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Assessing Israel's Strike on Syria

Last week saw what might have been the first incursion by Israeli warplanes into Syria airspace in six years. The strike took place on Wednesday (January 30th), and by week’s end, unnamed US and Israeli officials were claiming that the Israel Air Force had hit a convoy of Russian-made SA-17 antiaircraft batteries, plus other “game changing” munitions, en route to Lebanon. By Sunday, Israel’s defense minister seemed to confirm the reports of his country’s involvement in the attack, but that hardly answered all the questions swirling around last Wednesday’s events.

First was the question of the convoy. Two going theories are that the SA-17s and additional war matériel were either being transferred to Hezbollah directly or simply being taken out of Syria from one of the regime’s domestic storage facilities for safe keeping in the country it formerly occupied (yet never really abandoned). Some analysts have suggested that Hezbollah wouldn’t want SA-17s inside Lebanon, as these are large antiaircraft systems that require radar guidance and would thus be easy prey for future Israeli strikes. Yet the transfer could still be part of a regime relocation plan, aided somehow by Hezbollah. Another theory is that Hezbollah was emptying its own weapons caches inside Syria, which rebels have raided in the past. One Lebanese source told Haaretz that the strike’s target was a truck convoy—emanating from Qusayr, near Homs—that was en route to Hermel, and Sky News has reported that the attack location was somewhere close to the Lebanese village of Nabi Sheet. This is interesting for several reasons, not least that there had been reports about a year ago that Hezbollah was actually launching Katyusha rockets into Syria from Hermel. And, as my colleague at NOW Lebanon Tony Badran astutely remembers:

Nabi Sheet is known to be the site of Hezbollah weapons depots. Just last October there were “mysterious explosions” in one of those depots, killing three Hezbollah members. Meanwhile, Qusayr, whether or not it was the convoy’s point of origin, is the area where Hezbollah has most heavily deployed its forces in Syria. Directly across the border from Hermel in Lebanon, Qusayr’s countryside features a number of small Shiite hamlets that have facilitated Hezbollah movement there. Right before the Nabi Sheet blast in October, a senior Hezbollah commander who guided operations in Qusayr was killed in action there.

The killed commander, Ali Hussein Nassif, was in fact the head of all of Hezbollah’s operations in Syria. The intelligence consensus is that Hassan Nasrallah, while preparing Hezbollah politically for a future without his patron in Damascus, is nevertheless doubling down on military coordination with Assad, agreeing, for instance, to deploy thousands of his best militants to Syria in the event of foreign intervention or simply if “urgent assistance” is required.

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Put together, these bits of evidence could begin to suggest Israel’s motivation for hitting the convoy. Then comes the question of the strike itself.

Last week Syria claimed that the attack had targeted not a convoy but rather a “scientific research center” facility at Jamraya, in the Damascus suburbs, only a few kilometers northwest of Assad’s presidential palace. News reports this week suggested that the facility remained in tact, but countervailing claims last week had it that rebels might have attacked the facility instead.

The likelier explanation, or at least the one I find most persuasive, is that the strike’s proximity to the Jamraya facility could have caused secondary damage to the building. Two US officials made that case earlier this week, and Israel’s Channel 2 News corroborated it Wednesday by airing satellite footage showing Jamraya looking relatively unscathed, unlike the thoroughly scorched road and parking lot nearby where the convoy was probably hit.

If the rebels did attack Jamraya, that could mean the regime is trying to blame Israel for an assault led by its internal enemies as a way of distracting attention from its weapons-running to its strongest proxy next door. It’s worth noting that the New York Times quotes Major General Adnan Salo, a former head of Syria’s chemical weapons program, saying that the Jamraya facility produced both conventional and unconventional weapons. The Bush administration sanctioned personnel working at Jamraya on just these grounds in 2005.

With evidence still accumulating, it’s difficult to tell what the fallout will be from the strike, but some factors should be mentioned.

Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon said “the option and capacity to surprise in retaliation” was still alive in Damascus. Iran warned of “grave consequences.” Russia condemned Israel’s action and said it violated the United Nations Charter as it pertains to state sovereignty. The extent to which Iran and Hezbollah might retaliate remains unclear, but both have been “up to their necks” in Syria, as the IDF’s Northern Command chief, Major General Yair Golan, put it last April. Nearly a year later, Iran and Hezbollah are in even deeper, with less operational wherewithal to focus on retaliation while they are waging a prolonged war against an increasingly well-armed and territorially expansive guerrilla insurgency.

Israel, for its part, has largely remained silent about the operation. It did the same in 2007 after destroying a North Korean–built nuclear reactor, al-Kibar, in eastern Syria. If that strike and this latest one prove anything about Syria, it is that the regime’s air defenses are extremely vulnerable. As Eli Lake reported in 2011, the al-Kibar operation was performed by Israeli warplanes “spoof[ing]” Syrian radars, “at first making it appear that no jets were in the sky and then, in an instant, making the radar believe the sky was filled with hundreds of planes.” Dave Fulghum, a radar specialist, speculated at the time that Israel might have used the “Suter” airborne network attack system, and the Guardian’s Martin Chulov confirmed recently, via a now-defected Syrian Air Force major, that Syria’s air defense radars were indeed jammed during the al-Kibar operation. (Bizarrely, although Damascus knew the IAF was incoming, it nevertheless ordered its Air Force personnel not to fire on planes they couldn’t see anyway.)

On the Syrian side, retired Brigadier General Akil Hashem has long maintained that these so-called “formidable” systems were in fact a “paper tiger.” Not only are the personnel operating them undertrained and wrongly promoted via the regime’s patronage system, but the military’s hardware is seriously outdated. Hashem commanded Syrian forces into battle against Israel three times and each time, he has told me, Syria was easily routed on land and in the air. Moreover, whereas Israel’s technology has improved vastly in the last thirty years, Syria’s has remained largely outdated. Rebels have also sacked a number of air bases, which the regime has then taken to bombarding afterwards.

The more likely danger from any Israeli escalation, as Badran points out, is that Hezbollah could once again drag Lebanon into another war. Here it’s worth noting that when Golan gave his interview, he said there was no sign of movement of hardware—specifically, “long-range missiles and advanced rockets, unmanned aerial drones, surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated underwater projectiles, and, above all else, the world’s largest stockpile of chemical weapons”—into the hands of Hezbollah, though he warned that the group had “all the reasons in the world to procure advanced weapons at bargain prices.” If a weapons convoy bound for Lebanon was indeed the target of last week’s strike, the odds of further conflict in that country could well be increasing.

The full details of last Wednesday’s attack might never be known. However, coupled with what the two-year Syrian revolution has disclosed about the internal calculations and mechanics of the Syrian military, what it does demonstrate (again) is that not only has Tel Aviv seen clear through Bashar al-Assad’s propaganda about his deterrence capability, but that Assad probably never believed a word of it himself. The West might just find this information useful at a later date.

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