Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The cost of Israeli bombing raids

Syria’s spirited defence of its airspace from Israeli raids earlier this month was a clear signal that future violations will draw a sharp response

The Israeli strikes on Syria earlier this month were a significant escalation which, if repeated, could spark a wider confrontation between the so-called “axis of resistance” and the Israeli 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 was 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 the 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 position, not least because Russian air defence systems have total coverage of Syrian air space and no air force can operate there without at least tacit Russian agreement.

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

More ominously for Israel, the Lebanese group Hizbullah 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.

The strikes were also unusual in so far as they were aimed at targets deep inside Syrian territory. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s routine description of the strikes as aimed at “advanced” weapons shipment bound for Hizbullah 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, would be sufficient cause for a robust response, the fact is the scale and complexity of the Syrian conflict has given the Israeli air force almost carte blanche to pick out targets in Syrian territory.

However, this normalisation of routine violations of Syrian sovereignty appears to be coming to an end, as evidenced by the spirited reaction of the Syrian air defence operators. While the details are still sketchy and conflicting, it appears that the 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 drew a response from Russia, the Syrian government’s most powerful ally, with the Israeli ambassador to Moscow summoned for an explanation. Notwithstanding a Russian-Israeli agreement to avoid conflict in Syrian skies, Moscow’s cynicism in the face of repeated Israeli raids was beginning to seriously test the patience of Syria’s other allies, namely Hizbullah and the IRGC Al-Quds Force.

Indeed, since the entry of the Russian air force into the Syrian conflict in late September 2015, there have been no fewer 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), most aimed ostensibly at sophisticated weapons shipments bound for Hizbullah.

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

It remains to be seen whether Moscow is serious in reining 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.

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

Israeli behaviour and rhetoric at the military, diplomatic and propaganda levels all point towards a trajectory of rapid escalation. In terms of retaliation, two factors have hitherto constrained Iranian and Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah commanders such as Mustafa Badreddine, Jihad Mughniyah and 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 will erupt.

The writer is an analyst of Iranian politics and director of the research group Dysart Consulting.

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