Ever since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, the Israeli government, the Mossad and the IDF’s Military Intelligence branch have missed out in their forecasts and analyses of the war’s outcome and direction, excepting only when it came to Syria’s breakup. But one hit has not made up for the far-reaching damage the many errors have wrought on Israel’s strategic and military standing in the Middle East.
The first miss was the estimate by intelligence analysts that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s days in power against the uprising against him were numbered and that his regime would be toppled within a few weeks.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak voiced this prediction in Dec. 2011, when the civil war was just past its first six months. Speaking at the World Policy Conference in Vienna, he said, “This [Assad] family’s role in history is over. They will apparently disappear within a few weeks.” He said. “It will be a major blow to the Iran-Hizballah axis.”
The same intelligence analysts clung to this misestimate even when they were proven wrong year after year. In January 2014, the IDF Military Intelligence branch asserted in its National Intelligence Estimate for the Israeli Cabinet: “It is only a question of time until Bashar Assad is toppled from power – it could happen within a few months.”
Israel never predicted Iranian boots on the ground in Syria
Having based their key strategic policies on analyses that were wide of the mark, it is no wonder that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who personally design and decide Israeli policy on Syria, are struggling to find answers on what to do next.
The erroneousness of those analyses is apparent in the six key developments in the Syrian crisis:
1. Assad and his family are still in place in the fifth year of the Syrian civil war. Even now, when a political solution of the Syrian conflict is in realistic discussion by the US, Russia and Iran, one of the practical options on the table is to leave Assad in place as head of a transitional regime, after which he will hand over power to a family member. Syria is therefore doomed to have the Assad clan in control of its levers of power.
2. Israeli intelligence underestimated Iran’s will to invest military assets for keeping the Assad regime in power and bolstering the bond between Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. Until recently, those analysts refused to believe Iranian units would touch the ground and fight in Syria, certainly not elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), units.
This week, debkafile’s military sources revealed that Tehran had consigned to Syria six divisions and brigades of Iran’s regular army, the IRGC and the Basij forces, as well as two brigades of pro-Iranian fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
True, Tehran’s intervention has not come without serious losses. A total of 44 Iranian soldiers were killed in Syria during the month of October, including three generals, three colonels and one lieutenant colonel.
Hizballah evolves from a militia into a seasoned army
3. No Israeli position paper or analysis allowed for the co-opting of Iraq to the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis, making it a far more serious political and military threat.
4. The Israeli leadership erred most drastically in not only allowing Hizballah forces to cross from Lebanon into Syria in order to fight alongside Assad’s forces, but also indirectly encouraging them to do so by relaying by back-channel messages that absolved Hizballah convoys traveling to Syria from Israeli attack.
The thinking behind this policy was that Hizballah would be burned and so completely bogged down in the war in Syria that it would lose its will and ability to fight Israel.
And after the war was over and Assad ousted, the Lebanese Shiite terror group and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, who had tied his political fate to that of Assad, would fall as well. These events would have a domino effect and weaken Iran’s grip on Syria and Lebanon.
But none of these predictions panned out.
It is true that Hizballah has suffered heavy losses on the battlefields of Syria, with at least 2,000 war dead and many thousands injured. But it is also true that Hizballah, which until the end of 2014 functioned like a militia, has emerged from the Syria conflict a well-organized, trained and equipped army or 50,000 fighters including reserves, and close-quarter battle experience of fighting large armies. Since Israel faced difficulties in defeating Hizballah in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, it will have pull out all stops for a victory next time round – whether in the coming winter or in 2016.
Israel is said to have sidelined itself from influence on the Syrian question
5. Israel’s policy for blocking Iranian arms supply of advanced heavy weaponry to Hizballah in Lebanon by bombing the convoys in transit through Syria is no longer viable.
With more than 10,000 fighters deployed in Syria, Hizballah does not wait for the new hardware to reach Lebanon but takes delivery and learns to use them while still in Syria. Instead of exposing the shipments to Israeli air strikes, the Lebanese terrorists are laying plans to wield them against the Jewish state – not necessarily from Lebanon but from Syria!
6. Just as Israeli intelligence bodies missed out on the coming of Iranian forces in Syria, they were completely taken off guard by President Vladimir Putin’s decision to build up Russian air, ground and naval forces in Syria for direct engagement in combat against the rebels.
Some intelligence quarters trace these errors in large part to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failed epic battle to stop the nuclear deal going through with Iran, with the result that Washington and Moscow no longer take Israel into account as an important strategic and military factor in the region.
A senior official of the Obama administration said this week that Israel sidelined itself by declaring publicly that it would not intervene in the war in Syria. The official pointed out that Israel did in fact intervene, contrary to its declared position, by supporting the rebels in southern Syria with weapons, intelligence, and logistical assistance, including the provision of food and medical care for wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals.
Now the Russians have arrived and are determined to override the state of affairs in southern Syria as well.