“We struck thousands of targets without claiming
responsibility or asking for credit.”
So says Gadi Eisenkot about the Jewish state’s undeclared and unfinished military campaign against Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. For his final interview as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces before he retires next week, the general has decided to claim responsibility and take at least some of the credit.
Eisenkot’s central intellectual contribution in fighting that campaign is the concept of “the campaign between wars” — the idea that continuous, kinetic efforts to degrade the enemy’s capabilities both lengthens the time between wars and improves the chances of winning them when they come. He also believes that Israel needed to focus its efforts on its deadliest enemy, Iran, as opposed to secondary foes such as Hamas in Gaza.
“When you fight for many years against a weak enemy,” he says, “it also weakens you.”
This thinking is what led Eisenkot to become the first Israeli general to take Iran head on, in addition to fighting its proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. And it’s how he succeeded in humbling, at least for the now, Qassem Soleimani, the wily commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which has spearheaded Tehran’s ambitions to make itself a regional hegemon.
“We operated under a certain threshold until two-and-a-half years ago,” Eisenkot explains, referring to Israel’s initial policy of mainly striking weapons shipments destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. “And then we noticed a significant change in Iran’s strategy. Their vision was to have significant influence in Syria by building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. They built intelligence bases and an air force base within each Syrian air base. And they brought civilians in order to indoctrinate them.”
By 2016, Eisenkot estimates, Soleimani had deployed 3,000 of his men in Syria, along with 8,000 Hezbollah fighters and another 11,000 foreign Shiite troops. The Iranian funds flowing toward the effort amounted to $16 billion over seven years. Israel had long said it would not tolerate an Iranian presence on its border, but at that point Syria had become a place in which other countries’ declaratory red lines seemed easily erased.
In January 2017 Eisenkot obtained the government’s unanimous consent for a change in the rules of the game. Israeli attacks became near-daily events. In 2018 alone, the air force dropped a staggering 2,000 bombs. That May, Soleimani attempted to retaliate by launching “more than 30 rockets toward Israel” (at least 10 more than what has been previously reported). None reached its target. Israeli responded with a furious assault that hit 80 separate Iranian military and Assad regime targets in Syria.
Why did Soleimani — the subtle, determined architect of Iran’s largely successful efforts to entrench itself in Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon — miscalculate? Eisenkot suggests a combination of overconfidence, based on Iran’s success in rescuing Assad’s regime from collapse, and underestimation of Israel’s determination to stop him, based on the West’s history of shrinking in the face of Tehran’s provocations.
“His error was choosing a playground where he is relatively weak,” he says. “We have complete intelligence superiority in this area. We enjoy complete aerial superiority. We have strong deterrence and we have the justification to act.”
“The force we faced over the last two years was a determined force,” he adds a little scornfully, “but not very impressive in its capabilities.”
Eisenkot seems to feel similarly about Hezbollah and its longtime leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The group had devised a three-pronged strategy to invade and conquer (even if briefly) at least a part of Israel’s northern Galilee: building factories in Lebanon that could produce precision-guided missiles, excavating attack tunnels under the Israeli border and setting up a second front on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
So far, the plan has failed. The factories were publicly exposed and the tunnels destroyed. Israel continues to attack Hezbollah positions on the Golan, most recently last month against an intelligence position in the village of Tel el Qudne (also previously unreported).
“I can say with confidence that as we speak Hezbollah does not possess accurate [missile] capabilities except for small and negligible ones,” he says. “They were hoping to have hundreds of missiles in the mid- and long-range.”
That means Hezbollah is unlikely to soon start another war with Israel. Soleimani has pulled his forces back from the border with Israel and withdrawn some altogether. The resumption of US sanctions has also put a squeeze on Iran’s ability to finance its regional adventures. Israel also thought it had won a reprieve of sorts when John Bolton indicated the US would not quickly withdraw from Syria, thereby obstructing Iran’s efforts to build a land bridge to Damascus, though that reversal seems to have been reversed yet again.
Iran may now turn elsewhere. “As we push them in Syria,” Eisenkot says, “they transfer their efforts to Iraq,” where the US still has thousands of troops. Thanks to Gadi Eisenkot, at least we know the Iranians aren’t invincible.