The events in Israel and Syria on Saturday morning (10 February) were alarming but not surprising. Senior Israeli military officers and politicians have been warning for many months that the presence of Iranian forces in Syria were a clear and present danger to Israel. In November, Prime Minister Netanyahu said on his visit to London that Israel would not tolerate Iran building permanent military installations in Syria and was clear that Israel would take action to stop air bases, naval ports and army bases being built.
Israel has been targeting military installations and advanced weapons centres in Syria for years. The stated aim of this activity is to prevent chemical or advanced ballistic weapons reaching Hezbollah. Recently, Israel has been targeting sites used by Iranian forces. Late last year Israel allegedly destroyed a military installation that the BBC reported was an Iranian base under construction.
As the Syrian regime has gained the upper hand in the seven-year civil war, the regimes allies – Iran, Hezbollah and Russia – have turned their attention to ensuring that their military gains can be entrenched in pursuit of wider strategic objectives. For Iran and Hezbollah, this means establishing military infrastructure near the border with Israel, with the aim of using Syria as a second front that can act in unison with Lebanon in a future conflict with Israel.
Israel’s action on Saturday to destroy an Iranian drone entering its airspace is part of an extensive Israeli intelligence operation monitoring Iranian activity in Syria and seeking to deter and destroy Iranian capabilities that threaten Israel.
At approximately 4:25 am Israel time, an Israeli helicopter intercepted an Iranian drone which entered Israeli airspace near Kfar Ruppin in the Beit Shean Valley. The drone was dispatched from the Iranian controlled T-4 base in Palmyra in eastern Syria.
Shortly after, Israeli jets bombed Iranian targets in Syria, destroying the drone’s mobile command and control centre.
Responding to the Israeli attack, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries fired 20 missiles at the Israeli aircraft. An Israeli F-16 was hit by shrapnel from an exploding anti-aircraft missile whilst returning over Israeli territory. The pilot and navigator ejected from the aircraft and landed within Israel, where they were both taken to hospital. The pilot was seriously injured but his situation has since stabilised after surgery.
At approximately 8:45 am local time, Israeli fighter jets reportedly bombed 12 targets in Syria, including Syrian aerial defence systems and 4 Iranian bases. During the second attack, additional anti-aircraft missiles were launched at the Israeli fighter jets and sirens were sounded in northern Israel.
Why was this significant?
Israeli and Iranian forces were in direct conflict in Syria and not through proxies such as Hezbollah. Iranian forces sent a drone into Israeli airspace; Israel destroyed it and then bombed Iranian positions and likely killed Iranian personnel.
The scale of the response from Syria indicated a change in policy and increased confidence to take Israel on. Israel has launched many bombing raids in Syria previously, but has never met such a severe response – on this occasion the Syrian regime and Iranian forces decided to raise the temperature by using their SA-5 and SA-17 missile batteries. Perhaps they were attempting to challenge Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria.
The loss of an F-16 is a major blow for Israel. The last time Israel lost a combat aircraft to Syrian anti-aircraft fire was in 1982. Hezbollah shot down an Israeli helicopter in 2006. It is unclear exactly how the F-16 was targeted by the Syrian missiles, but the pilot and navigator were able to eject and land in Israel. Had they been killed or landed in Syria, we would obviously be assessing a very different scenario.
Israel responded to the F-16 attack by reportedly destroying more than half of Syria’s anti-aircraft capability. This is intended to severely weaken Syria’s defences and also shows the extent of Israeli intelligence knowledge.
What happens next?
Israel has said it will continue to act in Syria to protect its borders. The US has expressed its support and the US Defence Secretary James Mattis said: “Israel has an absolute right to defend themselves. They don’t have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue.”
Russia has shown it isn’t willing to contain Iran or the Syrian regime. It wants stability in Syria to protect its interests, but at the same time will allow a certain level of conflict to continue because it would rather not intervene.
Given the deployment of forces in Syria and their close proximity to Israel it is sadly only a matter of time before there is a similar confrontation. Israel has shown what it will do if Iran crosses its red line but at the same time both the Syrian regime and Iran have demonstrated they will extract a price from Israel if it bombs Syrian targets again. It will take some time for Syria to rebuild its anti-aircraft capability but Russia will be on hand to supply whatever they need.