Much ado about nothing, or a show of force by strong allies?
Members of the United States military’s European Command are in Israel to participate in a massive joint military exercise named “Juniper Cobra.” The 12-day drill aims to strengthen cooperation and coordination between the two armies, especially with respect to aerial defense capabilities.
The exercise has assumed even greater importance given last month’s first direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, triggered by the penetration of Israeli airspace of an advanced Iranian drone. In turn, Israeli warplanes struck twelve Syrian and Iranian assets, destroying up to fifty percent of Syria’s air defense systems. One Israeli jet that came under heavy anti-aircraft missile fire was downed, an incident the Israel Defense Forces has since attributed to errors made by the pilot.
“Over 2,500 U.S. soldiers, alongside 2,000 Israeli aerial defense troops [in addition to] logistical, medical and other units started main preparations for the exercise, including the extensive deployment of forces across the country and initial drills,” an IDF spokesperson told The Media Line.
The army representative further explained that Juniper Cobra would simulate multiple scenarios in which Israeli military assets come under heavy missile fire. “Together [the American and Israeli armies] will perform computerized simulations of a variety of rocket threat scenarios in different regions,” he revealed, adding that the drills will include the use of the Iron Dome, Arrow III and David’s Sling defense systems. Together, they provide Israel with a protective umbrella against both short- and mid-range missiles emanating from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and Hizbullah-dominated Lebanon, as well as more sophisticated, long-range Iranian ballistic missiles.
Ahead of the exercise, U.S. Third Air Force Commander Gen. Richard M. Clark asserted that “the United States and Israel enjoy a strong and enduring military-to-military partnership built on a trust that has been developed over decades of cooperation.” He pointed to these drills, in particular, as a way to bolster inter-operability and integration between the militaries.
And throughout the region governments are taking notice.
Asad Bashara, a Lebanese political analyst, told The Media Line that Beirut views Juniper Cobra as evidence of the U.S.’ commitment to Israel’s security, which could have an impact in a future war between the Jewish state and Iran’s Lebanese Shiite proxy Hizbullah. “The government must consider the national interest only and not turn the land into an Iranian fighting front,” he affirmed. “The 2006 war with Israel was devastating and Lebanon must protect itself this time by not being dragged into a battle because of Tehran and Hizbullah.”
To the south, Egyptians also are closely watching unfolding developments. “Iran is militarily exhausted from the war in Syria and is unlikely to begin a fight against Israel so there is little connection to the current exercise [Juniper Cobra],” Cairo-based political analyst Basher Al-Fatah contended to The Media Line. “At the same time,” he noted, “Washington has reduced its military presence in the Middle East, [thereby] allowing Russia to become the international power in the region. As such, the U.S will not have direct involvement in any future conflict but will support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Indeed the drills are partially an exercise in perception-manipulation, according to Palestinian political analyst Hanna Issa. While there are tangible military benefits to both sides, he stressed to The Media Line that it is equally important for “Israel to show the whole world that the U.S is its strategic ally.”
For his part, Riyadh-based political scientist Sulaiman Al-Akaili downplayed to The Media Line the importance of Juniper Cobra, calling the drills a “traditional thing” rather than proof of any shift in the region’s balance of power. As regards the conflict between Israel and Iran, Al-Akaili described it as “pure political promotion that Saudi Arabia will give no attention to,” thus distinguishing the confrontation from the Saudi-Iranian dispute, which he believes is ideological in nature.
This is the ninth time that the Juniper Cobra military exercise has taken place in Israel since 2001, with drills slated to run until March 15.