Israel has been bombing targets within Syria with impunity since the country descended into a hellish civil war in 2011. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has executed bombing runs throughout the region, even as far away as Sudan without suffering consequences for decades. It has taken its aerial superiority for granted and built its strategy on it. That made the events of Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, all the more shocking for Israel.
An Iranian drone entered Israeli aerospace and was destroyed. Israel attacked the site from which the drone was launched. An Israeli F-16 fighter was shot down by anti-air missiles. The pilot and navigator parachuted (both survived but were injured) and Israel responded with its usual lack of subtlety, bombing targets in Syria and possibly killing Iranian soldiers.
Pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah hailed the downing of the aircraft as the beginning of “a new strategic phase” that puts an end to the violation of Syrian territories. Hezbollah is known for hyperbolic rhetoric, but this time they may have a point. The last time an Israeli fighter was shot down during an operation was in Lebanon in 1983, when the Middle East was a completely different place.
This latest incident may be a harbinger of a new strategic era in the Levant. The F-16 was probably shot down by a Russian made SA-5 Gammon medium-to-high altitude surface-to-air missile. Syria uses the missiles to cover an area in which Russian troops operate in support of the Assad regime.
In the past, the IAF had bombed the same area in order to interdict the supply of advanced arms and munitions to the Hezbollah militia, a hardened enemy of Israel against which it has fought several military campaigns in the past. In this iteration of attacks, the target was more sensitive. The office of the Israeli military spokesman released photographs of what it claims is a Syrian air-base in the Homs governate near the village of Tiyas utilized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to transfer arms to Hezbollah.
With one or two exceptions, Israel had generally managed to avoid direct clashes with Iran and the loss of aircraft through a deft and complex strategy, involving three planks.
First, (though it officially denies this) it provided logistical support to rebel groups near the Israeli border in order to facilitate their ability to hold off Hezbollah and Iranian encroachment. Second, it developed a strategic understanding with Russia to obtain its cooperation in reigning in Iranian influence in the western part of Syria. Finally, when all else failed used its air-force to send a clear message that it would not tolerate the expansion of Iranian influence in proximity to Israel’s borders.
This generally successful strategy has since collapsed. As the position of anti-government rebels in Syria deteriorated, the US and Russia reached an agreement in November (without direct Israeli involvement) on limiting non-Syrian forces in the country. While ostensibly limiting Iranian influence near the Israeli border, it actually gave carte blanche to Iranian influence up to 20 km from the Israeli border and did not provide any clear mechanism for preventing Hezbollah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for coming closer. It was yet another case of Putin outsmarting the Trump Administration (or worse).
Israeli officials continue to pretend that matters in Syria are under control, as the military referred to the operation as a “complete operational success.” However, they are either kidding the public or themselves.
Since the base Israel attacked is outside of the zone covered in the agreement, it is no surprise that Syria and Russia acted more aggressively to frustrate Israeli freedom of action. Putin is reported to have warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid taking any steps that would further escalate the conflict.
The Russian Foreign Ministry chastised Israel, warning that it is “absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen.” The Russian Federation has no interest in an Israeli-Iranian confrontation, but in practice, they are providing a military and diplomatic umbrella for the deepening of Iranian influence in Syria.
For students of Israeli military history, these developments echo some of the darkest moments in its strategic past. In 1967 Israel won a historic military victory over the Arab states facilitated by complete air superiority.
The Soviet Union at that time supported Egypt and to avoid a recurrence, provided its ally with advanced anti-aircraft missiles, alongside crews to operate them. The missile sites covered the devastating Egyptian invasion of Sinai in 1973 and neutralized the advantage of the IAF. In the war, Israel lost 102 out of 383 operational aircraft and was forced to rely on an emergency US resupply to keep its air-force operational. It struggled to win the war and its strategic standing plummeted as a result.
If and when an open conflict between Iran and Israel commences, it would appear that the main Israeli advantage has been dulled. The war will likely involve Hezbollah firing barrages of missiles at Israeli population centers, daring the Israeli military to neutralize fire by sending ground forces into entrenched and booby-trapped positions primarily located underground.
Israel has significant anti-missile capabilities, but they are likely to be overwhelmed by Hezbollah’s reported reserve of over 100,000 missiles. If forced to counter Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard by sending troops into enemy territory with limited ground support, the results could be gruesome for Israel which has become a society averse to casualties and vulnerable to the kidnapping of soldiers.
The results would probably be even more gruesome for civilians in Lebanon and Syria who will be on the receiving end of the inevitable escalation of Israeli of military force. Like most people and actors, Israel is always most destructive when it feels insecure. It could also see Russia and the US dragged into a regional conflict contrary to their interests. Indeed, the changing military balance in Syria is bad news for everyone but Iran.