The military campaign Israel is waging in Syria escalated this week. The Russian response to recent events—a public demand that Israel cease its attacks in Syria—presents a watershed moment for Israel.
Right now, the Israeli leadership seems to think that this moment will pass and it can stick to its strategy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a series of announcements that Israel, under his leadership, is indeed determined to keep fighting.
Israel has laid out three goals it wants to achieve in Syria: stopping the development of the terrorist front on the Golan Heights; preventing Iranian military entrenchment in Syria; and preventing Hezbollah and Iranian forces from arming themselves with long-range weapons. Nevertheless, concern about Israeli actions causing things to spiral out of control and doubt about Israel’s ability to achieve its goals in Syria are leading to calls to re-evaluate the Syrian campaign.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Itay Baron, a former head of research in the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate, recently wrote an article in which he calls to re-examine Israel’s strategy in Syria. Baron points out that changing circumstances are leading to “an overload of risks.” From an operational point of view, the Russian air-defense systems in Syria pose a challenge to Israeli tactical superiority.
The strategy in Syria should first be evaluated in the context of an interwar campaign. A strategy document published by former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot defined the purpose of such a campaign: “To weaken negative entities, to secure deterrence, to put off the next war. [People] rightfully ask if continuing the campaign in its current format will delay a war, or cause it to break out by sparking unchecked escalation.”
Israel’s actions in Syria in the three years leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War is a historical example that can shed light on the dilemma. Starting in 1964, the IDF waged an interwar campaign that attempted to achieve three things: to thwart a plan to divert the water sources of the Jordan River; establish sovereignty in scattered areas along the Syrian border; and fight the terrorism that was on the rise as Fatah established its refugee camps in Syria. The general staff, under the leadership of then-IDF Chief Yitzhak Rabin, expected to utilize the escalation of border clashes to spark a full-scale military conflict with Syria, even a war. Rabin believed that beating Syria in a war would also solve the problem of Fatah terrorism.
On April 7, 1967, farm work in the area east of the Sea of Galilee turned into a military incident. As both sides shot at each other, mortars fell on homes in Kibbutz Tel Katzir. Then-Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol gave a green light to send up fighter jets to take out the source of the shooting. In one day, the IAF flew 171 attack and patrol sorties and shot down six Syrian MiG jets.
That incident was undoubtedly a turning point in the regional deterioration that the Soviet Union and Egypt were spurring on prior to the Six-Day War. If the purpose of an interwar campaign is to avoid the danger of a war, then the battle on April 7, 1967, was a failure, despite its tactical achievements. But strategically, an interwar campaign can also have a different aim, such as making conditions right for a war when one eventually breaks out.
That reasoning can be applied to the campaign Israel is currently waging in Syria. We must focus on defining its purpose. Publicly, Israel is right to pursue its three stated goals. In secret, it is necessary to understand that even if continued Israeli actions in Syria could lead to war, we must prepare for war as a way out of the impasse in the north.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.