With Iran operating in Syria, Israel girds itself for 'First Northern War'
Israel’s military worries Iran could use Syria to launch attacks against the Jewish state
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.
"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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."