The shooting down by Syria of an Israeli F-16 shortly after Israel carried out an air strike on Syrian territory has provoked world headlines, as well as a mixture of consternation and threats from Israel.
There is much about this incident which is unclear, but the central fact about it is that an Israeli F-16 has been shot down by the Syrian military, and that its wreckage fell on Israeli territory.
The Israeli claim is that this happened after an Israeli air strike on an Iranian drone trailer near Palmyra, which the Israelis say they carried out in response to an intrusion of an Iranian drone from Syria into their airspace.
The Israelis claim to have brought down this drone and are offering to display it.
Supposedly Syrian air defences responded to this Israeli air strike by shooting down the Israeli F-16 with anti aircraft missiles.
Israel claims that in retaliation it then carried out a further air strike on Syrian territory. Reports suggest that this was against Syrian military facilities near Damascus. Here is how the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports them.
[Syrian] Opposition sources in Damascus said that an Israeli strike targeted a control tower of a Syrian military airfield near Damascus, and a weapons depot near the Syrian capital.
This Israeli account of the whole incident can be found in Haaretz and can be read here.
The Syrians for their part say that they shot down two Israeli aircraft, and not just one.
Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be engaging in “urgent consultations” with senior Israeli officials, and the Israelis have published threats warning that “Iran and Syria are playing with fire”.
However, in reality – despite these characteristically blood-curdling threats – Israel’s response has been muted, with Israel now saying that it does not wish to “escalate” the situation.
……the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces – AM] insisted that Israel does not seek escalation with the two states [ie. between Israel and Syria -AM]. “We are willing, prepared and capable to exact a heavy price from anyone that attacks us, however we are not looking to escalate the situation,” the IDF said, insisting that what they’ve done was merely “a defensive effort triggered by an Iranian act of aggression and we are defending our airspace our sovereignty and civilians.”
What is going on?
Firstly, Israeli air strikes on targets located within Syrian and Lebanese territory are nothing new. They have been taking place regularly ever since the Six Day War of 1967.
Secondly, though the Israelis have identified the Iranians as somehow responsible for the original drone incident, there is no independent corroboration of this, and on the face of it it seems unlikely.
It is not obvious why Iran would want to send a drone over Israeli territory. By contrast it is entirely obvious why Syria might want to do so.
Israeli air raids on Syria, and Israeli air support for Jihadi groups fighting the Syrian army in Syria (especially in the Golan Heights) give the Syrian military an obvious motive for flying surveillance drones over Israel in order to find out what the Israelis are doing there.
Syria is known to import weapons from Iran, and surveillance drones – whose technology Iran is known to have perfected, and which Iran is known to operate in some numbers – are an obvious import.
It is therefore possible – and actually likely – that the drone the Israelis brought down – always assuming of course that it existed, something of which unfortunately one cannot be sure (in the Middle East no-one should ever be assumed to be telling the truth) – was a Syrian drone.
Almost certainly it was of Iranian manufacture, and possibly its operators were Iranians seconded by the Iranian military to the Syrian military, but almost certainly it was carrying out surveillance on behalf of Syria not Iran.
The key point however is that following this alleged incident with the drone the Syrian military successfully shot down an Israeli fighter jet, doing so for the first time since the 1980s, and doing so moreover over Israeli territory, something which I believe has not happened before since the 1973 war.
That indicates a radical shift in the military balance of power between Israel and Syria.
Israel has enjoyed unchallenged control of Middle East air space ever since the 1967 war save for two brief periods: the so-called War of Attrition of 1970 – when its adversary was however the Soviet air defence forces, not the air forces of any of the Arab states – and during the opening days of the 1973 war.
Russian accounts of the air combat between the Israeli and Syrian air forces during the 1982 Lebanon war suggest that it may have been more evenly matched than Israel claimed and the Western media reported at the time. However there is no doubt that in the end the Israelis successfully asserted their air supremacy over the Syrians in that combat.
Since the arrival of the Russians in Syria in September 2015 that situation has however changed.
The Russian Aerospace Forces based at Khmeimim air base are technologically and in training terms at least the equals of the Israeli air force, even if the Israeli air force heavily outnumbers.
The radars and air defence missile systems the Russians have however deployed to Syria – recently reinforced by the despatch of still more S-400 missile systems there – pose an even bigger potential challenge to Israel’s superiority in Middle East air space over the long term.
However the Russians are not currently Israel’s enemy – Israel and Russia presently have cordial relations – and though this is a worrying development for Israel – especially now that the Russians have decided to establish permanent bases in Syria – it is not a reason for immediate concern.
By contrast the Israelis do perceive Syria as an enemy. Syria and Israel have in fact been in a formal state of war ever since the state of Israel was founded in 1948.
The fact that the Syrians have therefore demonstrated an ability to shoot down Israeli fighter aircraft will alarm the Israelis considerably. Moreover there are aspects of this particular incident which will alarm the Israelis even more.
The fact that the F-16 was shot down over Israeli territory suggests either that the original Israeli air strike was carried out from Israeli territory – with the Israelis launching long range stand-off missiles against the alleged drone facility from their own air space – or that the Syrians waited for the Israeli aircraft to return to their bases after the air strike before attacking them.
In either case the Syrians have shown that they are able to track and target Israeli aircraft flying in Israeli air space.
If the Syrians shot down the F-16 in an ambush when it was returning to its base then they have also demonstrated a previously unknown level of tactical skill.
Moreover this development has not come from nowhere. Here is what I wrote on 20th March 2017 following an uncannily similar incident when Syria also tried to shoot down Israeli aircraft over Israel following an Israeli air strike on a military facility near Palmyra
……..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…..
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 Syrian military is…….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…..
It looks as if the pattern of events today is very similar.
The original Israel attack on this occasion – like the one in March 2017 – was probably against Syria’s giant Tiyas air base, which is the main Syrian military facility near Palmyra. Possibly it was launched against a drone control and launch facility operating from there if the story of the drone is true. Most probably – just as was the case in March 2017 – it was carried out at long range with Popeye or Delilah stand off missiles.
Subsequently – just as happened in March 2017 – the Syrians tracked the Israeli aircraft as they were returning to their bases, and then ambushed them by launching long range S-200 anti aircraft missiles against them as they were approaching their bases.
The difference is that whereas in March 2017 the ambush failed, on this occasion it succeeded.
In other words the Syrians have not only demonstrated the technical capability to track and shoot down Israeli aircraft over Israel, which they had already previously demonstrated last March. They have now also demonstrated the ability to use this capability successfully as well.
That suggests a further improvement in Syrian skill and ability since March.
At this point it is worth adding that this radical improvement in Syrian air defence capabilities is being matched by equally radical improvements in the performance of Syrian ground forces, as they benefit increasingly from Iranian and especially Russian advice, training and technical support.
Whereas in early 2016 – immediately following the start of the Russian intervention in September 2015 – Syrian military advances against Al-Qaeda in western Syria were slow and incremental, being measured in one or two kilometres a day, today – as the recently completed Idlib offensive shows – the Syrian army is capable of advances of hundreds of kilometres over the course of just a few weeks or even days.
It is this radical improvement in Syrian military capabilities which almost certainly explains the muted Israeli response to the shooting down of their F-16. The Israelis have not launched the sort of all-out attack on Syrian bases, which their previous history suggests might have been expected from them, because they now fear they will suffer further casualties if they do so.
In other words for the first time in decades an Arab state has demonstrated its ability to defend itself, and has forced Israel to draw back.
That demonstrates a radical shift in the balance of military power in the Middle East, and will cause Israel extreme concern.