Shift in Israel Military Thinking on Syrian War Denoted by New Intel Appointment

The thinking in the Israeli Defense Forces high command is finally coming around to a realistic appraisal of Syria’s long and searing war as it enters its eighth year. A pivotal part of this appraisal is taking stock of the performance of the IDF’s Intelligence Directorate, Aman. From the conflict’s outbreak in 2011 up until 2017, the Directorate had two commanders. The conclusion is that, under their baton, IDF intelligence did good work at the tactical level, but fell down when it came to the strategic evaluation of the war’s outcome, its repercussions, the directions it took and their overall significance for Israel’s security situation.

(The Directorate of Military Intelligence is the largest component of the Israeli intelligence community, functioning alongside Mossad and the Shin Bet. It includes the cyber warfare branch Unit 8200, as well as the Sayeret Matkal special operations unit and a large Research Department. Aman’s chief is actively engaged in intelligence decision and policy-making at the highest level.

Two Aman commanders bore this responsibility during the Syrian war.

Gen. Aviv Kochavi, 53, the current Deputy Chief of Staff, who headed the Intelligence Directorate from November 2010. This gave him the chance to observe the first signs of the civil war, up until 2014, when he was appointed to head the Northern Command in charge of Israel’s fronts with Syria and Hizballah. During the next three years, he was in position to watch the civil war next door at its most violent and bloody moments.

Maj. Gen Herzl Halevy, 49, was the next Amman chief, taking over in November 2014, after commanding various IDF Special Operations units, including the Paratroop Brigade. He gained combat experience in Gaza Strip battles in southern Israel and from 2011 to 2013, Halevy commanded the Galilee Division which secured Israel’s borders with Lebanon against Hizballah. In the latest round of IDF appointments announced this week, he was appointed, after three years in intelligence, to the Southern Command, which covers the Gaza region.

DEBKA Weekly’s military analysts note a pattern in these appointments:

Kochavi went from three years as OC Northern Command to the post of Deputy Chief of Staff, which places him in line to chief of staff when Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott retires in 2019 or 2020.

Halevi followed the same path. When he ends his three-year stint in the Southern Command, he will move up to the Deputy Chief of Staff slot, in position to bid for Chief of Staff in 2224-2225, when the next chief of staff but one steps down.

Therefore, until now, officers with an eye on the top post have first been given one of the three regional commands, followed by a term as intelligence chief.

However, the new reshuffle in the high command that Gen. Eisenkott announced this week marked a radical departure from this pattern, either because the tasks piling up for the intelligence directorate are too important for its reduction to a stepping-stone for the top job. But also because this path caused officers with high talents in the arts of war to be sidetracked to a field less suited to their aptitudes.

This is what happened to Kochavi and Halevi

The Aman chief draws up the confidential annual National Security Assessment, which is submitted to a closed session of government and offers guidelines for national political, military and budgetary policy. The reports handed in by both these generals may have reflected their misreading of the Syrian situation and led to government missteps in policy-making.

Where did they go wrong? They did not catch on to Iran’s game in the Syrian war; they expected Bashar Assad’s regime to be short-lived; and were confident that Hizballah would come home lame and battered from fighting in Assad’s war.

Up until 2014, Aman did not appreciate that Iran’s object in Syria was to open up a land corridor through Iraq to Syria, Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea in support of the “arc of influence” it was building across the Middle East. The directorate also insisted that the Assad regime would not survive. And finally, the intelligence chiefs predicted that Hizballah forces would sap their strength for years to come by being tied down in a war far from Israel’s borders with heavy casualties.

The Lebanese Shiite group did suffer heavy losses, but nonetheless remade itself from a paramilitary military into a professional battle-seasoned army with valuable experience in fighting with major armies, like those of Russia and Iran, hundreds of kilometers from home, up mto the borders of Iraq and Jordan. Its units trained in collaborating with Russian air night and Hizballah developed an aerial UAV arm of its own – both for surveillance and assault. Syria became its main supply route for the intake of advanced weaponry from Iran and Russia too.

As for the full weight of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, this was not correctly gauged by IDF intelligence, any more than most Western clandestine agencies.

This week, a more realistic approach to the critical importance of military intelligence in all fields of warfare was projected in new IDF appointments – particularly that of Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman as next head of the Military Intelligence Directorate.

For the first time in 11 years, the officer in this post is not just waiting for his chance to bid for the job of chief of staff, nor does he seem to harbor political ambitions. Heyman is a professional combat officer with 30 years of military service behind him, up to and including commanding brigades and divisions. His last post was commander of the IDF’s Northern Division. His friends and colleagues describe as an officer who applies serious, thorough and investigative thinking to his work.

A quote from a recent lecture to soldiers is instructive about the weight Hyman attaches to intelligence in war:

“The reason that the Russians are less effective than us in combat in Syria is that they have no intelligence. They have no moral restraints against destroying buildings, although they are not harming the people they are targeting.”

On a future confrontation with Hizballah, Gen. Hyman referred to the last Israeli campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He said: “We learned a fundamental truth then; it is that Inflicting heavy damage is not a deterrent and does not lead to the curtailing of an operation, but is rather a unifying force that brings people together around the flag. The amount of damage that Hizballah may inflict on us will not make us less aggressive,” he asserted.

Rather than spending most of his energy on lobbying for advancement, Hyman is widely expected to direct all his efforts, time and energy into ways of improving the methods and performance of Israeli military intelligence. Some experts in the field liken the new intelligence chief to one of his outstanding predecessors. Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkas served as head of Amman in the years 2001 to 2006, during which he gained the reputation of one of the IDF’s most brilliant intelligence professionals, who was also an excellent intelligence analyst and technology whizz.

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