Israel’s predawn retaliatory airstrike campaign on Thursday primarily targeted dozens of Iranian bases, command centers and weapons caches in Syria, but along the way Israeli jets dealt a crushing blow to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s already severely weakened air defenses.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, shortly after midnight, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s al-Quds Force launched 20 Grad and Fajr-5 rockets from southern Syria at Israeli military positions on the Golan Heights, following weeks of threats from Tehran to attack the Jewish state for a number of airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria in recent months that were attributed to Israel.
Israeli officials, who had repeatedly warned that the IDF would respond aggressively to any Iranian attack, ordered widespread reprisal raids, hitting Tehran-linked positions in southern, central and northern Syria.
Assad regime anti-aircraft batteries opened fire on Israeli planes during the extensive overnight aerial campaign, but hit none of them, the IDF said.
In response, the Israeli Air Force targeted “a number” of Syrian army air defense systems, including at least four varieties of Russian-made batteries, the army said.
Earlier, the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesperson warned that “any Syrian involvement against [Israel’s airstrikes] will be met with the utmost severity.”
Syria’s state news agency, after initially reporting that the country’s air defenses were intercepting dozens of “hostile Israeli missiles” and “dropping them one by one,” later acknowledged that at least some of the Israeli strikes had gotten through and hit a number of military bases, without specifying the locations.
“The Israeli offensive killed three martyrs and injured two more. It also destroyed a radar station, an ammunition warehouse and it also caused damage to several air defense battalions,” the Syrian army told state media.
This death toll was far lower than ones offered by other sources.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the Israeli strikes killed at least 23 pro-regime fighters, including five Syrian army troops and 18 other allied forces.
The monitor said the regime troops killed in the strikes included an officer, adding that the other casualties included Syrians and foreigners.
On Thursday morning, Moscow backed up some of the Syrian military’s claims, saying approximately half of the incoming Israeli missiles had been intercepted by Bashar Assad’s air defenses.
The Russian defense ministry told local media that 28 Israeli F-15 fighter jets had fired 60 missiles and IDF ground troops had launched 10 surface-to-surface missiles at targets inside Syria.
There were no reports of Syria’s air defenses hitting Israeli jets on Thursday night.
“All of our planes returned home safely,” the army said.
Debris from the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles rained down across the region, reportedly landing inside Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
According to the IDF, its strikes targeted the Russian-made long-range SA-5, also known as the S-200, which is the predecessor of the more advanced S-300 and S-400; the Russian high altitude SA-2, or S-75; the Russian short- to medium-range SA-22, also known as the Pantsir-S1; and the SA-17 medium-range air defense system, also known as the Buk.
The SA-2 and SA-5 are both older models — first built in the 1950s and ’60s, respectively — but have been upgraded over the years, though they remain relatively antiquated, compared to Israel’s more modern aircraft and missile capabilities.
The SA-17 and SA-22 are newer designs and are considered some of the world’s leading air defense systems.
Thursday’s strike on Assad’s anti-aircraft systems came three months after the Israeli military said IAF jets had destroyed between one-third and one-half of Syria’s air defenses in clashes that followed the infiltration of Israeli air space by an explosives-laden Iranian drone.
On February 10, after an Israeli helicopter shot down the incoming drone, eight IAF jets took part in an airstrike on the T-4 military base near Palmyra in central Syria, from which the IDF says an Iranian piloted the unmanned aerial vehicle.
During the attack on the base, one of the F-16 fighter jets was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel. The pilot and navigator ejected. In response to the downing of the F-16, the Israeli Air Force conducted a widespread retaliatory strike on Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries, destroying a significant amount of them.
“It was a respectable percentage, a serious blow to Syrian anti-aircraft capabilities. We’ll only know for sure if we ever have to attack again,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said at the time.
Agencies contributed to this report.