Brig-Gen Michael Herzog on Israel’s pushback against Iran

Last week BICOM’s Senior Visiting Fellow Brig-Gen Michael Herzog spoke on BICOM’s weekly podcast about his latest report ‘Iran Across the Border: Israel’s Pushback in Syria’

Why did Israel strike in Iraq?

According to media reports, Israel attacked military bases of Iranian proxies. These bases have storage facilities for missiles and parts of missiles. If these reports are accurate, it would indicate that Israel is expanding its campaign against Iranian plans in its neighbourhood to entrench itself militarily and especially against the so-called ‘precision project’, an Iranian project designed to provide Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies with a significant arsenal of highly accurate rockets.

In 2016 Iran launched a highly ambitious plan to fill the void created by years of war and turmoil in the Middle East and create a zone of direct influence stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. An important part of this plan was to build Syria into a formidable military front against Israel with Iranian forces, proxy forces, planes, drones, wharves, defence industries and the so-called ‘precision project’, namely facilities designed to upgrade Hezbollah’s arsenal of ‘dumb’ rockets into highly precise, ‘smart’, rockets which would pose a significant threat to Israel.

Israel launched a counter-campaign to thwart these plans. As part of this campaign, Israel campaign has targeted facilities in Syria involved in the precision project. As a result, Iran decided to move critical parts of the precision project from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq. In Lebanon there are some underground facilities dealing with this conversion, and in Iraq, according to available information, Iran has provided Shiite proxies with a small number of highly accurate rockets, with a range of over 700 kilometres, which are capable of reaching Israel from western Iraq. Iran also established facilities, according to reports, in those military bases for storage of these missiles and their components.

Iran is providing its Shiite proxies in Iraq with precision missiles for two purposes. The first is to be used against Israel directly from Iraq in times of war, and the second is to enable Iraq to act as a way station for the provision of precision guided weaponry to Iran’s proxies in Syria and Lebanon. This is part of a broader Iranian concept according to which Israel should face multiple fronts in a future war – from Syria, Iraq and Gaza.

How much more difficult is it for Israel to strike targets in Iraq than Syria?

Iraq is further away than Syria and Lebanon from Israel. And while Israel has the capacity to fly there and strike, the farther you go the less precise is you intelligence, increasing the complexity of the operation. There is also the difficulty of American forces in Iraq and the possibility that if Iran seeks to answer such strikes it may target Americans.

I assume this is one of the reasons Iran moved some of the elements of its project to Iraq, as it would be more complicated for Israel to counter. But these media reports, if they prove correct, tell us Israel has decided to meet the challenge and strike in Iraq.

How successful have Israeli operations been in Syria?

Since early 2017, Israel launched a campaign to push back on the (abovementioned) Iranian designs and capabilities in Syria. This was initiated and commanded by Israel’s then Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen Gadi Eisenkot, with the aim of preventing Iran from developing Syria into a military front.  Israel thus carried out what in Israeli terms is called the “campaign between the wars”, namely a campaign in the grey zone (between doing nothing and going to war). The idea was to push back effectively but in a way that prevents war and that doesn’t exacerbate the chances of war.

According to media reports, since early 2017 Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against targets that belong to Iran and its proxies in Syria, without escalating to war, a strategy that has proved successful. If you compare Iran’s initial plans to where they are today you will see a huge gap. Iran wanted to deploy significant Iranian forces; they have scaled down. They had designs to deploy in Syria a proxy army of up to 100,000 including a new Syrian Hezbollah, like the Lebanese one; they are far away from that. They wanted to deploy Iranian aircraft in Syrian military bases; they have only been able to deploy drones, most of which have been destroyed. They wanted wharfs in Syrian ports; they did not get them (because of Russia – see below). They established a series of intelligence facilities facing Israel in southern Syria; all of them have been destroyed. So if you compare their initial plans to where they are now they have fallen significantly short.

But it is clear that Iran did not give up its ambitions and is pushing forward but with a modified strategy, namely they are distancing capabilities away from Israel to northern and eastern Syria (to the border between Syria and Iraq). As mentioned, they moved critical elements of the ‘precision project’ to Lebanon and Iraq. And rather than concentrating capabilities in huge military complexes, they are now more decentralised, often trying to hide behind the cloak of Syrian state legitimacy. So the game is not over. But for now, the Israeli campaign can be considered a success because Israel was able to thwart most of Iran’s plans without escalation to war, which tells you something about running a campaign against Iran in the grey zone.

How successful have Israel’s attempts been to create a wedge between Russia and Iran?

When it comes to Russia, it’s been more of a mixed bag. Israel was correct in assessing both converging and diverging interests between Russia and Iran. It’s clear that Russia and Iran fought side-by-side to save Bashar al-Assad, and Russia still needs Iran in certain ways in Syria and beyond. At the same time, it is also clear that Russia does not want Iran to turn Syria into an Iranian protectorate and does not want Iran to dictate the agenda in this theatre. This would undermine Russian designs for a political outcome and efforts to secure Western and other investment in the reconstruction of Syria. Russia also doesn’t want Iran to drag Syria into war with Israel. Israel has been skilfully playing within these gaps.

The basic understandings which were established over time between Israel and Russia have been that while Russia is not going to push Iran out of Syria militarily, it can and will curb some of its designs and ambitions. It did this for example when it effectively vetoed Iranian plans to control a wharf on the Mediterranean. But beyond what Russia was willing and able to do to stop Iran, it gave Israel a free hand (with some limitations outlined below) to act against Iran militarily. Indeed, in recent years Israel carried out hundreds of anti-Iranian strikes in Syria and in the overwhelming majority of cases Russia said nothing, much to the frustration of Iran.

There was an Israeli attempt recently to get Russia and the US together on Syria, translating into an unprecedented meeting between the heads of the NSCs of Israel, Russia, and the US in Jerusalem. The idea was to play on these Russian-Iranian divergences and perhaps encourage Russia to push Iran out of Syria militarily. But the Russians keep saying they need leverage to do this, such as by being able to offer US sanctions relief. That, of course, is not in the American cards.

In any case, the understandings between Israel and Russia are there, and they allow Israel relative freedom of action and manoeuvre as long as Israel does not endanger Russian forces or assets or the very stability of the Assad regime.

How important is the IRGC Quds force and what can be done to limit its influence?

When you look at Iran as a system, you see a rather weakened military – the regular army – with outdated planes and other war machines. You see a state challenged by very heavy economic sanctions and political pressures. In this general picture there is an island of functionality, which is the IRGC’s Quds Force.

The Quds Force is the Iranian arm to implement and advance Iranian interests outside the borders of Iran itself. So if we are talking about the Lebanon file, the Syria file, the Iraq file, the Yemen file, they are all controlled by Iran’s Quds Force (all in all less than 10,000 people) with the blessing of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

What we need is a concerted campaign by like-minded partners against the Quds Force, which could go a long way to curbing Iran’s ambitions in the region. That campaign is not only a military campaign, it’s a comprehensive campaign, incorporating a variety of measures: diplomatic, economic, military kinetic and non-kinetic (e.g., cyberactivity), both overt and covert,  an information campaign and so on. Right now I do not see much appetite in Europe or the United States to join in such a campaign. I see more appetite in the Middle East where some key actors are highly concerned about Iran.

Naturally, I would like to see the US playing a leading role in such a campaign. In any case, Israel has been doing it alone in its own neighbourhood and is likely to continue, with or without other partners.

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