Israeli Airstrikes, Syrian Threats Heighten Tensions
Israel has conducted four sets of airstrikes in Syria since March 16, targeting the regime, Hezbollah, and
alleged weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. These strikes prompted Syrian anti-aircraft missile fire and diplomatic protests. Israel acknowledged its raid on Palmyra on the night of March 16, which struck missiles earmarked for Hezbollah. Both sides issued dire threats after Israel intercepted Syrian missiles aimed at its aircraft. Israel threatened to destroy Syrian air defenses, and Syria pledged missile attacks on Israel after additional Israeli airstrikes on March 19, 20, and 22.
According to the Long War Journal, four Israeli warplanes crossed into Syrian territory by way of Lebanon at 2:40 AM and hit a weapons cache at Palmyra’s T-4 airport that was destined for Hezbollah. In response, Syria’s air defense forces fired multiple SA-5 anti-aircraft missiles at the raiders while the jets were in Israeli airspace, triggering rocket sirens in Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley. Israel then deployed its Arrow anti-ballistic missile system for the first time, shooting down one of the incoming missiles; debris from the SA-5 landed in northern Jordan. Syria claimed that its missiles had shot down one IAF plane and damaged a second, while Israel denied any losses.
While the attacks on Palmyra and the follow-up raids are certainly some of the most high-profile IDF strikes in Syria, they are hardly unprecedented. Israel’s most dramatic operation against Assad was its September 2007 destruction of a suspected nuclear reactor in Deir el-Zor, which Israeli leaders feared was a component of the Assad regime’s nuclear weapons program. Despite the strategic importance of the facility, Assad denied that the Al Kibar site was a reactor and refrained from retaliating. Since then, Israel has repeatedly struck Hezbollah arms shipments within Syria, including four attacks since December 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, were unusually vocal in the wake of the strikes in Syria. On March 17, the day after the raid on Palmyra, Netanyahu declared that Israel would continue blocking “attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah,” as long as they “have intelligence and it is operationally feasible.” Two days later, Liberman stated that any more Syrian air defense launches against Israel aircraft would be met in kind: “We will destroy all of them without thinking twice,” he announced. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah fired back, claiming that Israel feared ISIS losing in Syria - a version of the conspiracy theory sometimes promulgated by Iran that the terrorist group is an Israeli or American creation. Syria complained to the UN Secretary General and the Security Council’s chief over what it called “blatant Israeli aggression… [and] a violation of international law” while promising to reciprocate.
Following the incident, which analyst David Daoud called “the most serious clash between Syria and Israel” in years, Russia summoned Israeli ambassador Gary Koren. Netanyahu denied Syrian claims that Putin had pressed Israel to stop airstrikes, saying he informed Moscow on March 9 that Israel would continue blocking weapons shipments. Russia was clearly angered by the strike, which was conducted near its forces; Israel did not give Russia advance warning of imminent air raids. Similar to President Obama’s notorious “red line” in Syria, Israel’s own "red line" against missile shipments to Hezbollah could be damaged by credible Syrian threats, especially if Russia added its own diplomatic clout.
The Israeli Air Force has since returned to Syria’s skies, and tit-for-tat retaliation has further heightened tensions. A March 19 Israeli drone strike in Quneitra, in the Syrian Golan Heights, killed a man identified as an air defense commander in the Syrian Golan Regiment or a pro-Assad militia member. Coming hours after Liberman’s dramatic vow, the strike was probably a reprisal for the earlier Syrian missile launch. After midnight on March 20, Israel again hit Hezbollah and Syrian air defenses - and possibly more weapons - in the Qalamoun Mountains. Syria struck back later that day by shooting down an Israeli surveillance drone over Quneitra. However, Israel’s March 22 strikes on regime positions near Damascus prompted Syrian threats of missile attacks against Israeli military bases and Haifa’s industry. Short of a diplomatic breakthrough or foreign intervention, no escape from the spiraling hostility is yet visible.