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Israeli bombing raids in Syria set to incur greater cost

Syria’s spirited defence of its airspace late last week is a clear signal to Israel that future violations will draw a credible response

The Israeli strike on Syria late last week is a significant escalation which, if repeated, could spark a wider confrontation between the so-called “axis of resistance” and the Jewish state.

While Israel has violated Syrian air space and conducted multiple strikes since 2012, the latest violation stands out for tactical, operational, political and diplomatic reasons.

The depth of the strike (near Palmyra) is a radical departure from previous ones which were mostly concentrated in areas close to Damascus. This incursion was serious enough to elicit a credible response from Syrian air defence, another departure from the norm, as previous strikes went virtually unanswered.

At the political and diplomatic levels, the strikes have placed Syria’s ally Russia in a difficult and embarrassing spot, not least because Russian air defence systems have total coverage over Syrian air space and no air force can operate there without at least tacit Russian agreement.

Israel is also at risk of over-reach by misreading wider strategic developments. Despite localised spikes in fighting, the conflict in Syria is winding down, making the Syrian state more determined to assert sovereignty at all levels, principally by defending its borders against hostile foreign powers.

More ominously for Israel, Hezbollah and its Iranian allies in the form of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) now have a greater risk appetite for military engagement and are out to seek revenge for the losses inflicted on them by Israel over the past five years.

A strike too far?  

Last Thursday’s strikes were unusual in so far as they were aimed at targets near Palmyra, deep inside Syrian territory. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s routine description of the strikes as aimed at “advanced” weapons shipment bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, speculation abounds as to the nature and real value of the targets.

While under normal circumstances any Israeli violation of Syrian air space, let alone a bombing raid, is sufficient cause for a robust air defence response, the fact is the scale and complexity of the Syrian conflict has given the Israeli air force carte blanche to pick out targets in Syrian territory.

However, this normalisation of routine violations of Syrian sovereignty appear to be at an end, as evidenced by the spirited reaction of Syrian air defence operators. While details are sketchy and conflicting, it appears that Syrian air defence engaged four Israeli jets, even claiming to have shot one down.

Syrian claims of Israeli losses are unverified, but the intensity of the response elicited a reaction from Israel’s own missile defence systems, in the form of an Arrow 2 interceptor shooting down a Syrian surface to air missile heading towards Israeli territory.

The launching of the Arrow 2, coupled with air raid sirens in the Jordan Valley, forced the Israeli leadership to acknowledge the air raid on Syria, another departure from the norm.

At the diplomatic level, the incident finally drew a response from Russia, Damascus’ most powerful ally, with the Israeli ambassador to Moscow summoned for an explanation.

Notwithstanding a Russian-Israeli agreement on deconfliction over Syrian skies, Moscow’s cynicism in the face of repeated Israeli raids was beginning to seriously test the patience of Damascus’ more natural allies, namely Hezbollah and the IRGC Quds force.

Indeed, since the entry of the Russian air force in the Syrian conflict in late September 2015, there have been no less than nine verified Israeli strikes on Syrian territory (two strikes between September and December 2015, five strikes in 2016 and at least two so far this year, including Friday's strike), most aimed ostensibly at sophisticated weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. 

Air strikes aimed at degrading Hezbollah’s military capability, thus undermining the latter’s performance in Syrian conflict zones and, by extension, boosting the morale of Syrian rebels and jihadists, not only calls into question Russia’s judgement of tolerating Israeli aggression but, at a deeper level, raise suspicions about Moscow’s strategic objectives in the Syrian conflict. 

Rapid escalation

It remains to be seen whether Moscow is serious in reigning in Israeli operations in Syria. However, the odds are not in favour of Israeli restraint, as evidenced by Israel’s aggressive posturing in the aftermath of the latest incident, notably Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman’s threat to destroy Syrian air defence systems.

Iran has reached a point where it is willing to complicate its strategic engagement with Russia in order to exact revenge on its Israeli foe

To underscore Israeli resolve, only two days after the air raid on Palmyra, a drone strike in Quneitra province killed a seasoned member of the Syrian National Defence Forces. And in a further sign of escalating tensions, an Israeli drone was reportedly shot down over Quneitra, either by Syrian or Hezbollah forces.

The Israelis are also on the offensive on the psychological warfare front by claiming that Hezbollah had organised the assassination of its own commander, Mustafa Badreddine. This extremely implausible story dovetails with an identical Saudi psychological warfare operation.

Israeli behaviour and rhetoric at military, diplomatic and propaganda levels all point toward a trajectory of rapid escalation. In terms of retaliation, hitherto two factors have constrained Iranian and Hezbollah freedom of action, namely preoccupation with the Syrian conflict and fears of upsetting Russia.

As the Syrian conflict winds down, the Iranians and their Lebanese ally feel more emboldened to adequately respond to Israeli military actions. Moreover, Israeli strikes and special operations have taken such a heavy toll, including the assassination of leading commanders such as Badreddine, Jihad Mughniyah and resistance icon Samir Kuntar, that Iran has reached a point where it is willing to complicate its strategic engagement with Russia in order to exact revenge on its Israeli foe.

The question is not if but when a major military confrontation erupts.

- Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics. He is the director of the research group Dysart Consulting. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on 10 September 2016 shows smoke rising from the Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab which Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions after fire from Syria earlier in the day (AFP)  

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.