On Tuesday, Reuters quoted a “senior security source” in Israel saying the Iranian general killed in the operation – attributed by the foreign media to the Israel Air Force – “was not the target.”
If the citation and source are genuine, the meaning is clear: There is an effort to send appeasing messages to Iran in order to prevent further escalation, which could lead to a general confrontation with Hezbollah.
It can also be interpreted as an Israeli admission that it carried out the operation, and that it was an intelligence and/or operational failure.
But within hours of the Reuters story, an “official security source” issued a statement to the effect of refuting the first one, saying that “the State of Israel neither comments on the event in Syria nor on reports about it, which didn’t come from officials.”
It may well be that the two sources are actually one, using double-speak: Sending a conciliatory message to Iran while at the same time, signaling a different hint to Israeli voters, two months before the election.
Whatever intentions have been concealed, it seems that someone fears an entanglement with Iran – whose senior military commanders promised this week to avenge the killing of their comrade.
Under the official cloud of secrecy and silence, it is difficult to dissect what really happened behind the scenes which led to the attack. But it is known that the Israeli decision-making and approval process for targeted killings and assassinations is thoroughly deliberated; the various agencies of the intelligence community are required to collect data and information on potential targets. This includes every piece of intelligence regarding the target’s daily routine; their importance in the relevant hostile organization or military structure of an enemy country; and the domestic, regional and international ramifications in case an elimination order is given.
The flow chart of the decision-making process goes in both directions – from the political echelon to the security/military apparatus, and vice-versa. It is desirable to reach a unanimous decision but sometimes, disagreements do appear in the deliberations between the two levels or within each of them.
For example, and this has happened in the past, the chief of military intelligence – a key player – can oppose the suggested course of action, while his peers in the IDF General Staff or the Mossad support it. While the final word is in the hands of the defense minister and the prime minister, military and intelligence commanders can greatly influence the process and can practically prevent dangerous or overly adventurous decision from being taken.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war nearly four years ago, Israel has adopted a non-interventionist policy. The only deviations have occurred when “Israeli interests are jeopardized,” as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has declared on several occasions.
Israel has responded with measured, low doses of artillery shells or missiles when its territory on the Golan was occasionally bombed by the Syrian army or Hezbollah.
According to foreign sources, convoys carrying Syrian or Iranian weapons via land from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon have been attacked by Israeli forces at least 10 times in the past. For Israel, preventing the transfer of long-range advanced missiles or anti-aircraft weapons is considered “a vital interest.”
The message being clear: It must be stopped.
But all in all, Jerusalem has tried to restrain itself – to the point that even when shots were fired at the Israeli side, which turned out to be erroneous fire, the IDF held its guns.
Israel has long maintained that its ultimate interest is upholding peace and tranquility along its border with Syria. To that end, Israel has taken in injured Syrian fighters and civilians for treatment in its hospitals, and has supplied humanitarian aid.
Lebanese and the Iranian media have even accused Israel of cooperation with the Nusra Front, considered the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda – which now controls the 100-kilometer border strip between Israel and Syria, and is fighting Hezbollah.
Clearly, the attack this week against Hezbollah and the Iranian commanders may endanger the Israeli wish for quiet.
On the other hand, one should not ignore the fact that in recent months Hezbollah has made inroads into the Syrian Golan, close to the Israeli border. It can be assumed that the inspection tour by Hezbollah and the Iranian entourage was part of this expansion effort to establish a “Golan command.”
Hezbollah officials, including secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, claim this is a reaction to what they perceive as Israel’s breaking of tacit understandings. They accuse Israel of being behind an attack a few months ago on a convoy probably carrying sophisticated weapons – which, in a first, was attacked not on Syrian soil but inside Lebanese territory.
Monitoring these developments, Israel sees Hezbollah as wanting to create a launch pad to challenge it from a second front, in the event that a third Lebanon war breaks out.
Much speculation was raised in the media about who was the target of the last attack. In all probability, it wasn’t the Iranian general. But it is also very unlikely that it was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was considered Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” and was Nasrallah’s right-hand man and the darling of IRGC’s top commanders.
(Imad Mughniyeh was killed in 2008 in Damascus by a bomb planted in his car; Hezbollah, Iran and Syria accused the Mossad of the assassination.) Unlike his father, the 25-year-old Jihad was neither a senior nor a daring nor a skillful military commander.
Yet he was an icon for Iran and Hezbollah, the son of the legendary Imad, and thus granted leadership of the so-called Golan Command.
Several experts believe the real target was Abu Ali Tabatabai, a senior Hezbollah commander in charge of “special forces,” currently fighting and dying in the Syrian civil war while defending the Assad regime.
In case a war breaks out in the future, these special forces have also been charged with moving the battles inside Israeli territory in order to capture small, rural communities.
Hezbollah has a military force of some 30,000 soldiers, most of them non-conscripts who are called up for reserve duty – almost exactly like in the IDF. It is a very disciplined and hierarchal force, and its mid- and top-level commanders are adept and professional. Experience has shown that after losing top commanders, either in the Syrian killing fields or due to assassinations, Hezbollah has found it difficult to find adequate replacements – and cultivating them takes time.
Today, seven years after the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, the Shi’ite organization hasn’t recovered from his loss.
Yet the ultimate test of whether the decisions to get rid of Imad Mughniyeh, Tabatabai and the Iranian general were right, or whether the risk was misplaced, will come in the future.
It will depend on whether Hezbollah and/or Iran retaliate as they have promised, and whether that retaliation causes a major, painful blow to Israel.