Israel Launches Flurry of Strikes in Syria as its Air War in the Country Turns to Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says “we will not allow" Iran "to entrench itself militarily in Syria."

IAF

Israeli aircraft have reportedly launched a new series of attacks in Syria focused on suburbs of the capital Damascus, just days after a similar strike, and details about all of them remain sketchy. What does seem clear is that Israel remains determined as ever to prevent Iran from gaining any firmer a foothold in Syria while also looking to expand its own diplomatic ties and work to isolate the regime in Tehran more broadly.

On the night of Dec. 4-5, 2017, Israel reportedly struck targets in the Syrian cities of Yafour, Deiraj, and Jamraya, all in and around Damascus. Reports are still coming in as to type of weapons employed, the nature of potential targets, and the results of the strikes, but Israel had previously attacked Jamraya, home to a Syrian military base and suspected chemical weapons production site, twice in 2013

Syrian state media outlet SANA reported that Israeli aircraft had fired six missiles and that the country's air defenders had intercepted three of them, though there was no independent confirmation of those details. Separate reports suggested the attacks had destroyed the chemical weapons facility in Jamraya, as well as an S-200 surface-to-air missile position.

These new reports follow an earlier strike overnight on Dec. 1-2, 2017, when at least five missiles hurtled toward the city of Al Kiswah, another suburb of Damascus situated some 10 miles to the south, according to SANA. In that incident, Syrian officials said Israeli forces had employed surface-to-surface weapons, while other reports said that the Israeli Air Force jets had launched cruise missiles while inside Lebanese air space.

Syria said that the target was an ammunition depot belonging to the country’s 1st Division, while international media outlets said the attack leveled a base that experts believed to be Iranian-operated. It was unclear if there were any Iranians actually at the site at the time. As is commonly the case, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declined to confirm or deny that any of these strikes even occurred.

However, “let me reiterate Israel’s policy. We will not allow a regime [Iran] hell bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in part of a taped address that authorities released on Dec. 2, 2017. “We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”

The Israeli prime minister had taped the remarks on Nov. 30, 2017 and Israeli authorities said they would present the full speech as part of think tank Brookings’ annual Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., which occurred on Dec. 3, 2017. Earlier in November 2017, Netanyahu had insisted that Israel could not and would not allow Iran to establish a military presence near his country’s border, a sentiment other members of his cabinet have echoed recently.

Though the release of the statement was not officially tied to the reported strike, it seems hard to believe the two events were unrelated. After the incident, experts and observers quickly obtained satellite imagery that appeared to show heavy damage to a suspected Iranian-run site in Al Kiswah.

In November 2017, the private U.K.-based McKenzie Intelligence Services first released analysis suggesting the facilities were part of an expanding Iranian presence near Damascus. Based on satellite imagery from October 2017, the analysts identified several barracks and other buildings, as well as additional structures under construction.

We don’t know whether the site was complete and occupied at the time of the reported attack in December 2017. It is possible that Iranians, Iranian-backed fighters including Hezbollah personnel, or a mixture of both were situated at the facilities at the time. The Times of Israel, citing Lebanon’s Al Mustaqbal television and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, reported that 12 members of Iran’s powerful paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which operators in Syria overly to train and advise Syrian and other local forces, had died in the attack.

Syria claimed to have shot down two of the incoming missiles over Al Kiswah and an amateur video, widely available on social media, appeared to show one of them exploding in mid-air, but there has been no independent confirmation of the intercepts. Assad has threatened to retaliate against Israel over previous strikes and has attempted to intercept attacking aircraft during past attacks, though his forces have not been able to successfully shoot down any of them.

It is possible that Israel could have decided to use ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles in this instance in light of Syria’s increasing attempts to knock down its aircraft. Israeli ground forces would be able to hit Al Kiswah from within the country by using the EXTRA GPS-guided artillery rockets, which have a range of more than 90 miles.

Since at least 2016, the IDF has also reportedly been considering purchasing a short-range, semi-containerized tactical ballistic missile, such as Israel Military Industries’ Predator Hawk or Israel Aerospace Industries’ Long Range Artillery (LORA) system, both of which would have more than enough range to hit targets in Syria from within Israel. Israeli Dolphin-class submarines almost certainly have a submarine-launched cruise missile capability, but these are reportedly part of the country’s unacknowledged nuclear deterrent rather than tactical weapons.

Still, employing air-launched stand-off cruise missiles while flying over Lebanon would have given Israeli aircraft a degree protection from Syria’s aging, if still threatening air defenses. There has been no evidence that more advanced Russian S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, which are officially linked to the main Syrian air defense network, have engaged Israeli forces. None of these defenses were apparently enough to dissuade Israel from reportedly launching an earlier air strike against facilities linked to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Researchers Center, responsible for the country’s ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs, near Masyaf further north of Damascus in September 2017.

IMI

A test launch of IMI's Predator Hawk.

Regardless of the weapons Israel used in the strike, and though it would be broadly in line with its earlier strikes in Syria, directly attacking Iranian forces would mark a significant escalation in the campaign. Since Syria descended into civil war in 2011, Israel has repeatedly launched punitive attacks into the country. The ostensible goal of this has largely been to prevent the transfer of significant amounts of advanced weaponry, including ballistic and anti-ship cruise missile technology, to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has been fighting on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, establishing itself more fully inside the country.  Iran has been supporting both parties, as well as a number of other militias, as well as deploying its own forces to help defeat the anti-regime insurgency.

Israel has steadily expanded its aerial campaign in Syria to include both regime or Iranian targets, with the September 2017 strike on the Syrian Scientific Studies and Researchers Center site already marking an important escalation in the size and scope of the operations. The main reason for this shift appears to be the success that Iranian forces and their allies have had in establishing a land route that would link Tehran with its Shia Muslim partners in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which has incensed Israel.

IAF

An Israeli F-16 during a training exercise.

As the threat of ISIS terrorists has waned in both Iraq and Syria, Iran and their regional partners have been able to consolidate these gains. Underscoring this increased Iranian influence and cooperation in the region, in August 2017, ImageSat International (iSi), another private satellite imagery and geospatial intelligence firm, published analysis of a reported ballistic missile site in Syria.

Based on the imagery, iSi suggested the Iran was either helping Syria expand its own ballistic missile facilities or was setting up its own sites in the country as a way to disperse its own program and protect it from international scrutiny and attack, or both. Either way, both the Syrian government and Hezbollah had to the potential to benefit from the new developments.

In the meantime, Russia, another of Assad’s principle allies, has made various attempts to broker a deal to either stop or at least slow Israeli strikes. Though Syrian forces and their partners have in principle agreed to respect a buffer zone along the border with Israel, Netanyahu’s government has indicated repeatedly indicated that this is still unacceptable.

There have also been numerous sporadic clashes in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights region throughout the course of the Syrian civil war, though it has been unclear in many cases what particular party to that conflict has been responsible. In October 2017, Israeli tanks fired into Syria after a mortar round exploded on open ground near their position.

Zachi Evenor via Wikimedia

An Israeli Merkava Mk 4 tank.

“We do not accept spillovers,” Netanyahu’s said according to an official statement at the time. “If they hit us we return fire – and it doesn’t take much time.”

At the same time, Israel has been steadily seeking to grow its ties with both traditional allies and even past opponents over shared a shared interest in containing Iran. Whether or it was an air- or ground-launched strike, the attack on Al Kiswah came just weeks after the IDF hosted dozens of fighter jets from, officially seven countries, including the United States, France, and Germany, for an exercise called Blue Flag 2017. It was the first time the latter two has taken part in the biennial drills, which began in 2013.

USAF

A German Eurofighter Typhoon emerges from a hardened aircraft shelter at Uvda Air Force Base in Israel during Blue Flag 2017.

An eighth military, Jordan, apparently quietly sent its own F-16 fighters to join the event, too. The Hashemite Kingdom has a long-standing security relationship with the Israelis, even before the two signed a formal peace deal in 1994. Since then, the two have discreetly trained together on numerous occasions.

In 2015, an Israeli Air Force KC-707 tanker helped refuel Jordanian Vipers as they made their way to the United States for one of the U.S. Air Force’s major Red Flag exercises, underscoring a growing level of cooperation. Jordan has also been an important, but quiet part of the American-led counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and has come out publicly against Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East and beyond.

A pair of diplomatic incidents earlier in 2017 threatened to upend Israeli-Jordanian relations. The Israelis briefly restricted access to part Jerusalem's Old City that Jordan acts as the custodian of and an Israeli embassy guard in the Jordanian capital Amman killed two Jordanian citizens. The diplomatic wounds remain open, but both countries appear to be committed to maintaining their defense and security ties in the meantime.

“There are some strategic problems that Iran is involved in in our area,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II told The Washington Post in an interview in April 2017. “But here, again, is an opportunity: bringing Israel and the Arabs closer together.”

Israel seems to have recognized this itself and appears to be in the process of conducting significant outreach elsewhere in the Arab world, especially to Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In November 2017, IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot gave an unprecedented interview with Saudi online newspaper Elaph, in which he suggested Israel would be willing to share intelligence with the Kingdom regarding Iran.

This was first time any senior Israeli military officer had given an interview to a Saudi media outlet of any kind, according to Israel’s Haaretz. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the government in Riyadh, which itself does not official recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Sipa via AP

IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot

There are reports that this could change as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman continues to oversee a historic purge of his political opponents and consolidate power in the country. Commonly known as MbS, experts see the royal heir as being the driving force behind new Saudi domestic and foreign policies, which heavily focus on containing Iran’s influence. He had previously been in charge of directing the country’s controversial intervention in Yemen, where, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are seeking to establish control.  

U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have also been broadly supportive of closer cooperation between Israel and various Arab states to form a cohesive front against Iran. In October 2017, Trump announced his own new hard line policy toward the Iranian regime, designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, seeking to redefine the controversial deal over Tehran’s nuclear developments, and calling America's allies to join with the new push.

Trump has also overseen increased sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and other American partners in the Middle East, as well as the establishment of an official permanent U.S. military base in Israel, and is reportedly in talks to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. The latter decision could potentially up-end the Israel-Palestinian peace process, as both parties claim the city as their exclusive capital, but would underscore the administration’s support for the Jewish state.

However Israel’s diplomatic ties develop throughout the Middle East, it seems that the country’s government feels it either has increasing political leeway to expand its punitive actions in Syria or that it simply must act to prevent Iran from becoming anymore entrenched, or some combination of both. These strikes, whether they are from air or ground platforms, will almost certainly continue in the near term at least, and they look to be steadily expanding in both size and scope.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com