Israeli military’s focus is now firmly on Syria

Deeper Israeli activity in Syria, a wider and more complex conflict, appears to be on the horizon.
Sunday 18/02/2018
A sign shows the direction to Damascus and Baghdad among other destinations at an army post on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on February 10. (AFP)
New directions? A sign at an army post on Mount Bental in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on February 10. (AFP)

The recent downing of an Israeli F-16 by Syrian antiaircraft systems was the first time since 1982 that Israel lost a warplane to enemy fire. The aircraft had been conducting strikes with eight other Israeli F-16s in response to an Iranian drone launched from Syria that had been intercepted.

Following the downing of its fighter jet, Israel responded with an unprecedented wave of raids, destroying almost half of deployed Syrian air defence system.

Until the F-16 was shot down, Israel had been conducting air raids on targets in Syria with relative impunity. Observers asking how the Israelis lost an F-16 to enemy fire may need to wait to determine whether it was a one-off incident or whether Israeli air superiority, once unquestioned in Syria, has been compromised.

Israel remains militarily superior to any of its regional adversaries by some margin, even without resorting to nuclear weapons. However, it is unlikely that Israel’s next loss in Syria is another 36 years away as it is drawn into the country more deeply than ever.

Syria has remained technically at war with Israel for decades but no large-scale Syrian-Israeli hostilities have been witnessed since the end of the Lebanese civil war.

Syria, arguably at its weakest point ever, presents a new hybrid threat to Israel. Hybrid threats blur lines between the conventional and unconventional, regular and irregular, overt and covert war. Developments in Syria effectively transformed the country into the perfect storm for Israel with the entry of its nemeses Iran and Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has rearmed extensively since its conflict with Israel in 2006, amassing an arsenal of potentially more than 100,000 rockets with improved accuracy, range and payloads as well as the Russia-made SA-17 Buk, a medium-range air-defence missile originally sold to Syria. Major-General Amir Eshel, the Israeli Air Force’s ex-chief, estimated Israel has conducted more than 100 operations to attack Syrian and Hezbollah arms convoys since 2012.

Israel says Hezbollah and Iran have constructed bases in Syria to store Iran-manufactured Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Fateh-110 ballistic missiles, which all put Israel fully within striking range.

Yet, arguably Israel’s grandest challenge in Syria is incubating in the Golan, which Iran views as Israel’s Achilles’ heel. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. More than 20,000 Israelis live there but it could eventually house more than 1 million. More than 40% of Israeli wine exports and up to half of certain vegetables and fruits feeding Israel are produced in the Golan. It has a budding tourism industry and is a vital freshwater source with the headwaters of the Jordan River lying within it as well as sources feeding the Sea of Galilee and Yarmouk River.

A little over two years ago an Israeli strike killed an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander and Hezbollah commanders visiting the Golan, leading to a retaliatory ambush by Hezbollah that killed two Israeli soldiers.

The Golan, it is understood on both sides, has an extremely high strategic value. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has declared that the Golan and southern Lebanon have become a single front against Israel, a strategy likely devised in Iran, which has the support of Damascus.

For Iran, the Golan is a pressure point and a vulnerability to be exploited if needed. For Israel, it is a threat that must be addressed as soon as possible. To do so effectively, Israel would have to go after both Iran and Hezbollah much deeper in Syria.

Israel worries that Iran will be able to launch drones and missiles from Syria towards Israeli targets at will, as well as strike a major psychological blow by forcing an evacuation of Israelis from the Golan in the event of an escalation. Note that the Iranian drone model that provoked the Israeli air raids in Syria can carry precision weapons.

As Iran and Hezbollah raise the stakes in Syria for Israel, the costs rise for all parties. The challenge for Israel is to increase costs for the others high enough to force a retreat or recalculation of their strategy. How it does so and how it keeps costs low enough for itself are less clear as recent events have demonstrated.

Deeper Israeli activity in Syria, a wider and more complex conflict, appears to be on the horizon.