel’s security in the north, with his finger on the trigger, just waiting for Iran, Syria or Hezbollah to test his resolve. But alas, perhaps the time has come to test the Israeli people’s resolve and see if they can move passed the smoke and mirror show and reject Netanyahu’s final Hail Mary; lest the nation be sucked into yet another unforgiving war.

About the Author
Michael Aarenau lives in Montreal, Quebec. He has a Bachelor's of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University and is currently pursuing a law degree at McGill University. Michael is passionate about human rights, international affairs and justice. For cheeky insights in 280 characters or less, follow him on twitter @MAarenau
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