November 13, 2019

A Highly Conceivable War

A White Helmets member uses a saw on rubble after an airstrike in this screen grab taken from a social media video said to have been taken in Idlib, Syria. Photo by White Helmets/Social Media via Reuters

When politicians activate their arsenal of tricks and begin campaigning, it is easy to forget that there is a world out there in which real problems demand real attention. But not everyone forgets. Michael Herzog of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who previously served as head of the Israel Defense Forces Strategic Planning Division and as senior military adviser and chief of staff to four Israeli ministers of defense, begins a policy paper he recently published with the following reminder: “Iran’s ambitions and developing military capabilities in neighboring Syria and Lebanon have ranked highest in recent years in the attention of Israeli decision-makers and strategic planners.” 

Decision-makers are often also politicians. Herzog argues that Iran’s ambitions “ranked highest” in the attention given by decision-makers to the many issues they take into account. That could suggest a higher ranking than political campaigns, but Herzog told me he means only highest among strategic issues. He doesn’t compare attention given to politics or strategy.

Whatever the case, Herzog’s paper begins in a way that takes politics out of the equation. Yes, Israel is having a rough political season. And yet, Israel’s pushback against Iran in Syria, “even at the risk of sparking a major confrontation,” is uncontroversial. In fact, it “enjoys wide public and political consensus.”

Iran, writes Herzog (you can read the 20-page paper on the Washington Institute website), “has embarked on a long-term strategic project to fill resulting voids and establish itself as the dominant power in the heart of the region.” Israeli officials believe that this project is not succeeding because of “Israel’s assertive military campaign.” But this campaign is not the sole reason for Iran’s difficulties. Russia “has forced both Iran and Israel to carefully calculate their moves.” The United States, by imposing sanctions on Iran, added a complicating factor that could either tame Iran’s behavior or trigger “dangerous Iranian countermeasures.” Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States contribute to  “accumulated pressures on the Iranian leadership” and “provide a significant tailwind for Israel’s own efforts to deter and block Iran.” 

“Attacks in Syria are aimed at preventing emerging enemy capabilities.”

The paper gives the reader a glimpse of “a doctrinal discussion in Israel” concerning the risks and the benefits involved in openly attacking an enemy like Iran. The basic question is as follows: Preemptive strikes when there is a risk of an imminent enemy offensive have long been a part of Israel’s national security doctrine. But the attacks in Syria are not to preempt a strike; they are aimed at preventing emerging enemy capabilities. Such prevention (not preemption) is also a traditional Israeli strategy when nuclear capabilities are involved. Then again, the attacks against Iranian forces in Syria aim to sabotage “conventional capabilities,” not nuclear capabilities.

Israel, the article concludes, is quite successful in Syria. It achieves many of its goals while realizing that Iran has not abandoned its long-term plans for the area. This success “derives from Israel’s intelligence and operational edge, along with its determination and willingness to raise the stakes of brinkmanship.” 

Raising the stakes is never cost-free. In fact, Herzog, almost offhandedly, makes the following bold statement: “War between Israel and Iran … is highly conceivable.” Is he trying to frighten readers into calling on Israel to scale back its effort in order to prevent an escalation and possible war? No, it is in fact the opposite lesson. Israel’s success, he argues, proves that “by playing the game right, a skillful, determined actor might enhance deterrence of Iran and make the prospect of war more distant.” Israel is such a determined actor. But is there such determination in places other than Jerusalem? “Some Israeli officials are quietly concerned about Washington’s continued and explicit reluctance to apply military force in the region, especially against Iran, heavily basing its coercive policies on economic pressure,” the paper reports. So the question about the long-term determination of other countries is still open.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.