Monday, February 19, 2018

Mid-East on a hair trigger as Israel, Iran clash

From The Australian February 17, 2018, by GREG SHERIDAN, Foreign Editor:

Israeli security oficers at the wreckage of an F-16 shot down by Syria in northern Israel on February 10.
Israeli security oficers at the wreckage of an F-16 shot down by Syria in northern Israel on February 10

...last weekend we possibly moved much closer to a major new war in the Middle East.

Nobody could describe the wars in Syria and Iraq as anything other than significant, but they have not involved big conventional clashes between big conventional forces.

Last weekend, some scribes are saying, was the first day of direct military conflict between Israel and Iran, with the US and Russia only a hair’s breadth away.

The bald facts are these. An Iranian base inside Syria, known as T-4 and located to the northwest of Palmyra, launched an unmanned aerial vehicle — a drone — into Israeli airspace. It is not known if the drone was armed or whether it was a stealth drone. It certainly seems to be modelled on US drones, which the Iranians have captured in the past and reverse-engineered.

The Israelis waited for it to come into their airspace and then shot it down with an Apache helicopter. Subsequently, the Israelis sent F-16 fighter aircraft to attack the base from which it was launched. One of the Israeli F-16s was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles on the journey back over Israeli airspace.

This is the first time the Israelis have lost an advanced fighter jet in combat in several decades. And we know that during the past five years Israel has conducted about 100 single strikes on targets in Syria, mainly weapons supplies going from Iran to Hezbollah, or the launch sites of rockets or other fire aimed at Israel.

In retaliation at losing the F-16, Israel launched a second wave of air attacks against at least 12 Syrian targets, mainly Syrian anti-aircraft defences. It also attacked four Iranian bases in Syria.

This is an incredibly dangerous mixture of forces. The Syrians have always had air defences. They have never been able to seriously hurt Israeli planes, although of course Israel hardly makes a practice of gratuitous strikes on Syria. However, two external factors are now making the air defence threat to Israel much stronger. They are the involvement of Iran and Russia.

Iran is the mortal danger to Israel but the presence of Russia is also exceptionally complicating, and dangerous in itself. There is strong evidence that Russian “irregulars” as well as normal Russian soldiers have been involved in professionalising and upgrading the joint Syrian-Iranian military efforts, of which air defences are a part. Most of this effort, Moscow would allege, has been directed at fighting Islamic State.

However, the Russians also have been deeply involved in helping the Syrian regime fight against, and reclaim territory from, other forces in Syria, some of which, including but not only the Kurds, are backed by the US. This recently led to a direct clash between US forces and Syrian government forces.

Over all of this we have to lay the broader strategic ambitions of Iran in the Middle East and its preparations for war with Israel.

The Israeli-Arab conflict is a side show compared with the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East, and potentially a war between Israel and Iran.

That is not to say Iran has decided to initiate a war with Israel, but it is making systematic preparations to be able to do so.

Iran now has a massive military establishment in Syria. This consists of substantial numbers of Revolutionary Guards troops. There are also the Iranian-fin­anced Popular Mobilisation Units. These are groups of Shia Islamist fanatics drawn from a wide range of nations, from the minority Shia communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and throughout the Arab world, as well as from Iraq. There are also 6000 to 8000 Shia Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon in Syria; they are also directed by Iran.

Hezbollah has claimed that there are now something like 70,000 missiles in Shia hands in Syria, all of which could be fired at Israel. Hezbollah in Lebanon has an arsenal of about 180,000 mis­siles. These naturally encompass a very wide range of lethality. However, there are many more heavy payload missiles, and many more with precision guidance, than Hezbollah had during Israel’s last war with Lebanon back in 2006.

And then in Gaza there is the other leg of Iranian influence, Hamas, which also has a store of missiles.

Iran has established a long arc of influence and effective territorial control, from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, with huge influence among Shia minorities in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere.

The drone incident last weekend is open to several interpretations. It may be that the Iranians intentionally sent the drone to draw an Israeli response in the confident hope that the improved air defences could shoot down an Israeli jet.

It is also widely speculated that the retaliatory missions Israel undertook were much more dangerous because the Israelis had to be so careful not to hit Russian targets, as far as possible.

So far, an incredibly dangerous modus vivendi seems to prevail between the Israelis and the Russians. Moscow has been helping the Assad regime in Syria and is happy to co-operate with Iran. This is mainly to consolidate Moscow’s influence in Syria — but Russia is also happy to cause distress to the US and its friends in Syria.

At the same time, Russia, notionally at least, has good relations with Israel. There is a huge ethnic Russian cohort in the Israeli population. In so far as public opinion means anything in Russia, it is not in favour of Islamists against Israel. Vladimir Putin has presented his Syrian adventurism as being opposed to Islamism.

The Israelis don’t ask the Russians for permission when they find it necessary to strike a target in Syria. But they do tell the Russians what they are doing.

Russia’s attitude seems to be that it doesn’t mind the Israelis striking Moscow’s Syrian allies — the Assad government or the Iranians in Syria — so long as the Israelis don’t strike the Russians themselves. This is an inherently very unstable accommodation.

About a year ago I spent a few weeks in Israel, including some time on the Syrian and Lebanese borders.

I was struck on the Lebanese border by the sight of a series of concrete walls and barriers that Israel had built to impede any large-scale movement of Hezbollah fighters into Israel.

Throughout the Israeli national security establishment, people were talking openly about the likely shape of the next Lebanese war.

Hezbollah has learned a lot of technical lessons from the encounter of 2006. It has dispersed its missile launch sites and put as many as possible in the heart of civilian establishments — hospitals, schools, residential buildings.

It has developed missiles that can be fired remotely, which don’t need any personnel around at the time of fire. It has spread its mis­siles far beyond southern Lebanon so that Israel would be forced to attack sites all over Lebanon to suppress the missiles.

And there is some evidence of tunnels into Israel, so that a missile war could be accompanied by large-scale human infiltration and murderous terrorism.

So it is at least possible that Iran is contemplating the mother of all battles with Israel.

If Hezbollah launched a missile war with Israel from Lebanon, and Iranian proxies simultaneously did the same thing from Syria, and Hamas did the same thing from Gaza, this would cause the maximum stress, suffering and dislocation possible in Israel.

The Israelis have state-of-the-art missile defences, but in a saturation war quite a lot of stuff will get through. Obvious targets include Israel’s nuclear facilities at Dimona, its petrochemical plant in Haifa and Ben-Gurion international airport in Tel Aviv.

Israel, of course, would not be powerless in the face of such an attack. Its response would have to be ferocious. However, it would, as the downing of the F-16 showed, be likely to suffer far greater air force losses than in previous conflicts. Maintaining a big air force is critical for Israel. It is also likely that Israel would have to engage in large ground operations in Lebanon very quickly. It may even be forced to evacuate a good deal of its northern population.

Of course, Israel could expect massive logistic, political and other support from the US.

And certainly the Israelis have cyber capabilities and electromagnetic warfare capabilities that at this stage we can only guess at.

The object of such an assault on Israel would be an attempt to break decisively its economy and its morale. Whatever happened, there would be terrible suffering and loss of life on all sides in such a conflict.

However, here is a critical judgment. It is still likelier than not that this sort of war will not come about. But it has gone from about a 2 per cent possibility to perhaps a 30 per cent possibility.

The likeliest scenario is that Iran continues to build up all the elements for launching such a war if it wants to, while it soon makes a sprint for nuclear weapons capabilities to match its burgeoning missile capabilities.

Having a loaded gun on a hair trigger, rather than launching an all-out offensive, is probably Iran’s preferred position. Until now, it attacks Israel via proxies and Israel hits back only at the proxies. But if it launched an attack on that scale, it could not predict the extent of Israel’s response.

Even if this is Tehran’s calculation, not every Iranian proxy will necessarily follow orders, especially if the orders are not to attack. The presence of the Russians, and all the other foreign forces in Syria, makes the possibility of catastrophic miscalculation quite strong.

In the Middle East, one truth endures. No matter how bad things are, they can always get much worse.
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