Foreign Policy Blogs

Israel Strikes Again

 

Yesterday’s strike on a convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon is but one act in an ever constant drama. Israel, for better or for worse, has had a history of violating both the air space and the territorial integrity of neighboring countries. Given that the Jewish State’s geographical location and the fact that it is surrounded by hostile states, Israel has chosen to act in an aggressive manner towards Arab states. A brief look at the past 40 years provides a variety of examples:

June 1981: Israeli jets bomb the Osirak reactor in Iraq. At this point in time Tel Aviv was understandably worried about two things. Israel was worried first and foremost at the prospect of another state achieving nuclear weaponization in the Middle East. Secondly, the fact that these weapons could be in the hands of a blood-thirsty dictator, Saddam Hussein, brought an increased need for action.

October 2007: Israel violates Syrian airspace, defying one of the most intricate networks of anti-air systems in the world. Purportedly, Israel first released a virus into the Syrian military network, which allowed for jets to bomb a secret nuclear reactor in Deir ez Zor governorate. The North Korean backed project has since been denied by Damascus.

October 2012: The most recent strike before today. Israeli jets hit a weapons factory in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. The facility, though to be supplying weapons to Hamas, was pictured burning throughout the night.

This brief overview admittedly misses a variety of historical attacks within Lebanon and Jordan carried out by the Israeli Air Force since the establishment of the Jewish State. That being said, these three incidents, perpetrated by Israeli air assets, are arguably the most important occurrences. They have been documented, as state submitted complaints, by the United Nations in the organization’s  annual year books and provide a great resource for anyone wanting to research the history of Israeli strikes against its neighbors.

Preemption:

Israel’s use of air power, in all of the three above mentioned cases, has one underlying theme in common. Preemption, a word brought to the forefront during the Second Gulf War and muddied during the same experience, after American troops found themselves stuck between Shiite militias and al-Qaeda insurgents. Israeli leaders have historically acted to ensure that surrounding Arab countries do not gain parity in either conventional or unconventional (chemical or nuclear) weapons and in turn challenge their military dominance of the region. In recent years, these preemptive strikes have taken the form of covert operations targeted at Israel’s main regional rival and nuclear weapon aspirant, Iran.

Military and Physical Factors: 

These same leaders have benefited from a variety of factors as well. In terms of operational planning, for a large part the surrounding Arab states have lacked the coverage provided by advanced anti-aircraft systems. Non-state actors, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, located on Israel’s Western and Northern borders respectively, have also been unable to access anti-air weaponry, particularly the lucrative Man Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS) I have discussed here.

Israel’s neighbors also suffer from a geographical and meteorologic disadvantage, located on flat terrain, much of it covered in desert where rain is infrequent. This provides an advantage to the Israeli Air Force, which, due in part to this topical reality, has the ability to strike targets that are situated right out in the open at any time. The only limitations are the flight range of Israeli aircraft and an underdeveloped mid-air refueling capacity— a reason why any airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities would require the material support of the United States.

Note the expanses of desert in Syria and Iraq. 

Instability:

Israel has also benefited from another factor in the region, instability. While dotted with beautiful mountains, forests and vallies, Lebanon has suffered from decades of internal strife and a continual low-level struggle for power between the country’s Shiite and Sunni constituencies. Instability, and the secondary factors created by mistrust among confessional groups have ensured that the Lebanese Army remains under-equipped and relegated to policing outbursts of sectarian violence. The beneficiary is of course, Israel and I’d argue the pilots of the Israeli Air Force. The lack of anti-aircraft capabilities in Lebanon has allowed Israel to provide a constant reminder to Hezbollah of its conventional military dominance by near-daily fly overs of the south of the country. It also has provided a gateway to Syria, allowing pilots to avoid the military build-up on the Golan Heights, which has now lessened from the redeployment of Syrian troops to Damascus.

The strike inside Syria and the estimated fly-over of Lebanon by Israeli jets. (Courtesy www.israelandstuff.com) 

The same theme of instability is of course occurring in Syria, with its bloody two year revolution. Fighting occurs across the entirety of the country, the Syrian regime has lost control of nearly 40 percent of its territory and is unlikely to ever regain it. Furthermore, having been battered in 2011, Syrian rebels of both the secular and Islamist variety have coalesced into battalion sized units during 2012.  This has allowed the rebels to make a concerted push on regime strongholds, bases, checkpoints and airfields. Outgunned, rebel groups have sought to deal a blow to smaller regime installations which have tended to include anti-air and helicopter bases. These attacks, in search of heavy weapons, MANPADS and anti-tank missiles have put a large strain on the regime’s anti-air capacity. Syria, home to one of the widest anti-air coverage in the world, has had this capacity withered away by these rebel attacks, leaving a significant amount of its airspace unprotected. As the Israeli strike shows, the Syrian regime is no longer capable of maintaining a potent anti-air defense, one that was able to shoot down a Turkish jet last June.

The various circles represent Syria’s pre-revolution anti-air coverage, each black indicator represents the type of system and its range. 

Instability and Spillover: 

While the instability of Israel’s neighbors provide the Jewish State with the tactical openings to mount airstrikes against these countries, it can also have a variety of negative aspects. The Israeli strike this week concretely highlights this issue. Spillover from the Syrian conflict has been characterized by increased sectarian tension in Iraq, clashes between pro- and anti-Assad militias in Lebanon, border tensions with Turkey and an unstable refugee flow into Jordan. All of these factors make the region increasingly unstable and will surely create long term negative effects for the political balance, economic vitality and civil unrest in these countries.

What is new, and aptly seen through Israel’s strike, is the fact that weapons are now leaving Syria as part of a concerted effort to keep the “Axis of Resistance”  (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) relevant and operationally capable. This signifies a new step towards increasing spillover and is also a sign of  According to sources, the convoy which was hit included advanced anti-air weaponry, SA-17 missiles to be exact, that were being transferred from Syrian stockpiles to Hezbollah. At first glance this may seem counter-intuitive; a country under threat by the international community, which has included talk of a no-fly zone, in turn siphons off its anti-air capabilities.

Russia built SA-17 anti-air system. 

While transporting advanced weaponry out of the country may not be the most clever scheme, it is probable that the regime of Bashar al-Assad views the creation of a no-fly zone over Syria as an unlikely occurrence. Given the lack of involvement by the West and the political unwillingness for NATO intervention, couple with the fact that rebel demands for a no-fly zone have fallen on deaf ears, Assad and his cronies have bigger issues to worry about. Instead, the attempted transfer of advance anti-air weaponry to a non-state actor, Hezbollah, could be explained by three scenarios.

Hezbollah’s New Toys: 

Why, at this point of the Syrian conflict, are we witness to a weapons transfer of such a provocative nature? All of the players included: Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, are  privy to the fact that Israel would interpret the shipping of advanced anti-aircraft weaponry as a existential threat to its ability to patrol Lebanon’s skies and strike against Syria’s chemical weapons facilities if need be. Furthermore, in shipping such systems, these actors must have acknowledged that there was a risk of Israeli intervention during the transfer process. So why take the risk now, particularly when Hezbollah is under pressure in Lebanon for supporting Assad, the Syrian regime is crumbling and Iran is slowly being strangled by international sanctions?

These are the three possible scenarios:

  1. The SA-17 system and other advanced weaponry was meant to be used to ambush Israeli jets over Lebanon: This scenario has been touted by analysts as a strong possibility, one with which I highly disagree. The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War (The Second Lebanon War) was predicated on Hezbollah operatives ambushing Israeli soldiers on their side of the border, pulling the injured back into Lebanon and then destroying Israeli tanks in pursuit. The result was the destruction of the south of Lebanon and a vicious bombing campaign against Beirut. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, has said that if he would have known that Israel would respond in such a manner the initial operation would not have occurred. Hezbollah learns from its lessons and would not repeat the same mistake.
  2. The systems were to be set up in the Bekaa Valley, so overflights, such as the one that hit the convoy, could not occur into Syria: Again for the reasons detailed above, I am sure that Hezbollah would not want to directly confront Israel in a manner that would hurt the Jewish State’s pride, along the lines of the operation in 2006 highlighted. Blowing up an Israeli jet over Lebanese territory would do just that and the Israelis have already threatened to “level Beirut” if another war with Hezbollah occurs. Taking on Israel at a time when Hezbollah troops are fighting to prop up Assad’s regime and when domestic public opinion is against the organization does not seem like a wise move by this rational militia-cum-political party.
  3. Assad is fearful of losing his anti-air weapons to rebels and Hezbollah is building up its arsenal: This seems like the most plausible reason for why the SA-17 system and other advanced weapons were being sent to Hezbollah. Having lost a variety of anti-air weapons to rebels in the north of the country and around the capital, Damascus, Assad fears that these systems will be turned against his air force. With increasing numbers of helicopters and MIG jets being shot down by rebel forces and the regime’s reliance of air power to attack rebel strongholds and resupply its forces, this situation makes sense.

Furthermore, if reports are correct that senior members of Iran’s elite al-Quds forces, know for covert operations, were killed while guarding the convoy, the shipment is characteristically Iranian–a regional power playing the long game. Building up the capacity of Hezbollah to launch an attack if Iranian nuclear facilities are hit or if Israel decides that now is the time to end or significantly weaken the threat on its northern border, given the loss of the Syrian weapons corridor, makes perfect sense. Iran’s relevance as a regional player and its deterrence capabilities vis-a-vis Israel and the United States for that matter, rely on the ability of Hezbollah to strike the Jewish State. The loss of this capability, particularly after Assad’s fall would stifle Iran’s regional ambitions.