First reported IAF strikes in months hint at importance of targets
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Analysis

First reported IAF strikes in months hint at importance of targets

Israel said to act on declared 'red lines' with overnight air raids on Syrian military base, Hezbollah weapons convoy

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An F-15I fighter jet performs an acrobatic display during a ceremony in the Hatzerim Air Base near Beersheba on June 23, 2013. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
An F-15I fighter jet performs an acrobatic display during a ceremony in the Hatzerim Air Base near Beersheba on June 23, 2013. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

For the first time in three months, Israeli jets reportedly struck targets in Syria early Wednesday morning, hitting a Bashar Assad regime military base and a Hezbollah convoy en route to Lebanon, according to foreign media.

The Israel Defense Forces, as is its wont, would neither confirm nor deny it had carried out the strikes.

Once regular occurrences, these types of alleged Israeli attacks have slowed in recent months, with many pointing to Russia’s deployment of the advanced S-400 missile defense system as being the cause.

A senior air force officer, speaking to reporters earlier this week, noted the Russian military’s deployment in Syrian to support the Assad regime presented “challenges” for Israel and made for “interesting times.”

S-400 Triumf missile defense system at the Russian Hmeimin military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015. (Paul Gypteau/AFP)
S-400 Triumf missile defense system at the Russian Hmeimin military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015. (Paul Gypteau/AFP)

The S-400 anti-aircraft battery and its powerful radar, which are situated in the western Syrian city of Latakia, have hindered Israel’s once unchallenged air superiority in the region, according to most experts, though the IDF and Defense Ministry loath to publicly complain about the situation.

The missile defense battery is not directed at Israel, but it’s mere existence in the region is a curb on Israel’s freedom of action. According to Arab media, the Israeli planes remained within Lebanese airspace during the attack, perhaps a sign of reticence to fly directly over Syrian territory.

But Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has had serious implications not only on the immediate, technical issue of Israel’s air superiority, but on a strategic level as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a toast during a ceremony for receiving diplomatic credentials from foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2016. (Sergei Karpukhin/via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a toast during a ceremony for receiving diplomatic credentials from foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, November 9, 2016. (Sergei Karpukhin/via AP)

Since the Russians’ arrival in Syria some 14 months ago, they have turned the “momentum” of the fighting in favor of Assad, the air force official said, presenting a boon to the Alawite leader, as well as his supporters Iran and Hezbollah, two of Israel’s fiercest enemies.

With Russia’s help, Assad has regained both territory and power in the past year, including over some of his weapons factories, which had previously been captured by rebel forces. This allows him to both manufacture advanced arms for Hezbollah and help facilitate weapon transfers from Iran to Lebanon.

And so, despite the S-400, Israeli aircraft allegedly took to the skies just after midnight Wednesday, and launched two attacks at two different locations inside Syria.

‘Intelligence, it seems, found a transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and Israel decided that wasn’t going to happen’

According to local media, the first strike hit a weapons cache on an army base in Damascus belonging to the 38th Brigade of the regime’s 4th Armored Division, one of the Syrian military’s more elite units, which is commanded by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher.

The second hit a number of vehicles traveling on the Damascus-Beirut highway, which are believed to have been part of the Hezbollah weapons convoy, according to the Kuwaiti news network al-Rai.

This was the first such incident reported since August, indicating an apparent urgency to conduct such an operation.

“Israeli intelligence, it seems, found a transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and Israel decided that this wasn’t going to happen,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, the former National Security Adviser, told Army Radio Wednesday night.

Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror (Flash90)
Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror (Flash90)

“That’s one of our ‘red lines,’ which we’ve admitted and declared and acted on in the past,” he said.

In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Israel has carried out “dozens” of strikes on attempted arms transfers in Syria and promised it would continue to target the smuggling of “game changing” weaponry.

Though the 24 hours since the attack have passed calmly, Hezbollah and Assad, “emboldened” by their recent victories on the battlefield, may attempt to retaliate against Israel, warned Nadav Pollak, a former researcher at the Washington Institute and counter-terrorism analyst for the Anti-Defamation League.

A response is not necessarily likely, as no Hezbollah or Syrian soldiers were reported injured in the incidents, which otherwise might have demanded some form of retaliation However, Syria has attempted to take action against Israel in the past.

In September, an Assad regime missile defense battery fired at two IAF aircraft that were carrying out a strike in the Syrian Golan Heights in response to an errant mortar shell that hit Israel.

That case is “an indication [that] they dare more than before,” Pollak told The Times of Israel.

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