"War is the realm of the unexpected." — B. H. Liddell Hart, 1950
Early 19th century Prussian general and philosopher Carl von Clausewitz identified "Der Schlag," or "the punch," as the vital opening gambit in war. Success depends on military superiority combined with surprise and velocity to assure immediate, overwhelming, and decisive dominance.
The brief military eruption between Israel and Syria from February 8-10 received little notice amid Washington's political maneuvering, attendant to budgets, immigration reform and investigations. The incident began when Iranian Republican Guards stationed in Syria launched a drone that the Israelis shot down 90 seconds after it penetrated their air space. Israeli retaliation involved F-16I ("I" for Israeli variant) fighters bombing Syrian surface-to-air missile sites and Iranian Republican Guard units supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime while also backing Hezbollah forces fighting anti-Assad rebels. Iranian units are also entrenching themselves near the Golan Heights, directly threatening Israel. Meanwhile, a limited number of American forces in Syria continue to target ISIS and support anti-Assad rebels. Russian combat aircraft and surface-to-air missile units are in Syria to back Assad. In northern Syria, Kurds battling ISIS raise the ire of NATO ally Turkey focused on minimizing Kurdish national aspirations.
Minimizing confusion is critical because a violent eruption looms. Israel soon will attack Hezbollah and Iranian forces and must do so with enough force to achieve rapid, decisive victory. This must happen before Iran attains nuclear missiles capable of obliterating Israel.
In June 1967, Israel coupled secrecy with speed to defeat a coalition of six Arab countries with Syria, Egypt and Jordan rendered militarily ineffective within hours. In the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria used the same elements of secrecy and speed to come very close to overwhelming Israel. What's going to happen very soon in Syria and southern Lebanon will be larger, more violent and dangerous given the presence of U.S. and Russian forces.
Israel will not rerun its mid-summer, month-long, 2006 conflict with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon where guerrillas used tunnels to attack Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers while luring others into house-to-house fighting fostering a bloody stalemate while also firing relatively short-range Katushya rockets into Haifa and settlements along the Lebanese border and Golan Heights. World opinion turned against Israel for the civilians killed while bombing Hezbollah units hiding in suburban Beirut. That war ended with the vaunted IDF thwarted and frustrated.
Today, Hezbollah units in Syria engage anti-Assad forces with conventional tactics, to include tanks, artillery and rockets-the kind of war at which the IDF is unequaled. Iranian Republican Guards support Hezbollah while also ferrying longer-range rockets into southern Lebanon. Some estimate Hezbollah has 10 times as many rockets as in 2006, many capable of hitting Tel Aviv and targets farther south.
Israel must strike Syria hard to decisively destroy Hezbollah before its forces redeploy to southern Lebanon to revert to guerrilla warfare. The Israelis must also bloody the Iranians badly enough to compel Tehran to withdraw from Syria. The Israeli Air Force will attack Syrian SA-5 and SA-17/200 surface-to-air missile sites and hit air bases to thwart Syrian—and quite possibly—Russian combat-air responses. The attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian forces will undercut Assad and likely end his regime.
Ominously, March 2018 could turn into August 1914. Now is the time to prevent the United States, Russia and NATO from being drawn into an inevitable, likely bloody war. President Vladimir Putin clearly views involvement in Syria as integral to recovering former Soviet strategic power. President Donald Trump avows U.S. support for Israel with clarity far preferable to the uncertainty of the Obama years. The danger is the proximity of Russian and American military personnel. In 1914, secret treaties coupled with alliance guarantees drew Europe into a suicidal conflict that finally ended when Soviet and American armies devoured the Third Reich in 1945. The post-Cold War period of strategic pause that began with the fall of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991 is over. Today, superpower strategic interests, not ideology, drive Washington and Moscow. The possible consequences, however, are no less awesome.
Russian and American military forces must withdraw from Syria. Moscow has air and naval units in its Crimean bases on the Black Sea to assure Russian interests. A U.S. carrier battle group in the eastern Mediterranean with air units in Italy and Turkey are close enough to balance Russian Black Sea forces without risking unintended conflict. Although American and Russian air, sea and land force could become involved, that eventuality would be deliberative and far less likely than resulting from American and Russian units caught in between Israel in an existential struggle against Hezbollah, Iran Republican Guards and the tottering Assad regime.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute.