Last weekend Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned the Syrian government against using anti-aircraft missiles on Israel. In a statement he delivered on Israeli public radio, Lieberman said, “The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our airplanes, we will destroy all of them without thinking twice.”
The statement followed retaliatory action by the Syrian regime after Israeli jets targeted a shipment of weapons from Palmyra, which they claimed were bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is identified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the Arab League and the European Union. The Syrians claim to have downed an Israeli aircraft, something Israel has denied.
The action also featured the first use of the American-Israeli developed ARROW missile defense system, which was not designed to defend against the SA-5 surface-to-air missile deployed by the Syrians but worked in this instance. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) speculated that the older model of missile had run out of fuel but failed to self-destruct, as they are designed to do, and so represented a threat to the densely populated Jordan valley.
At war with Syria since 2011, Israel has routinely conducted secret operations inside Syrian territory to limit the flow of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, last week’s attack represents the deepest incursion into Syria as yet documented – reaching well into the interior. It marks the largest escalation of force by Syria against Israel since the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
Whatever the reasoning for the initial strike, the response has changed the tone of the conflict in the region. The IDF does not make a habit of commenting on their operations, but in this instance broke their usual silence to confirm the attack and lay the blame at Syria’s feet for escalating the conflict. This represents a move from covert operations to a more open conflict with Syria.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to the chorus, saying “Our policy is very consistent. When we identify attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and we have the intelligence and the operational capability, we act to prevent that. That is what was and that is what will be.”
Whenever I see a politician talking about business as usual – it’s usually a safe bet that things are no longer proceeding as usual.
The escalation of Israeli defense department’s rhetoric would be the first red flag. Prior to this incident, the IDF have been content to conduct covert operations against the Syrian military without the need for threats or public reprimand. So, something in this last action has given them cause for increased concern.
Red flag number two: the use of the ARROW defense system against a missile it was not designed to target. The ARROW was built to combat ballistic missile attacks, that is, missiles which target land-based targets but the one it shot down last week was a surface to air missile and its ballistic capacity is still up for debate. Either someone in the Israeli command is trigger happy, or there are more complex factors at play here.
Yaakov Lapin, a defense affairs correspondent in the region, has a compelling theory.
“I think the Assad regime is not in a position to make its own decisions on matters that can lead to war with Israel. I believe they are part of an axis – they are a junior member of that axis – the senior members being Russia and Iran. Without their support, the Assad regime would not be in existence today. It seems to be clear to me that they had to consult quickly with the Iranians, and possibly the Russians, before deciding to fire these missiles.” (via VICE)
If Lapin is correct in his assessment, this is bad news for Israeli hegemony in the conflict with Syria. Iran and Hezbollah, both supporters of Assad’s regime, are for the extermination of the Jewish state. Israel now runs the risk of fighting a proxy war in Syria.
Previously this kind of action would have been held in check by a more dominant power, however, Moscow, Washington, and Tehran are now all invested in fighting ISIS and securing oil than in maintaining Israel’s ability to conduct consequence-free missions in Syria.
As Lapin puts it, “Assad may have felt that he was now in a position to send Israel a signal that Israel shouldn’t get used to a lack of a response. That now he wants to change the rules of the game and these strikes would not go unanswered anymore.” (via VICE)
While it is unclear how this conflict will play out, one thing is certain- Moscow and Tehran are now calling more of the shots in the Middle East than ever before. An exploration of what that means for the future of the region is the subject of a different article, but one thing is certain – Israel is now caught between a rock and several hard places.