It’s not surprising that Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot spent his last night as army chief in the command bunker underneath Israel Defense Forces’ headquarters in Tel Aviv, closely following the type of operation that has been synonymous with his tenure. It was full throttle up to the very last moment, one final mission before he hands in his dog tags.
As usual in the Middle East, nothing will change in two days when Eizenkot is replaced. There’s enough Syria for everyone (and Iran, Hezbollah, Gaza and a few other headaches). Incoming IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi wasn’t in the command bunker Friday night—he was enjoying his last worry-free Shabbat evening—but his deputy, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, was there as part of the process of passing the baton to the next IDF leaders.
An airstrike in Damascus on Friday, which has already been attributed to Israel, apparently targeted the logistics center that Iran operates at Damascus International Airport—a separate and secured loading dock, where Iran does as it pleases. Several hours before the attack, an Iranian military plane landed in Damascus and unloaded its cargo. This was quite possibly the impetus for the strike, which according to satellite images caused immense damage.
Syria, per its custom, claimed it shot down most of the missiles fired by Israeli warplanes. These claims don’t always need to be taken at face value. Syrian President Bashar Assad also has to cater to public opinion, at home and abroad, and he has to explain (domestically) why Israel is still attacking unhindered even after the civil war has ended. As for the international community, he has to explain why Iran is operating its own secure terminal at the airport in Damascus airport, as if it were in Tehran. And why is Syria not stopping this activity, which is the foundation of Iran’s efforts to establish a presence in the country and transfer weapons to Hezbollah?
It was hard not to notice the Russian silence on Saturday in the wake of the rather obvious attack. Ever since the downing of the Russian spy plane last September, Israeli-Russian relations have chilled. Israel was strongly rebuked, including accusations that it was endangering Russian forces in Syria and regional security. Relations have warmed a bit in recent weeks, and Russia turning a blind eye to the attack Friday night (which didn’t jeopardize its personnel) is a possible indication of this.
Past experience teaches us that Israel, too, was most likely informed the Russians prior to the operation. With that, Israel would be wise to continue its recent policy of treading carefully as it pertains to operating in Syria, to avoid another clash with Russia. This is now Kochavi’s job.
The good tidings on the northern front were somewhat tempered on Saturday by Hamas’s revelations regarding the IDF’s botched operation in Gaza in November. Although Hamas invested a great deal in the video, it revealed nothing new of significance. It did provide another glimpse into the drama that unfolded that night—from the moment the undercover soldiers were detected at a Hamas roadblock, to their narrow escape under heavy air cover and the subsequent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Considerable damage to national security
It’s safe to assume this story isn’t over. Hamas apparently has more information, some of which can potentially cause considerable damage to national security—in Gaza and other sectors. The mission inquiry is proceeding apace. Initial findings have already been presented twice to Eizenkot and to the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate. The investigators were asked to fill in certain blanks and on Monday, just before Eizenkot steps out the door, these additional findings will also be presented.
The final conclusions will be up to Kochavi. In television interviews on Saturday, Eizenkot said the operation wasn’t inherently flawed and that a chain of unfortunate events resulted in the outcome. But the information that has been accumulated thus far paints a different picture—one that raises serious questions about the operation, its approval, the conduct of the soldiers and the makeup of their team, not to mention questions about structural changes within the unit that carried out the operation and the chain of command.
The operational inquiry (headed by Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon) will surely lead to many professional conclusions and perhaps personal ones as well. Within the unit, there’s been bad blood for the past two months, which must also be drained quickly. The operation in Gaza has already failed. Along with mitigating the fallout, it’s now time to internalize the proper lessons and turn this failure into future operational success.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.