In September of this year, Israel officially came under the area of responsibility of the Pentagon's Central Command, which covers the wider Middle East. In his new book, "Gaza Conflict 2021,″ Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Vice President for Research Jonathan Schanzer provides an in-depth look at one of the challenges that CENTCOM is undoubtedly grappling with. Specifically, Schanzer delves into what the Israelis call the "war between wars" to degrade Iran's military capabilities in Syria, the Persian Gulf, cyberspace and beyond. As Schanzer notes, the asymmetric war has been an important strategy for Israel. But it may have inadvertently contributed to the Gaza conflict of May 2021.
In December 2020, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi announced that Israel had struck more than 500 targets in Syria during 2020 alone, targeting Iranian and Iran-backed smugglers, fighters, and weapons systems. Kochavi was being understated. One year prior, outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot revealed that Israel had destroyed thousands of military targets in Syria. But as one senior Israeli official quipped at the time, when I pressed him for exact numbers, "Who's counting?"
For much of the "war between wars" (WBW), Israel operated with the implicit blessing of the Trump administration, which was unequivocally supportive of Israel's right to diminish the Iranian military build-up on its borders. After Trump's departure, it was unclear whether President Joe Biden would give Israel the green light to continue. After all, Biden had already signaled his intent to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump exited in 2018. Biden certainly did not appear to be openly pro-regime. Still, it remained to be seen whether Israel could continue to operate with impunity.
That question appeared to be answered on January 28, 2021, when Israel struck Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria for the first time in the Biden era. In April, Reuters reported that Jerusalem had "dramatically expanded air strikes on suspected Iranian missile and weapons production centers in Syria" as part of Israel's operations to halt Iranian weapons proliferation to Tehran's proxies on Israel's borders. If Washington was unhappy about this, it was not aired publicly.
It is important to note here that Syria was not the only WBW battleground. In recent years, Israel and Iran have slugged it out on the high seas. In March, Israel reportedly struck an Iranian oil vessel bound for Syria. The Wall Street Journal subsequently revealed (perhaps as the result of leaks from the Biden White House) that Israel had targeted maybe a dozen other Iranian vessels since 2019. In April, Israel damaged an Iranian spy ship on the Red Sea and reportedly hit an Iranian fuel tanker with a drone strike. The following month, a mysterious explosion occurred on an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Syria. Israel was once again suspected.
The Israelis got it as good as they gave. In March 2021, Iran was suspected in an attack on an Israeli freighter near the Persian Gulf. Later that month, an Israeli-owned ship was hit by a missile off the coast of Oman. The following month, another Israeli-owned ship was attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Months after the Gaza war's conclusion, the Israeli ship Mercer Street was struck by an Iranian drone, drawing condemnation from the United States and the G7.
The WBW has expanded significantly over the years. It was originally designed to weaken Iranian nuclear capabilities, which have advanced alarmingly. In November 2020, Iran's top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed in his car by a remote-controlled weapon. The culprit was presumed to be the Mossad, which had been widely blamed for six other attacks against Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007. There have also been targets of opportunity. For example, the Israelis were involved in the 2020 assassination of Abu Mohammed al-Masri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, who was living under regime protection in Tehran. The revelation of this arrangement raised new questions about the regime's longstanding relationship with the terrorist group that attacked America in September 2001.
Israel was also battling Iran in cyberspace. Israel first announced itself on this battlefield in 2010 with the deployment of the "Stuxnet" worm, a joint US-Israeli cyber weapon that set back Iran's nuclear program for perhaps two years. In 2018, Tehran also accused Israel of launching a cyberattack against Iranian critical infrastructure. In 2020, Israel was suspected of being behind cyberattacks against two Iranian government agencies, as well the Iranian port of Shahid Rajaee.
These operations did not occur in a vacuum. The Iranians were also targeting Israel. In March 2021, Iranian hackers reportedly targeted Israeli medical researchers, government agencies, academia, and tourism agencies. In December of the previous year, Iranian hackers stole data from at least 40 different Israeli companies. In a separate instance, Iranian hackers gained access to Israel's water system. In fact, 2020 saw Iranian cyberattacks against Israeli companies across a wide range of sectors. According to news reports in 2019, Iranian hackers almost infiltrated Israel's missile early warning system. And in 2018, it was reported that Iran successfully penetrated the cellphone of Benny Gantz, the IDF's former chief of staff.
But perhaps the most important event in the WBW was the 2018 operation in which Israel's Mossad spirited away reams of documents from a secret nuclear archive on the outskirts of Tehran. Nuclear experts were sent scrambling to interpret loads of new information about Iran's nuclear program after the documents were revealed. Several of those documents helped the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, identify nuclear sites previously obscured by the regime. The documents also helped to raise awareness about the regime's prior advances in weaponization of its nuclear program.
For the regime in Tehran, the WBW has been deeply frustrating. The regime's desire for retribution has only grown. In April, just weeks before the war erupted, an Iranian general stated, "The Zionists [Israel] imagine that they can continuously target the Syrian territories and conduct mischief in different places and in the sea and receive no response ... [T]he Resistance Front will give a principal response." Similarly, IRGC commander Hossein Salami declared that "the evil deeds committed by the Zionists [Israel] in the region will turn against themselves and expose them to real dangers in the future." Shortly thereafter, Salami declared that Israel's "biggest weakness is that any tactical action could bring about a strategic defeat ... just a single operation can ruin this regime."
Iran appeared to be threatening to deploy its own forces or its proxies to battle Israel. Of course, the Islamic Republic never wages war directly, at least not since the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988. Proxies are always a safer bet. Hamas has long been one of the non-state actors to benefit from Iranian military support. To Tehran's delight, the group's leaders were openly expressing their willingness to fight Israel again. The winds of war were blowing.
"Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War″ is available to purchase now.
Editor's note: This is a book excerpt and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, [email protected].