Analysis: Israel strikes Syria

Israel struck a number of targets in Syria last week, in what was the country’s strongest intervention into the Syrian civil war yet. Whilst previous attacks have mostly been concentrated in southern Lebanon and Damascus, this series of raids also included a hit on a military base near Palmyra. In response, the Syrian army launched an anti-aircraft missile, designed to take out an IDF fighter jet. Israeli’s Arrow missile defence system, however, destroyed the 200kg anti-aircraft missile when it entered Israeli airspace. Though Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are not new, the Assad regime’s willingness to strike back is. Its recapture of Aleppo, along with advances elsewhere, have swung the war decisively in Assad’s favour. This has stabilised the country somewhat, emboldening government forces to retaliate against Israeli Air Force raids.

Israeli policy regarding the Syria civil war remains unchanged. Israel has a policy of neutrality between government forces and rebel groups, and has intervened only a handful of times over the past six years. However, Israel has a clear red line regarding the transfer of any advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. The overwhelmingly majority of Israeli strikes in Syria – including one raid last Monday – have targeted weapons convoys destined for the Shi’a terror group. Israel’s aim here is to prevent what is termed ‘game-changing weapons’ falling into Hezbollah’s hands that would significantly improve the group’s military capabilities in any future war with Israel. The source of such advanced weaponry is believed to be Iran, and it was reported last month that advanced anti-naval missiles obtained by Hezbollah were Russian-made.

Russia is the key player in Syria’s civil war, and last week’s escalation of Israeli involvement in the conflict saw its ambassador in Moscow summoned by the Russian foreign ministry to explain the country’s actions. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, “expressed concern” over Israeli strikes, one of which hit an area close to Russian troops. It is believed Israel has a secretive arrangement with Russia regarding its military action in Syria in order to coordinate strikes and prevent any Russian casualties. This recent attack is likely to put this joint mechanism under strain. Nonetheless, speaking to the media in China, Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that Israel’s strategy will not change. “If there is feasibility from an intelligence and military standpoint – we attack and so it will continue,” he said.

The other regional player in Syria’s civil war is Iran. Hezbollah operates under Iran’s patronage, and funding the group is a key part of Iran’s anti-Israel strategy, given Hezbollah’s proximity to Israel and ability to attack the Jewish state. Hezbollah itself now has a far greater military capability than 11 years ago, due to significant rearmament and improved military training resulting from its involvement in the Syrian war. Hezbollah is already estimated to have 100,000-120,000 rockets hidden among the civilian population of southern Lebanon, having only had 13,000 at the outbreak of the 2006 Lebanon war. Furthermore, Iran and Hezbollah are working towards creating a second front with Israel around the Syrian Golan. These developments threaten to make Israel’s northern border a flashpoint again, having been relatively stable for the last decade. Any further empowerment of Hezbollah, driven by Iran’s regional ambitions, would dramatically shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Israel’s strikes in Syria, however, are designed to prevent this power shift from becoming reality.