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As Eisenkot steps down, Israel admits to thousands of air strikes in Syria

The IDF Chief of Staff ends his tenure by abandoning Israel's policy of tactical ambiguity

    Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot
    Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (Photo: Flash90)

    After seldom admitting to air strikes over the last eight years in Syria, Israel has fully abandoned its policy of tactical ambiguity.

    In a series of interviews marking his departure, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has spoken openly, particularly of the last two years of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, of which he said there had been “thousands”.

    Then on Sunday, in another rare move, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged Israel had carried out a strike on Iranian weapon shipments near Damascus only 36 hours earlier.

    The reasons for this sudden openness are varied. It is of course connected to General Eisenkot’s desire to take responsibility for a change of Israel’s strategy in early 2017, when it began directly attacking Iranian targets, and the successful execution of a complex and dangerous campaign.

    Mr Netanyahu is fighting an election campaign having just made himself defence minister as well, and is competing against other candidates with strong defence credentials. He wants to highlight his leadership in the role in the campaign too.

    But it isn’t just about each man having their share of glory. There are strategic reasons for Israel now bringing this to light.

    From mid-2011 until the end of 2016, Israel’s operations in Syria were aimed at denying Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weapons systems from their Iranian patrons and spiriting them away to their arsenal in Lebanon.

    The decision to shift to attacking “Iranian infrastructure” in Syria, formulated by General Eisenkot and approved by Mr Netanyahu, was a response to Iran’s Qods Force commander Qasem Suleimani’s strategic plan to take advantage of the vacuum left in Syria by the retreat of ISIS to establish permanent bases in Syria, and boost the presence of Shia forces there, to as high as 100,000 fighters.

    Gadi Eisenkot's successor Aviv Kochavi at the Western Wall on Tuesday
    Gadi Eisenkot's successor Aviv Kochavi at the Western Wall on Tuesday (Photo: Flash90)

    Israel’s attacks were specifically aimed at preventing that outcome and two years later, it is clear that General Suleimani has been forced to abandon his grand design.

    But he has not totally given up on his attempt to increase the strategic threat on Israel’s northern border. Iran is now focused on trying to improve the accuracy of the long-range missiles stored by Hezbollah in Lebanon and establish a similar structure in Iraq of Shia militias operating Iranian missiles. Israel is determined to prevent that from happening as well.

    “I can say with confidence that, as we speak, Hezbollah does not possess accurate [missile] capabilities except for small and negligible ones,” General Eisenkot said in one of the interviews.

    “They were hoping to have hundreds of missiles in the mid- and long-range.”

    But that campaign is still ongoing and will continue under his successor, the new IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.

    Meanwhile, in a last major operation of this term, the IDF this week called an end to Operation Northern Shield, in which six Hezbollah cross-border tunnels were located and destroyed.

    General Eisenkot’s final act in office was to warn General Suleiamani, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and — over their heads — the Iranian and Lebanese civilians that Israel has so far succeeded in ruining their plans, and will do everything to continue doing so.

    The message is that, with Iran sinking further in to a sanctions-fuelled economic crisis and Lebanon in political turmoil, trying to build a military presence on Israel’s border is a waste of valuable resources.

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