Syria’s air defense systems launched some 150 surface-to-air missiles at Israel Air Force aircraft, dozens of them in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 20 during a massive Israeli air raid on infrastructure targets in Syria. “Such a quantity of surface-to-air missiles is never fired against any air force anywhere in the world,” a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “We are very glad that despite them, our planes were not damaged and we were not prevented from successfully hitting our targets.”
Two days after the Israeli attack, Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin and his American colleague US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein flew together in an Israel F15 during the annual five-nation Blue Flag military exercise. It was the first such joint flight for the two air force commanders. Goldfein was treated to an aerial view of the country and its borders, including an overflight of Jerusalem, and was briefed by Norkin on developments along the active fronts of the Israel Air Force.
The Israeli raid renewed the dilemma over what Israel dubs the “war between wars,” its effort to sabotage Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Since the Sept. 14 Iranian raid on Saudi oil installations, Israel reportedly dialed down its strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. The inter-war campaign shifted to mostly clandestine activity, some of which probably resulted in the launch of four rockets from Syria toward Israel one day before Israel’s retaliation raid. The rocket attack was carried out by Iranian-controlled militias, but Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense, which had been deployed ahead of time on the Golan Heights, intercepted them. According to senior intelligence officials, Israel had been prepared for the rockets and was not surprised by the timing, which likely followed some sort of a clandestine Israeli operation on Syrian territory. After the Israeli raid, Israeli security and military officials warned that the Iranians would retaliate, and Israel is awaiting Iran’s move in the fascinating chess game the two have been playing in recent years.
Last week’s Israeli air force strikes demonstrated high precision. An Israeli missile hit a major command center of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force located in Damascus, but the strike was of relatively minor intensity. The command post, known as the “glass house,” remained standing and damage was limited to only one wing of the building. “They understood the hint,” a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They know we could have flattened the building.”
Several days earlier, Israel took out senior Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu el-Atta in Gaza. A missile fired at the bedroom where he slept killed him and his wife, but the rest of the building and the other families residing there were virtually unharmed.
The Israeli strike in Syria that killed some 23 people, according to Syrian human rights organizations, epitomizes Israel’s dilemma regarding the continuation of its “war between the wars.” On one hand, Israel is gravely concerned over Iran’s ability to land the type of painful blow it dealt Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. Israel’s ability to contend with cruise missiles is not as developed as its ballistic missile and rocket defenses. On the other hand, Israel is closely monitoring Iran’s homegrown troubles — the violent cost-of-living protests, the demonstrations in Iraq that are no less violent and involve anti-Iranian sentiments and the unrest in Lebanon, where Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah stores his rocket arsenal. All of the above, according to Israeli assessments, tie Iran’s hands to some extent but also up the price of any mistake.
Nonetheless, and according to various assessments, the more the domestic protests in Iran spread, the greater the regime’s likely interest in distracting the demonstrators by creating an external conflict with Israel. The Israel Defense Forces are operating within this tangled web of contradictory interests. Along with the assessment that Nasrallah and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani cannot afford to engage on a new front with Israel due to their domestic troubles, there is also concern that the intensification of these internal woes could provide motivation for war against the “little Satan.” Add to all of the above the desperate predicament of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s combative new Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, we are facing an unpredictable mess.
During its attack on Damascus, the Israel Air Force destroyed several Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries, according to its policy of making Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad pay for the freedom he allows the Iranians. Al-Monitor has learned that while the missiles fired at the attack planes were not Russian-supplied S-300 or 400s, Israel’s specifically developed electronic capabilities enabled the jets to evade the many rockets directed at them. Israel has not yet attacked Syrian regime infrastructure targets, but it is surely close to exacting a heavier price from Assad for giving the Iranians free rein in his territory.
“Assad is facing a dilemma,” a senior security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “On the one hand, he is not truly happy with the Iranian activity in his territory and the fact that it gets him into trouble with Israel. On the other hand he still needs the Iranians and their boots on the ground. We will use this dilemma in the future in order for him to understand the Israeli message and seriousness about preventing Syria’s transformation into a second Lebanon. Hezbollah will not be replicated in Syria. This is a strategic Israeli decision and it is time everyone understood it.”