On Monday, Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets targeted and neutralized a Syrian missile battery after the weapons targeted Israeli warplanes flying over Lebanese territory. According to Israeli sources, the planes that came under fire were conducting a photo-reconnaissance mission. Reports indicated that after being fired upon, the Israeli fighters engaged the Russian manufactured SA-5 surface-to-air missile battery and disabled it with four consecutive rocket strikes. None of the Israeli craft were damaged during the clash.
The incident which occurred early Monday morning marks the second time Israeli warplanes were targeted by Syrian missiles this year. The first instance took place in March when Syria fired rockets in retaliation for an IAF strike that targeted a military installation near the ancient city of Palmyra. In that case, a Syrian missile entered Israeli territory.
Senior Israeli officials responded to the incident, a rarity for any Israeli operation in Syria, stating that “The Syrian regime is responsible for any firing from its territory. We see this incident as a clear provocation and we will not allow it.”
There are a few important things to consider when assessing the recent IAF strike.
One is the indications it contains regarding Israeli-Russian relations.
While Syria is a sworn enemy of Israel and threatens the country even in its crippled state, Syria has an important political ally in the Kremlin. Through a series of political negotiations, the Israeli establishment managed to arrive at an understanding with Russia, essentially allowing Israel to conduct attacks on Russia’s ally in the Middle East, assuming they are necessary for Israel's national security and are coordinated with Russia. The latest strike by Israel shows just how much cooperation, albeit passive, Russia is handing out to Israel. Indeed, media sources reported that the Israeli military informed Russia in “real time” about the incident and the subsequent retaliation was in line with the Israeli-Russian arrangement.
Another point to consider is what this means for the long-term situation on Israel’s northern border, which has been displaying signs of heating up over the past several months. Last month the IDF conducted a major ground maneuver, acting out a scenario of infiltration from the country’s northern border. The drill was one of the largest in Israeli military history, involving some 10,000 infantry, naval, and special forces personnel, along with air support elements. Israel has repeatedly indicated over the past several months through top officials that the country will take an increasingly hardline stance in response to aggression from its northern neighbors. This includes both state actors such as Syria and militant groups like the Shiite, Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
The recent strike shows definitively that Israel is putting its money where its mouth is.
To be sure, it is in neither country’s best interest to instigate a war on Israel’s northern border. Syria for its part has enough on its hands with a seemingly never-ending civil war at home. Israel, always reluctant to deploy its civilian army, has the additional consideration of offsetting its delicate relationship with Russia regarding Syria.
However, in the end, diplomatic considerations or not, Israel has demonstrated once again that the use of force, and escalating that force, is not off the table. Any long-term implications of this incident, if any, are yet to be seen.