The pace of Israeli military activity last weekend was extraordinary. As reports emerged of air strikes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon it was clear they marked a new phase in Israel’s long war with Iran.
The reported details of three attacks included air strikes on a Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) Shiite militia convoy in western Iraq that killed a senior commander. Two Hezbollah operatives were killed in a strike on a military unit in Syria — led and equipped by Iran’s IRGC Quds Force — that Israel said was preparing to launch a “suicide drone” attack on northern Israel. Then on Sunday a building in Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighbourhood, a renowned Hezbollah stronghold, was hit by a drone strike. What connects these targets together?
First the big picture. Iran has deep political and military networks in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s militia strategy – using the IRGC Quds Force to support and direct allied Shia militias – is highly sophisticated and has paid dividends for many years in Lebanon, more recently in Iraq and since 2011 in Syria. Iran expert, Professor Ali Ansari, describes this as a form of deterrence, where Iran lacks the means to respond, it arms proxies who can retaliate on its behalf. So what’s new?
To understand the significance of the latest events we need to assess what Iran is trying to achieve. Iran has a twin objective, to deepen regional alliances but also to pressure its enemies. Iran’s support for Hezbollah provides powerful levers of political control in Lebanon and the use of a sizeable military force that is sitting on Israel’s border. Iran’s intervention in Syria tried to achieve four objectives – saving its long-time ally Assad, building up new Shia militias in Syria and, together with Hezbollah, setting up new bases for long range missiles and attack drones close to Israel.
After the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah both parties reached a costly balance of deterrence. The war was highly destructive and exposed deep strategic problems for both sides. Israel responded by building the Iron Dome missile defence system to protect it from missile attacks that in 2006 it was powerless to repel. Hezbollah worked to increase its missile arsenal and construct the recently exposed tunnels into Israel to give it the option of a surprise ground attack. Both sides know that a fresh conflict would, in its initial phases, be devastating. Hezbollah would seek to fire as many missiles into Israel before Israel bombs Lebanon to destroy them and launches a major ground offensive to find secret missile launch sites. That deterred both sides and there have been very few exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel in the last thirteen years. Until last week.
The dynamic shifted when thousands of Hezbollah fighters entered the Syrian conflict and, together with Iranian forces, sought to exploit the fog of war to export long range precision missiles to Lebanon and, as the regime recaptured positions on the Syrian Golan, to establish military units and open a new front to attack Israel.
Israel faced an intense strategic dilemma. Either watch passively as its enemies built up a missile arsenal in Syria, just as they did in Lebanon, or take pre-emptive action to stop them. Former Israeli army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot developed a bold and ambitious doctrine called the ‘campaign between the wars’ which between 2017 and 2019 involved hundreds of air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah personnel and bases in Syria. The results were highly effective as a result of Israel’s extensive intelligence reach and impressive aerial superiority over Syria. Missile shipments arrived from Iran and were soon after hit by airstrikes. Missile convoys moved and were quickly destroyed. So Iran had to rethink.
First, it diversified its depots and began moving long range missiles to the bases of Iranian affiliated Shia militias in Iraq. The geography makes it easier to get them there, but the politics are tricky. The Shia militias are supposed to be disbanding and joining the regular Iraqi army. Iranian leaders publicly support such moves, but at the same time are exporting the kind of heavy weaponry to these groups that a small state would be proud of. Israel has been privately warning about the consequences for months. Iran gambled that Iraq would be harder to hit and Israel would be more cautious given the presence of substantial numbers of US troops. Recent events suggest neither factor is prohibitive. In July, mysterious air strikes blamed on Israel hit missile depots that took recent shipments from Iran. The attack last weekend on a Shia militia convoy is likely part of the same effort.
One consistent feature of Iranian efforts is their capacity for ingenuity. Whilst its regular armed forces are not the strongest in the region, its missile production know-how is advanced and impressive. To solve its current problem it thought outside the box. If it couldn’t export long range precision missiles to its allies then perhaps it might transform their large arsenals of ‘dumb’ unguided missiles into precision missiles?
In February, BICOM published a paper that exposed the exact process by which Iran is building a production line in Lebanon to upgrade Hezbollah’s less advanced missiles into precision guided missiles with pinpoint accuracy. The process takes 2-3 hours per missile and the kit, involving GPS systems small enough to be carried in a suitcase, costs just $5,000 – $10,000. Israel faced another strategic dilemma of when to take military action, risking short term escalation in order to prevent long term catastrophe.
On Wednesday morning a report in the Times and Haaretz revealed that the target of the drone strikes in Beirut on Sunday was a mixer and a control panel that was a vital part of this precision missile production process. Israel crossed the rubicon, deciding to strike now. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened revenge, but he is walking a tightrope between a symbolic response to save face and a serious hit that triggers an Israeli retaliation that escalates into a new war.
On Thursday evening the Israel Defence Forces published details of the senior Iranian IRGC commanders who are directing these efforts in Lebanon.
This is intended to send a message that Israel knows who they are and they risk becoming targets in future. Israel hoped the international community would pressure the Lebanese Government to take action, but that was a faint hope. It is more likely that some countries will follow the US lead and ban the IRGC Quds Force as a terrorist organisation and sanction senior officers.
Whatever the long-term outcomes, Israel is fighting Iran and its allies on three fronts, four if you include Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Israel has succeeded so far in Syria with a mixture of muted commentary, incredible intelligence penetration and military precision. The Iranian and Syrian response were tackled without escalating into a wider conflict. There will be many more twists in this saga, but history teaches us that Lebanon and Iraq are always far more complicated.