In Syrian skies, Israel flies a tricky path

2 alleged Israeli strikes on Syrian army sites in one week indicate growing Israeli concern, but IAF careful to avoid a confrontation with Russian planes

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

An Israeli F-16. (Hagar Amibar/Israeli Air Force)
An Israeli F-16. (Hagar Amibar/Israeli Air Force)

For the second time in a week, Lebanese and Syrian media have reported Israeli strikes deep inside Syria against military targets. The alleged attacks come after months of relative quiet from Israel. So what’s changed?

Last Wednesday, it was reported that Israeli planes attacked two targets, a weapons depot belonging to the 38th battalion of the fourth division (which is commanded by Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher) and a Hezbollah convoy as it was making its way along the Beirut-Damascus Highway.

And a week later, on Wednesday morning, Syrian state media alleged that Israel fired several surface-to-surface missiles from inside the Israeli Golan Heights at a military airbase near Damascus. The impact from the missiles caused a huge fire but no injuries, and the explosions could be heard from a great distance away. Both strikes were reported to have occurred in the early hours of the morning.

Several scenarios could explain the sudden uptick in strikes.

Perhaps the recent series of military successes and achievements by Bashar Assad’s army has re-whetted the Syrian president’s appetite: firstly, to restart manufacturing new weapons and rockets in factories located in the territories he has recently reconquered, and secondly, and most importantly, to renew the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah.

The deployment of Russian radar in Syrian territory is probably making it difficult for the Israeli Air Force to operate freely and there is always the risk of confrontation with Russian aircraft, despite the “hot line” that is meant to prevent any misunderstandings between the two militaries.

So, if Israel has decided to carry out attacks in Syrian territory despite these dangers, it appears that someone on the Syrian side, or in Hezbollah, has crossed a few of Israel’s clear red lines — specifically, the transfer of sophisticated or very precise weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Additionally, the two recent attacks were reportedly carried out from outside Syrian airspace before dawn. This may be a coincidence but it seems that this is a clear attempt by Israel to avoid any confrontation with the Russian air force, which operates predominantly in the daytime. Moreover, the Syrian air force is also mostly active during daylight hours, which has increased the number of civilian casualties. Israel, on the other hand, would prefer to avoid casualties.

The problem is is that it is difficult to predict what kind of a response there will be from Assad, or Hezbollah.

So, for Israel, this is a tightrope walk, and it’s very difficult to know when it will break.

In the past Assad opted for restraint after the bombing of the nuclear facility under construction (according to foreign reports, of course) and other similar attacks. And the claim by the Syrian military Wednesday morning that Israel had attacked from within the Jewish state’s own airspace, rather than Lebanese or Syrian, indicates the regime is trying to avoid having to carry out a counterattack.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has responded with limited force in the past to an attack on one of its convoys (Janta, February 2014, on the Lebanese-Syrian border) and on its men (Imad Mughniyah, in January 2015, and Samir Quntar in December 2015).

Israel always faces the possibility, though, that the Syrian president or Hezbollah will suddenly strike back in a way that changes the rules of the game.

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