The Israel Air Force, after what may have been several warning flights, struck targets in Syria in the early hours of Friday, according to a bevy of international reports. Pentagon officials speaking to CNN, in a brief but prompt leak, asserted that the US does not believe Israeli warplanes entered Syrian skies and that there “is no reason to believe” that Israel struck at a chemical weapons storage facility.
The latest incident, together with what are believed to be other covert actions by Israeli forces in recent months, shines a stark light on the Israel Defense Forces’ current predicament. Israel faces no threat from a standing army on its borders – perhaps for the first time in its existence – but the multiplicity of other threats are such that the chance of triggering a small war, in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza or Sinai, is now a near-daily concern.
More than ever before, the security of the state of Israel, as the strike in Syria seems to illustrate, is reliant on the combination of operable intelligence and long-range air strikes, rather than the depth of the country’s armored divisions and the speed with which the IDF can summon its reserves.
While much of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army is in tatters, his air defense remains intact and is “one of the most advanced in the world,” according to Brig. Gen. Asaf Agmon, the director of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, who says it is superior, at least technologically, to Iran’s air defenses.
According to the New York Times, quoting anonymous US officials, the strike early Friday was launched from Lebanon and targeted a shipment of Iranian ballistic missiles that had arrived at Damascus airport. The Fatah 110 missiles, which Hezbollah reportedly possesses in small number already, were stored in a warehouse under Iranian control and destined for Lebanon, the paper reported.
A look at the previous air strike in Syria, alongside Assad’s current predicament and Hezbollah’s wish list for weapons, buttresses that American assessment.
In late January, the IAF reportedly struck targets near the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Jamraya, outside Damascus. Last week the Wall Street Journal revealed that the attacking aircraft in that incident did not enter Syrian airspace. The paper attributed this ability to a “lofting” maneuver. This means that a pilot flies low and fast and then suddenly pulls up off the ground and in that way lobs a missile toward a faraway target.
“It’s a rather dated technique,” said Agmon. “We used it during the Yom Kippur War.”
Agmon noted that Israel has more advanced techniques and technologies today. He did not want to be more specific but the IAF reportedly possesses Rafael-made air-to-surface Popeye missiles that can strike a truck convoy from over a hundred kilometers away, well within Lebanese and not Syrian airspace.
That would likely have been the weapon of choice early Friday if in fact the IAF carried out the strike.
In 2007, Israel allegedly struck deep within Syria and obliterated a North Korean-made plutonium nuclear reactor. No Israeli officials spoke with the international media several days later or made obvious winks and nods in the direction of responsibility. Taking credit for the strike, all officials believed, would compel Assad to respond, perhaps triggering all-out war with Syria.
Today the situation has changed. War with Syria seems unlikely. Assad’s army is a shell of its former self. The reason Israel avoids Syria’s skies is Assad’s air defense system.
This sort of system would be at the very top of Hezbollah’s shopping list.
The organization juggles several agendas. It seeks to spread the Islamic Revolution as preached from Tehran, to wage war against Israel and to raise its popularity in, and hold over, Lebanon. Those agendas do not always cohere.
In the past, in the late 80s and 90s, Hezbollah claimed to be fighting Israel – acts not seen by all in Lebanon as in the country’s best interest –in order to free Lebanese soil of the Israeli presence. After Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from the south Lebanon “security zone,” the organization continued to amass its arsenal of arms and to develop its army within the sovereign state of Lebanon, it said, in order to rid Lebanon’s skies of Israeli aircraft, among other things. Shooting down an Israeli aircraft over Lebanon would be seen, and surely celebrated, as a victory for the entire cedar state.
But it seems unlikely that Assad would, at this time, reward Hezbollah for its efforts in Syria with surface-to-air missiles. Ever since an Israeli intelligence officer revealed on April 23 that Assad had used sarin gas as a weapon in Syria, the international community has made signs of moving toward implementing a no-fly zone over the country. The regime needs its air defense now more than ever before.
While Arab nations have long emphasized air defense — in the 1973 Yom Kippur War the IAF was stripped of its power by Russian-made surface-to-air missiles — today much of Israel’s defense, perhaps more than ever before, rests on the IAF’s strike capacity (and the homefront’s ability to endure). Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the commander of the IAF, last year described the current period as a war between wars and said that in regards to Syria it is the air force that “almost exclusively” shoulders the burden.
The ability to work with the Mossad, the Shin Bet and military intelligence, along with the readiness and flexibility of the air force, he said, mean that when “a problem pops up” there is no one else who can “act almost immediately.”
The range of threats is enormous. “From the knife to the nuclear,” Eshel said. And the vast majority of them are addressed by a combination of intelligence and long-range strike capacity.
“I have a hard time seeing any place we cannot reach,” said Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the commander of the IDF General Staff, in April. “Maybe if tomorrow there’s a problem in Antarctica then we’ll have to see.”
Gantz, on that day, was in a jocular mood. He said Syria could turn into Allawistan or Afghanikan, a play off the Hebrew for “Afghanistan is here.”
But the chief of the General Staff is well aware that on a nearly daily basis there are developments that could spark a mini war with one of Israel’s neighbors, and Israel’s response involves split-second decisions that can go woefully wrong or immaculately right.
The strike on early Friday, thus far, seems to belong in the latter category. But the challenges will continue.