Last week, over a number of days, Israel conducted multiple strikes in Syria reportedly targeting arms shipments en route to the Lebanese sectarian group Hezbollah. The strikes hit a number of Syrian facilities and potentially a convoy of vehicles. These strikes are a clear indication that Israel remains concerned about the present security environment in the Levant.
As the pressure against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad dissolves into a stalemate against foreign-backed anti-regime rebels, Syria is quickly becoming an anarchic state. Mr al Assad can no longer feasibly claim control over Syria and now appears to essentially be the country’s strongest warlord. His armed forces, for the most part, still remain loyal to him, but no longer travel unmolested in Syria.
What concerns Israel are Syria’s reportedly copious stocks of advanced, and highly transferable, weapons and missile systems. Syria has stored and fielded Russian-manufactured highly technologically advanced anti-aircraft systems, and Jerusalem is well aware of the dissipating surveillance and security protecting these weapons.
|Israeli fight jet deploys anti-missile flares during military exercises in 2012|
Israel is not taking sides in the Syrian conflict by bombing the Syrian regime’s facilities or their convoys transporting weapons. It views the situation as entirely dire no matter what the outcome of the fighting. Instead, Israel is taking care of its own security goals.
While the world worries about chemical weapons being used against Syrian rebels (although it is unclear whether the latest claims of chemical weapons use was perpetrated by rebel groups or regime forces), Israel has more prosaic fears. Israel fears chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands as the Syrian state crumbles, but it is the conventional weaponry leaking out of Syria attracting Israeli jets.
Israel is employing targeted airstrikes against shipments suspected of transporting armaments based on what it believes to be robust intelligence. According to Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah have already made a number of efforts to attain surface-to-surface missiles known as Fateh-110s and could be looking at obtaining S-300 surface-to-air missiles from Syrian armouries as well.
If groups like Iranian-backed Hezbollah were to obtain advanced weapons from Syria, Israel reasons, Israel’s present air-superiority in the region would be threatened. To maintain security for Israel and continue surveillance of the region, Israel must deny such weapons to Islamic groups of all stripes.
Similarly, Israel conducted a limited campaign of airstrikes during November 2012 in the Gaza Strip against the Palestinian group Hamas to remove their ability to launch medium-range rockets into Israeli cities. Denying Hezbollah the same weapons capabilities is part of the same playbook.
From Syria’s perspective, supplying Hezbollah with weapons makes sense. Syria is allowing the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah to safeguard these weapons’ significant material investment, bolster their ally Hezbollah which has supplied fighters to assist the al Assad regime, and is probably responding to the behest of Tehran which still holds political influence over the Syrian regime.
Iran’s role in Syria is not minimal either. Since the political dynamics are rapidly changing in Syria, and Iran can no longer guarantee Mr al Assad’s survival, Tehran is looking ahead to prepare for whatever security reality awaits in the Levant. Hezbollah, as Tehran’s proxy force in southern Lebanon against Israel, will be Iran’s best bet for projecting power when the al Assad regime eventually factionalises. And Iran is making every effort to shore up Hezbollah in preparation.
As well as achieving on-going Israeli security goals, the airstrikes also reveal the poor performance and maintenance of Syria’s previously redundant and strong anti-aircraft and early-warning network. After two years of fighting and the resultant attrition on military supplies and personnel, Syria has struggled to intercept or threaten the approaching Israeli fighters. Whether the Israeli aircraft actually entered Syrian airspace to conduct their recent strikes remains ambiguous, but Syria’s anti-aircraft defences evidently failed to stop them nevertheless.
Israel could now plausibly use their experience of uncontested strikes over Syria as evidence of a suitable flight path through Syria towards Iran. The issue of Iranian nuclear research still weighs heavily on Jerusalem but they would be unable to carry out strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities unilaterally. However, the United States, which can supply the necessary materiel for strikes on Iran, are as yet unwilling to commit.
Israel has been unable to secure a feasible approach corridor into Iran up until now. With the capabilities of Syrian air defence significantly degraded, Israel has removed an important obstacle to targeting Iranian nuclear facilities. Israeli aircraft are still too few to completely cover every known and unknown nuclear compound, so would still require United States airpower to ensure first strike success.
However, even as the security situation changes for Israel as Syria splinters, it will still encounter political obstacles to launching anything more significant than isolated strikes against relatively accessible arms targets in Syria.
The political climate to attacking Iran remains uncooperative. Washington is unlikely to agree to a concerted strike in the near future even as Iran’s nuclear program continues to develop past Israel’s clear “red-lines”.