The Russians have now formally confirmed earlier media reports that following the Israeli air raid on Syria on Friday the Israeli ambassador in Moscow was called in to the Russian Foreign Ministry to be handed a stern lecture and a stiff protest.
Moscow’s confirmation of the Russian protest to Israel, and the fact that the Israeli ambassador was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry within hours of the raid taking place, shows how seriously the Russians are treating this incident.
What is most interesting – and worrying – about this incident is not whether or not an Israeli aircraft was shot down. The Syrians regularly claim to have shot down Israel aircraft, and the Israelis equally regularly deny this was the case. The Syrians have provided no evidence of any Israeli aircraft being shot down, and it is unlikely one was.
Rather what is worrying about this incident is that the Syrians claim that the air raid targeted Syrian military facilities near Palmyra – deep inside Syria – and that the Syrians were sufficiently concerned about the air strike that they in turn attempted to shoot the Israeli aircraft down whilst they were flying over Israeli territory.
To understand what happened it is necessary to piece together the facts of the incident to the extent that the limited information available makes that possible.
The first report of the incident was provided by the official Syrian news agency SANA, whose report reads as follows
According to a statement by the Command, the four Israeli aircrafts violated the Syrian airspace in al-Breij area through the Lebanese territories at 2:40 am.
The Israeli warplanes targeted a military site near Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs, said the Army’s Command, confirming that the Syria air defense forces confronted the enemy’s aircrafts and shot down one of them inside the occupied territories, hit another and forced the other two to withdraw.
“This blatant Israeli act of aggression came as part of the Zionist enemy’s persistence with supporting ISIS terrorist gangs and in a desperate attempt to raise their deteriorating morale and divert attention away from the victories which Syrian Arab Army is making in the face of the terrorist organizations,” the statement read.
From this report it appears that the Israeli aircraft did not penetrate deep into Syrian territory. Rather it seems that the Israeli aircraft slipped across the border, almost immediately launched their missiles against their target, and then turned back home.
Probably the most accurate account of the Israeli aircraft movements during the raid is provided here
According the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), at 2:34 AM four Israeli jets flying at low altitude entered Lebanese airspace from the Mediterranean over the south Lebanese village of Al-Abbassiyeh. Though the LAF claims the jets turned back to Israel shortly afterwards, it appears they may have actually continued flying towards northeastern Lebanon. From there, according to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the jets entered Syria at 2:40 AM over the village of al-Bureij – across the border from northeastern Lebanon – and, using stand-off missiles, targeted a Syrian army position in the direction of Palmyra. Other pro-Assad sources claimed that nearby Beqaa Valley residents heard explosions at a target between the Lebanese border and Damascus. Though the Israeli army acknowledged – for the first time – that it had carried out the strike, it did not reveal any information on its targets.
The stand-off missiles the Israelis would have used would have been either Popeye missiles or – more probably – longer range Delilah cruise missiles, which undoubtedly do have the range to reach targets near Palmyra from the al-Bureij area.
The Syrians appear to have retaliated by launching S-200 (“SAM-5”) missiles at the Israeli aircraft after the raid as the aircraft were returning home to their bases.
The Syrians seem to have waited until the Israeli aircraft had recrossed the Lebanese border back into Israel before launching their missiles. The SANA report clearly says that the air defence missiles were launched at the Israeli aircraft whilst they were over “occupied territory”, which might mean the West Bank or the Golan Heights, but more likely is intended to mean Israel itself (Syria has still not recognised Israel and officially considers the whole of Israel to be occupied Palestinian territory).
The Israelis claim that one of the Syrian air defence missiles launched at their aircraft was itself shot down by an Israeli Arrow-3 missile.
There is again no evidence of any Syrian missile being actually shot down, and as several people have pointed out, using an air defence missile designed to protect Israel from missiles launched at ground targets in order to shoot down an air defence missile launched unsuccessfully at an aircraft, on the face of it makes little sense.
If the Israelis did launch one of their Arrow-3 missiles at a Syrian S-200 missile that was attempting to shoot down one of their aicraft, then that suggests that they misidentified the Syrian missile, which in turn also suggests that they were taken by surprise and did not expect the Syrian response.
That a missile strike of some sort did take place over Israeli territory is however confirmed by eyewitness reports
A sonic boom could be heard in parts of Israel and the West Bank, including Jerusalem, sirens sounded in the Jordan Valley.
Clearly neither the Syrians nor the Israelis are being entirely forthcoming about what happened, but that this was an extremely serious incident is of no doubt.
The Israelis regularly carry out air strikes in Syria. It is however a long time since they have launched a strike so deep into Syria as Palmyra.
The Israelis have not admitted that the target of the strike was near Palmyra. However they have not denied it either, and unofficial reports from Israel suggest the target of the strike was in fact Syria’s Tiyas or T4 air base, which is located in the general area of Palmyra.
The Syrians in turn, though they make regular claim of having shot down Israeli aircraft overflying their territory, have not attempted to shoot down Israeli aircraft flying over Israeli territory for a very long time. That they attempted to do so in this case, essentially ambushing Israeli aircraft as they were returning to their bases after the raid, shows both their anger at the raid and the significant recent increase in their capabilities, with the Syrians now able to track Israeli aircraft inside Israeli controlled territory after they complete their missions.
The Russians for their part have never been known to call in the Israeli ambassador over an Israeli air raid in Syria at any time since Russia began its intervention in Syria in September 2015. That they have done so in this case shows how seriously they are treating this incident.
Lastly, the blustering response from the Israelis, with Netanyahu issuing thinly veiled warnings to Moscow and the Israelis bragging about their ability to destroy Syria’s air defences and threatening to do so “without the slightest hesitation”, suggests that they are rattled, and that they have been taken by surprise and are alarmed by the Syrian and Russian response.
The key to explaining this incident is the probable target of the raid: Syria’s Tiyas or T4 air base.
Contrary to some claims, the Tiyas air base has never been captured by ISIS or by any other Jihadi group, though ISIS did unsuccessfully attempt to capture it following its temporary capture of Palmyra last December.
Tiyas is one of Syria’s biggest air bases, and was the base from which the Syrian army launched its counter-offensive which recaptured Palmyra a few weeks ago. Tiyas is now providing critical support to the ongoing Syrian military offensive against ISIS, whose ultimate objective appears to be the relief of the besieged eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor.
Unofficially, the Israelis always claim that their air strikes in Syria are intended to prevent weapons supplies to Hezbollah. In this case unofficial claims are circulating in Israel that the air strike was intended to stop a handover of Scud missiles at the Tiyas air base by Syria to Hezbollah.
This is on the face of it extremely unlikely. There are no reports of Hezbollah fighters present in any number near Palmyra or at the Tiyas base, or of them being involved in the ongoing Syrian military offensive against ISIS. It is anyway unlikely that the Syrians would use the Tiyas air base – close to the front line in the fight against ISIS and far away from Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon – in order to supply Scud missiles to Hezbollah. If the Syrians really were transferring such powerful weapons to Hezbollah, a far more likely place for them to do it would be Damascus.
A far more natural explanation for the Israeli raid is that it was intended to disrupt the ongoing Syrian army offensive against ISIS, which relies heavily on smooth operation of the Tiyas air base. This after all is what the Syrian military is quoted by SANA (see above) as saying was the reason for the raid
“This blatant Israeli act of aggression came as part of the Zionist enemy’s persistence with supporting ISIS terrorist gangs and in a desperate attempt to raise their deteriorating morale and divert attention away from the victories which Syrian Arab Army is making in the face of the terrorist organizations.”
There have been persistent reports throughout the Syrian war that Israel would prefer a Jihadi victory or even an ISIS victory in Syria to the restoration of the Syrian government’s full control over Syria.
The Syrian government’s major regional allies are Iran and Hezbollah, which Israel has come to see as its major enemies, so the possibility that Israel might wish to see the Syrian government defeated is not in itself unlikely. Possibly rather than an outright Jihadi victory, which might cause Israel serious problems in the future, what some tough minded people in Israel want is an indefinite prolongation of the war, so as to tie down the Syrian military, Hezbollah and Iran, preventing them from challenging Israel.
If that is indeed the thinking of some people in Tel Aviv, then it would explain the raid on the Tiyas air base. It would however be an astonishingly reckless and cynical thing to do, to support an organisation like ISIS in order to disrupt the alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
Of course there is a widespread view that it was precisely in order to disrupt this alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah that the Syrian war was launched in the first place. Whether or not that is so, and whether or not Israel had any part in that, the Israelis now need to reconsider their stance. On any objective assessment their tactic of providing discrete backing to ISIS and to the other Jihadi groups fighting the Syrian government is achieving the opposite of Israel’s interests.
Instead of weakening or breaking the alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, the Syrian war has made it stronger, with Iran and Hezbollah both coming to Syria’s rescue, and Iraq increasingly cooperating with them in doing so. The result is that Iran’s influence in Syria has grown stronger so that there is now even talk of Iran establishing a naval base in Syria, whilst Hezbollah is probably stronger than it has ever been before.
The Syrian military is also becoming significantly stronger, with the incident of the raid showing that technical help from Russia has now made it possible for the Syrians to track and intercept Israeli aircraft over Israeli territory.
The Syrian war has also caused Russia to intervene in Syria, making Russia a de facto ally of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
The result is that Russia is now busy establishing a massive air defence and military base complex in Syria, which for the first time has brought a military superpower with far greater technological and military resources than Israel’s own close to Israel’s border.
The result is that for the first time in its history – apart from the brief period of the so-called War of Attrition (‘Operation Kavkaz’) of 1970 – Israel’s military dominance in the region of the region is being seriously challenged. Already there are reports that the Russian air defence system in Syria is too advanced for the Israelis to defeat, and that the Russians have the ability to track every single Israeli aircraft that takes off in Israel itself.
Lastly, the Russian protest to Israel on Friday shows that the Russians are prepared to speak up for Syria if it is being attacked or threatened.
Perpetual military confrontation with its neighbours is not the solution to Israel’s security problems. Nor is the attempt to conjure up a witches’ brew of Jihadi terrorist groups in order to disrupt or destabilise them a good idea, whilst an outright alliance with groups like ISIS – however discretely it is done – is frankly a deeply immoral and appalling idea.
It is to be sincerely hoped that following the incident on Friday there are some cooler heads in Israel that are able to see this.