Who knew that the future of warfare would present itself with such serene beauty — like one of those warm 19th-century David Roberts landscapes of the Middle East.
How so? I’m traveling along the Israeli border road at the intersection of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and off in the distance there’s a freshly snow-capped Mount Hermon, begging for skiers. It’s framed by Lebanese and Syrian villages nestled into terraced hillsides, crowned by minarets and crosses. The only sound you hear is the occasional rifle burst from Lebanese hunters.
But this is no Roberts painting. It’s actually the second-most-dangerous spot on the planet — after the Korean Peninsula — and it’s the idyllic backdrop to what 21st-century warfare looks like.
Because hidden in these villages, hillsides and pine forests you can find a state — Israel — trying to navigate a battlefield with a rival state’s army (Syria), a rival regional superpower (Iran), a global superpower (Russia), super-empowered mercenaries and maniacs (Hezbollah and ISIS) and local tribes and sects (Druse and Christians).
I came to this crowded intersection because it could blow up at any moment.
For the past two years, 1,500 to 2,000 Iranian advisers operating out of Beirut and Damascus have been directing thousands of Lebanese pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah mercenaries, Syrian army forces funded by Iran and some 10,000 pro-Iranian Shiite mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan — to defeat Sunni Syrian rebels and ISIS in the Syrian civil war.
What the hell is Iran doing over here? And how much is Russia, Iran’s partner in crushing the uprising in Syria — but also a country with good relations with Israel — going to use its advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles, now covering Syria and Lebanon, to protect Iran and Hezbollah?
Both questions came to the fore this week. Listen to what Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, who just met with Vladimir Putin for the seventh time in two years, said after they met Monday: Israel will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Syria and turn Lebanon into a “factory for precision missiles. … I made clear to Putin that we will stop it if it doesn’t stop by itself.”
Israeli military planners are more convinced than ever that the key reason Hezbollah has avoided major conflict with Israel since the big war in Lebanon in 2006 is that Israel’s air force — without mercy or restraint — pounded Lebanese infrastructure, Hezbollah offices and military targets in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Yes, it was ugly and brutal, say Israeli planners, but it worked. This is not Scandinavia. “The reality here starts where your imagination ends,” said one Israeli officer. Sometimes only crazy can stop crazy. And Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, definitely got the message.
Israeli military planners hope he remembers that, and that Iran does, too. They say that if Tehran thinks it can launch a proxy war against Israel from Lebanon and Syria — while the Iranian homefront is untouched — it should think again. Israel has not purchased Dolphin-class submarines that can operate in the Persian Gulf, and armed them with cruise missiles, for deep-sea fishing.
Alas, there are just too many chances for miscalculation on this crowded 3-D chessboard to be sanguine that the next 12 years will be as quiet as the past 12.
As one Israeli military officer on the Syrian-Israel border remarked to me, “We want to keep the temporary status quo forever because everything else looks worse.”