With Iran operating in Syria, Israel girds itself for 'First Northern War'

The recent battle between Israel’s air force and Iran’s military in Syria revived warnings of a potential conflict between the two long-time enemies, writes Derek Stoffel.

Israel’s military worries Iran could use Syria to launch attacks against the Jewish state

Israeli soldiers take part in a recent training exercise involving infantry and tank units in the Golan Heights, an area along Syria's southwestern border with Israel that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and still occupies. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace from Syria earlier this month was never really a threat for Israel's powerful air force, but its short flight has revived long-held worries in Israel that the country's archenemy is operating on its doorstep.

Tensions have subsided after the dramatic events that unfolded just before dawn on the morning of Feb. 10, an encounter that ended with the Israelis shooting down the drone and losing an F-16 fighter plane in the resulting skirmish. 

The incident has heightened fears that Iran's deep entrenchment in Syria, where the civil war is about to enter its eighth year, could spark a new and dangerous regional war.

At the moment, Israeli military commanders have their binoculars trained not only on the frontier with Syria along the Golan Heights, an area along Syria's southwestern border with Israel that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and still occupies. They're also keeping close watch on the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, operating just over Israel's northern border.

A view of Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel completed a security fence along the frontier in 2014. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"Israel will have to face two fronts at the same time: one in Syria, one in Lebanon," said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security advisor.

The concern is that the next conflict could see Israel locked in what some in the region are now calling the "First Northern War" — a military engagement of the kind Israel hasn't seen since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 involving Arab states, led by Syria and Egypt.

Hezbollah: 'Much stronger'

For years, one of the largest security threats Israel has faced has been the arsenal procured by Hezbollah, which is believed to have between 100,000 to 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles — supplied by Iran — that experts say could hit every city in Israel.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is led by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, is thought to have between 100,000 to 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

Israel last fought a full-scale war with Hezbollah in 2006, and tensions have remained high, even though the border with Lebanon has been quiet in the decade since.

What has changed is the battle experience gained by Hezbollah fighters after years of fighting in Syria. The militant group has been an important ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Along with the backing of Iran and Russia, Hezbollah has helped keep Assad in power.

It's thought the group has 50,000 soldiers at the ready. An unnamed Hezbollah commander said last year that 10,000 Hezbollah fighters are in the Golan, prepared to confront Israel, along with missile bases and tunnel networks. 

"Hezbollah is much stronger than it used to be," said Sarit Zehavi, a major in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) reserves and founder of the ALMA think tank, which focuses on security issues along Israel's northern border.

"They hold tanks, they have much better capabilities than before, they know how to manoeuvre big forces," Zehavi said. "They learned how to occupy a village in Syria. They conducted massive battles there. And this knowledge is being brought to our border."
Sarit Zehavi gestures toward Lebanon from near the border fence that separates Israel from Lebanon. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Israel and Syria's long war

Israel has long said it does not want to get dragged into the complex, seemingly unending conflict in Syria. But the Israelis are without a doubt participants, having launched approximately 100 attacks against Hezbollah weapons convoys since 2012.

When mortars and rockets have landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israeli tanks and artillery units have fired into Syria in retaliation.

Several Israeli communities, including Alonei HaBashan in the Golan Heights, have reported minor damage to buildings from errant projectiles from Syria. Last spring, medical workers discovered a bullet, believed to have come from Syria, in the back of a young woman from the community.

Despite being awakened every couple of months by air raid warning sirens, Alonei HaBashan resident Rivka Levy said it is "peaceful" in her community, which sits less than a kilometre away from the frontier with Syria.

While she sometimes hears sounds of fighting wafting over the green hills of the Golan, Levy said she doesn't worry. "When I see [an Israeli] soldier, I know that he will be able to protect me."
Rivka Levy lives in the Golan community of Alonei HaBashan, which is located less than a kilometre from Syria. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Even so, a report by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies warns that Israel "must gird itself," adding that the country's military "needs to improve its readiness for escalation and even war in the northern theatre against Syria and Lebanon."

Drone incident causes concern 

Israel's military regularly holds training drills in northern Israel and the Golan Heights, but exercises last week involving tank and infantry brigades came during a period of heightened tensions.

The battle on Feb. 10, in which Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed the Israeli F-16, marked the first direct military conflict between Israel and Iran. Israel's military said it targeted a command-and-control facility located at a Syrian air base near Palmyra that Iran had used to launch the drone.

Some residents in Lebanese villages along the Israeli border celebrated the downing of the Israeli warplane. Among Israel's enemies, this was seen as a success for what some call "the axis of resistance," which is dedicated to opposing Israeli and U.S. influence in the Middle East.
Yaakov Amidor, a former Israeli general and national security advisor, believes that soon 'Israel will have to face two fronts at the same time: one in Syria, one in Lebanon.' (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

That unsettles Israeli commanders, who are concerned about a permanent Iranian presence in Syria that could pose the same kind of security threats as Hezbollah.

"The concern is that what you see in Lebanon today, you will see in Syria," said Amidror, the former Israeli national security advisor, who is now with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

"That includes the capability to launch rockets into Israel [and] militias which are ready to attack Israel on the border," he said. "We know that there is a challenge there. And we'll do whatever is needed, from our point of view, to stop the Iranians."

Still, among ordinary Israelis, there is no overwhelming sense that war is imminent.

"I feel very safe in my country," said 18-year-old David Zeff, recently seen skating at Israel's largest ice rink, the Canada Centre, which is nestled just south of the Lebanese border, in Metula.
"I know that we're a strong country and we can defend ourselves," said Israeli civilian David Zeff, centre. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"I trust my military," Zeff said on a recent visit to the north, ahead of joining the Israel Defence Forces. "I know that we're a strong country and we can defend ourselves."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.