Israeli special forces are the envy of many nations and a key factor in Israel’s military successes. However, failure of their operations could inadvertently trigger regional war in one of three regional flashpoints: Gaza, Syria or Lebanon. The UK, as an important special forces operator, could learn from the risks inherent in Israel’s reliance on special forces.
Israel has used its large and varied range of special operations forces throughout the past 40 years with exceptional success. Its credentials were cemented in the famous Entebbe Raid – a successful hostage-rescue mission in Uganda on 4 July 1976 – and in clandestine operations, such as the assassination of Syrian Army General Muhammad Suleiman in 2008.
Israel’s miniscule population relative to its Arab neighbours caused it to focus on developing a ‘qualitative edge’ in military capabilities over its rivals. Furthermore, the profound lack of strategic depth Israel faced vis-a-vis its immediate neighbours necessitated a policy of direct action with regards to potential threats.
Failures can and will happen, however. Such was the case in November 2018 when an Israeli covert operation into Gaza resulted in the death of one Israeli special forces operator. Despite the unit escaping Gaza, the incident led to two weeks of reciprocal violence between Hamas and Israel until peace was brokered by Egypt. Likewise, the disastrous September 1997 raid against Hezbollah, which saw 11 special forces soldiers die, precipitated a day long fire fight between Israel and Hezbollah. These are two examples of the destabilising effects of botched special forces operations. The severity of this risk is only increased by the fact that Hezbollah and Hamas are organisations with a proven ability to adapt and innovate. The inconclusive result in the 2006 War showed that Hezbollah can frustrate Israel’s military capabilities, whereas Hamas has developed a degree of resilience in the face of systemic covert action.
While the above examples have not resulted in major regional conflict, there are a number of regional fault lines where the risk of botched Israeli covert action could precipitate regional war. The primary risk posed by such mistakes would involve the killing or capture of Israeli special forces. Israel has gone to war over captured soldiers twice in 2006, against Hezbollah and Hamas.
There are three main areas in which botched raids could trigger regional conflict. The most obvious is with Hamas in Gaza. If, in later raids, soldiers were to be captured then Israel would certainly begin large scale military action. A similar situation exists with Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, unique to Hezbollah is the support they receive from Iran, adding a regional element to the tension. Large scale operations conducted against Hezbollah in response to a failed special forces raid could draw Israel into conflict with Iran. Iran has forward deployed assets to Syria, and has likely used these to target Israel previously. Thus any conflict with Hezbollah will involve Iranian support, creating regional violence. Lastly, and relatedly, covert actions taken against the Syrian regime or Iranian forces in Syria which end in calamity would probably result in war. Israeli special forces are likely to be at least peripherally involved in any operations in Syria. If personnel are captured or killed, the past actions of Israel indicate aggressive military action could take place.
The experience of Israel offers important takeaways for the UK, not only because Israel represents an important actor in a key region for British military engagement but also because its experiences provide many lessons for the UK that need to be internalised for future operations as the role of special forces grow while the end strength of the British Armed Forces declines. The UK fields world class special forces in the form of the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service, and other covert units. The UK’s steadfast commitment to combating terrorism internationally has seen this capability increase. As the UK seeks to readjust to a more global focus, the proven ability of the UK special forces community is likely to play a more active role in this realignment. However, the UK government must be careful not to see the deployment of special forces as ‘clean’ or ‘risk free’. The Israeli experience shows that these elite forces can be just as likely to trigger greater conflict as conventional troops if used irresponsibly.
The UK should learn from Israel and avoid over-reliance on special forces so as to avoid potentially costly blowback. Crucially, the UK should explore the full range of political and military responses to any future crisis to avoid unnecessary escalation through high-risk deployment of covert units.
Jack Sargent is pursuing a Masters in the History of International Relations at the LSE, with a particular interest in non-state actors in the Middle East.