Si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war) – Vegetius, c. 450 CE
I’ve said that I am expecting a hot war soon. But recent developments are changing my mind. The strategy of deterrence and interdiction seems to be working on our northern border, and firm resistance to Hamas’ attempts to overrun our southern one seems – so far – to be effective.
The attack on the T4 airbase in Syria on April 10, and the one on the weapons depot near Hama this week, both attributed to Israel, have sent a strong message to the Iranian regime that Israel is serious about not allowing an Iranian buildup in Syria. Although little is publicly known about these attacks, it seems that both offensive and defensive weapons were destroyed, and that in both cases there were casualties among Iranian personnel.
Apparently, bunker-buster bombs were employed in the Hama raid, which should give pause to the Iranians, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas, all of whom make heavy use of underground facilities in light of the IDF’s air superiority. Iranian nuclear facilities are supposedly deep enough underground and heavily protected enough to survive Israel’s bombs; but how willing are they to test our capabilities in this area?
Syrian air defenses have also proved wanting, despite the downing of an Israeli F-16 in February, which was attributed to a “professional error” by the F-16’s crew. Russian antiaircraft systems were not activated against the Israeli planes. This may be because of agreements between Israel and Russia, but also possibly because the IAF possesses countermeasures effective against even the latest Russian systems – and the Russians would not like this fact to become widely known.
All of this means that Iranian leaders know that Israel will not hold back, and that she is capable of doing great damage to whatever she chooses to attack.
The recent intelligence coup in which, somehow, at least a half-ton of documents relating to Iran’s nuclear program prior to the JCPOA (the “nuclear deal” with the P5+1) were removed from Tehran to Jerusalem also has deterrent implications. Although it has been said that there is little data there that was not already known (especially to spy agencies), there is specific information about individuals involved in the program and locations for development and testing of weapons. So in addition to the political effect – it publicly establishes that the Iranians lied about their prior programs in the JCPOA negotiations, and may provide US President Trump with a justification for exiting the deal – it improves Israel’s ability to target Iranian nuclear facilities and personnel. The regime definitely doesn’t want to lose these!
There is also increasing unrest among the Iranian population, which is suffering economic difficulties while the regime spends billions on its adventures in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. And here there are two possible effects: either a war with Israel would increase the dissatisfaction, or it would serve to unify the population behind the regime. My guess is that the population would be split, therefore increasing the tension and making things more difficult for the regime.
If Trump does leave the deal and re-impose sanctions, the Iranian economy would receive another blow. On the other hand, if he succeeds in toughening the agreement in the areas of verification, missile development, and eliminating the “sunset clause,” then Israel’s strategic position is improved.
There is no doubt that Israel’s strategic team of Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman, and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott, is competent. The IDF has learned the lessons of 2006 and will not be caught with inadequate intelligence and poor planning as it was then. Both the Iranians and Hezbollah understand this, despite their bragging.
Russia, which wants to keep Assad in power and maintain its bases in Syria, has at least so far showed no desire to interfere with Israel in its actions against Iran and Hezbollah. I speculate that a nuclear-armed Iran with missiles that can hit Moscow is not especially desirable to Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu’s diplomatic walk between the raindrops with Putin and Trump has been remarkable.
Hamas, which would possibly add its weight to a war against Iranian proxies, is not an existential threat. Its tunnels either have been or will shortly be neutralized. The IDF can strike very hard against its infrastructure, which it would probably do in the context of a wider war, in order to eliminate the necessity of fighting a protracted battle on another front. Hamas is aware of this.
But there is one factor which I think is more important to our deterrence than everything else put together, and that is the simple fact that the Trump Administration is not likely to try to stop us from defending ourselves. Compare Trump, Pence, Pompeo and Bolton to Obama, Biden, Kerry and Rice! I can’t think of a larger ideological and empathetic distance.
This administration will not accept the propaganda of our enemies as truth, as Obama and Kerry did. It will not refuse to resupply us with Hellfire missiles or force our international airport to close, as Obama did in 2014. It will no longer be a given that Israel has only the shortest possible window to achieve an advantageous strategic position (I won’t even mention victory) before the “international community,” led by the US, forces a cease-fire.
Hezbollah understands that Israel will not shrink from employing its full firepower against rocket launchers embedded in the civilian population of southern Lebanon. And it also understands that Israel will receive support from the US if this becomes necessary.
In fact, not only does this administration help Israel deter her enemies, its uncompromising opposition deters Iran from pursuing its expansionist goals in the entire region. Of course, it must be prepared to make good on its threats, and that remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the policy of appeasement followed by the Obama Administration had the opposite effect.
It’s ironic that criticism of the Trump Administration, particularly Pompeo and Bolton, refers to them as “warmongers,” when the practical impact of their strong stance against Iran is to make regional war less likely.
Taken together, the actions of both Israel and the US are tending to prevent war, or at least delay it until there is an administration in the US that is more like Obama’s than Trump’s. Who knows? Perhaps the Iranian momentum can be reversed, and by that time there will be a new regime there.
Si vis pacem, para bellum. It was true in 450 CE, and it’s true today.