This weekend’s Israeli-Iranian clashes in Syria

This weekend's Israeli-Iranian clashes in Syria
Israeli soldiers inspect the wreckage of the downed F-16 Saturday

Update from AIJAC

Update 02/18 #04

As readers will be hopefully aware, there was a major escalation in the undeclared conflict between Israel and Iran over Syria on Saturday. An Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace and was then shot down, (video of the drone being shot down can be seen here); then Israel attacked the drone’s controlling base in Eastern Syria near Palmyra, but lost one F-16 jet over Israel to a massive barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles on the way back (footage of the jet’s crash is here  – both pilots were hurt but survived.) In retaliation, Israel then struck a series of 12 additional sites in Syria, including numerous Syrian anti-aircraft sites, as well as “four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”


IDF map of the aircraft sites in Syria that were struck on Saturday. 

Israel says it caused serious harm to Syria’s air defence systems.

This Update is devoted to analysis of what is going on in this escalation and where it might lead. 

We lead with a piece analysing the events from American experts Tony Badran and Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies – the latter of whom is currently in Australia as a guest of AIJAC. They explore how these events are the result of a situation whereby Iran was exploiting the chaos in Syria to build up military assets targetting Israel, and to send advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Israel is trying to stop that from happening through occasional airstrikes. They also canvas Israel’s likely calculation about what to do next, and the American and Russian roles in the conflict. For Badran and Schanzer’s perspicacious analysis, CLICK HERE. More on how the weekend’s violence should be seen as the first violence of a brewing Israeli-Iranian war comes from Israeli writer Yaakov Katz, Israeli academic Eyal Zisser and former IDF spokesman Peter Lerner.  

Next up is Israeli security writer Yossi Yehoshua from Yediot Ahronot, one of Israel’s largest dailies. Yehoshua ties this current round of violence to a larger and much more intense conflict with Iran client Hezbollah that is expected sometime in the next few years. He says in such a conflict, Hezbollah will likely launch dozens of drones as well as up to a thousand missiles a day, and will be keen to prevent Israeli aircraft from doing anything about it, thus the Iranian efforts to deter Israeli aircraft from intervening in Syria. Meanwhile, Israel has no choice but to strengthen its deterrence vis-a-vis Syria and Lebanon – as well as reach an understanding with the Russians. For Yehoshua’s interesting analysis in full, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer explores the Russian angle in the latest events in more detail. He says while Israel has a hotline to the Russians in Syria, the Russian message in the aftermath of these events is that they will not object to Israeli attacks in Syria as long as they do not threaten the regime, but they will not stop the Syrians or Iranians from shooting at Israeli planes or occasionally invading Israeli airspace. Pfeffer suggests this means Israel will have no choice but have to exercise more caution, and must to some extent defer to Putin’s rules in Syria. For more on the Russian element in this equation, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, a good article on what the Americans can and should be doing to support Israel’s security needs in Syria comes from former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro.

Readers may also be interested in…

  • Israeli security analyst Ron Ben Yishai says that in the wake of losing the F-16, the Israeli air force must reconsider some of its offensive tactics and that the reason the planes may have been vulnerable was because of the need for pinpoint accuracy to avoid hitting Russians in the same base where the Drone control centre was struck. 
  • Prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea says this escalation was like the first move in an Iranian Chess game, and Israel must be prepared to counter the next, while another columnist, Yoav Limor, suggests Iran’s plan was actually to try to get Putin to intervene.
  • Outstanding Middle East Analyst Dr Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice-President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (and contributor to this Update), currently visiting Australia as a guest of AIJAC, will be appearing on Stan Grant’s “Matter of Fact” on ABC News 24 tonight at 9pm.  Or the interview can be viewed online at http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/matter-of-fact-with-stan-grant/

Article1

The Iran-Israel War Flares Up

 

The fight is over a Qods Force presence on the Syria-Israel border. How will the U.S. respond?

By Tony Badran and Jonathan Schanzer

Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2018 

The conflict between Israel and Iran may be heating up after a half-decade simmer. On Friday night Iran dispatched a drone from Syria that penetrated Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights. Israel destroyed it with an Apache helicopter. Then on Saturday Israel sent eight F-16s across the border to strike the airfield in the Homs governorate, called the T-4 base, where the drone originated, as well as a handful of other Iranian targets. Although the mission was a success, one F-16 was shot down by Syrian antiaircraft fire—though the pilot made it back to Israel, where he and his navigator ejected successfully.

This was the most significant clash to date between Israel and the so-called Axis of Resistance—Iran, Syria’s Assad regime and Hezbollah—since Iran began deploying soldiers and proxies to Syria six years ago. Israel insists its response was limited and its intent is to contain this conflagration. Its critics worry that the skirmish could explode into one of the worst wars the Middle East has ever seen.

The Iranians have been exploiting the chaos of the Syrian civil war to build up military assets there that target Israel, all the while sending advanced weaponry to Lebanon by way of Damascus, also under the fog of war. The Israelis have been vigilant; they have destroyed some of this hardware in Syria with one-off strikes. In December they struck an Iranian base southwest of Damascus, some 30 miles from the Golan Heights. But they had never entered Syria with the kind of overwhelming force seen on Saturday morning.

What prompted this level of response is still unclear. Israeli military officials won’t say whether the Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle was armed. It would be a surprise, though, if Israel’s reprisal was prompted by an unarmed UAV. Indeed, this was not the first drone incursion into the Golan Heights. Last year, Israel’s missile defenses intercepted several Iranian-built drones, operated by Hezbollah, attempting to enter Israeli airspace from Syria.

The Israel Defense Forces had warned that the T-4 base was crawling with fighters from Iran’s Qods Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had paid multiple visits to Moscow hoping to convince President Vladimir Putin to curb the threatening activities of Iran and its proxies. Mr. Putin has established a formidable presence in Syria since 2015, when his forces entered the country ostensibly to combat Islamic State.


The mobile command centre  from which Israel says an Iranian operator flew a drone from Syria into Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, just before it was struck by an approaching Israeli missile. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israelis took a significant risk Saturday of rankling the Russians, especially since they reportedly did not warn Moscow of the attack in advance. Russian personnel sometimes embed with Syrian air-defense units and are sometimes present at the T-4 base. Thus the strike might have been intended as a message to the Russians as much as to the Iranian axis.

Whether Russia had advance knowledge of the Iranian drone operation isn’t clear. Nor do we know whether Russia was involved in unleashing the Syrian surface-to-air missiles that downed the Israeli F-16. What we do know is that after many Israeli airstrikes in Syria over many months, this was the first time Syrian antiaircraft weapons managed to hit a target. That points toward Russian involvement.

Even so, the Israelis were not deterred from launching, within hours, a second wave of airstrikes against additional Iranian and Syrian targets, including air-defense sites, many of which likely had been monitored for months. According to Israeli sources, the second wave was the largest aerial attack against Syria since the Lebanon war of 1982, when the Israeli Air Force hammered Syria’s Soviet-built surface-to-air missile batteries in the Bekaa Valley.

Now all eyes are on Israel as it mulls its next moves. For Jerusalem, the status quo is unsustainable. The Iranians are clearly willing to absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position, which will prepare them for a future conflict with the Jewish state. So while Israel’s political leaders are eager to avoid conflict, the military brass may soon determine that postponing it would be the riskier course.

The Israelis also are working the phones with the Trump administration, which has affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. That declaration will carry significance as Israel considers its options. Washington continues to tweak its new policy of targeting Iran with multiple instruments of American power. But this policy is encumbered somewhat by the White House’s agreement with Russia to maintain a “de-escalation zone” in southwest Syria—an agreement that clearly benefits Iran and the status quo.

The Pentagon and State Department have already condemned Iran and thrown their support behind Israel. The question now is whether the Trump administration will go further. In a speech last month unveiling the administration’s strategy for Syria, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed that the U.S. seeks not only to ensure its allies’ security but to deny Iran its “dreams of a northern arch” from Tehran to Beirut. A good way to achieve both objectives would be to back Israel’s responses to Iran’s aggression—now and in the future.

Mr. Badran is a research fellow and Mr. Schanzer senior vice president for research of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

 

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Article 2

First public Israel-Iran clash was only a taste of the next war

 

Yossi Yehoshua

Ynet.com, 02.11.18 

Analysis: In the next northern war, Hezbollah will launch dozens of UAVs, Israel’s freedom of operation in Lebanon will be even more limited, and additional Israeli planes will likely be downed; to prevent the next war, or at least postpone it as much as possible, we must strengthen the Israeli deterrence and convince the world powers to take the Israeli interest into account when drawing up an agreement in Syria. 

Let’s start by putting things into proportion: After such a day of fighting, which was partly successful and partly less successful, we should realize that everything we saw in the past 24 hours was barely half a day of fighting in the next northern war, which would include dozens of aircraft, a tight defense system and 1,000 rockets a day.
 
What took place in the northern skies Saturday was no less than the first public day of fighting between Israel and Iran. The undercover activity, which has been taking place so far through armed emissaries—from Hezbollah to Syria—turned into a real battle Saturday: Iran sent an advanced aircraft into Israeli territory, either to take pictures or to attack. It infiltrated Israel and was intercepted. In response, the IDF attacked significant Iranian targets in Syria.
 
The equation of an intercepted Iranian UAV versus a downed IAF warplane is very bad for Israeli deterrence. An advanced F-16I plane with experienced pilots isn’t supposed to be shot down by a Syrian antiaircraft missile over Israeli territory, and this issue will likely be investigated.
 
Pilot bailing F16 (Photo: Maya Himmelhoch)
 
This day of battle did have some very successful parts, however. We can’t rule out the possibility that this was a well-planned ambush by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. By launching such a special operation and sending an aircraft into Israel, they are preparing not only for the possibility it will be downed, but also for an IAF attack on its operations trailer. That’s why they responded immediately with the strongest antiaircraft fire ever fired by the Syrians, and managed to hit one plane—which eventually crashed.
 
And this is where another battle begins, the battle of perception: Who won the most significant round of fighting the Syrian arena has experienced since the first Lebanon War? The Israeli Air Force was highly successful in its level of alertness and in tracking and intercepting the aircraft within Israeli territory to prove it was Iranian.
 
The Israeli success was reflected in the second stage too: An accurate surgical strike on the operations trailer at the T-4 airbase in Palmyra, an attack on 12 significant Iranian targets in Syria and on aerial defense systems.
 
What will be remembered at the end of the day, however, is the fact that an F-16I Soufa plane was downed in Israeli territory. In the battle of perception, the video of the parachuting pilots will be engraved in our collective memory more than the video of the attack on the UAV or the attack on the operations trailer.
 


The Iranian UAV’s interception. The next northern war will include dozens of such aircraft (צילום: דובר צה”ל)
 
The IAF has been operating in the Syria-Lebanon domain for six years now, and in the past two years this is being done under restrictions of advanced defense systems, which the Syrians received from the Russians. One of these systems, SA-5, was used against Israeli planes on Saturday. It’s hard to find another air force capable of operating successfully under these conditions and providing impressive results. Syria’s aerial defense system sustained considerable damage. Israel was prepared and quickly settled the score. 

Addressing the incident on Saturday, Hezbollah defined it as “a new strategic stage, which will put an end to the invasion of Syrian airspace and territory. The old equations have been cancelled.” This is the test we will but put to in the next northern war.
 
In the next war, Hezbollah will launch dozens of aircraft of this kind. Our freedom of action in Lebanon will be even more limited, and it’s safe to assume that Israeli planes will be downed. To prevent the next war, or at least postpone it as much as possible, we must strengthen the Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
 
And yes, we must also reach understandings with the Russians. The world powers must take the Israeli interest into account when drawing the finishing lines of the Syrian battle.

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Article 3

Israel struggles to draw new red lines in Russia’s Syria playground

Putin will let Israel continue attacking Syria, but will not stop Assad’s military from trying to shoot down its planes

Anshel Pfeffer

Haaretz,  Feb. 11, 2018 


Posters of Assad and Putin in Aleppo, Syria, January 18, 2018. Hassan Ammar/AP

The first message Israeli officials put out in the early hours of Saturday morning’s air battle over Syria was that the missiles fired at the Israeli fighter jets, causing one of its F-16I to crash, were “Syrian.” In other words, the missiles did not belong to, or were not operated by, the real military power in Syria, the Russian Federation. This is a bit disingenuous.

Russian officers are embedded in Syrian air-defense units, they have been training together and resupplying the Syrians with missiles. The scale of the salvos fired by the Syrian units could not have been carried out without immediate Russian knowledge, if not direct involvement. The message is in fact a tacit admission that Israel has no choice but to accept, for now at least, the Kremlin’s hegemony across its northern border.

Russian warplanes are currently pounding rebel enclaves in Idlib and Ghouta, indiscriminately killing dozens of civilians daily. Russia is standing on the sidelines, while TurkeyIran and Israel are all fighting for their own foothold in Syria. It is safe to assume that Russia was aware of the Iranian drone taking off at 4 A.M. near Palmyra and flying toward Israel, as its officers are in the Palmyra air-control center. Moreover, Russia would have had real-time knowledge that the Syrians were responding with an unprecedented barrage of anti-aircraft missiles to Israel’s attack on the control site of the Iranian drone.

Russia has a hotline reserved for coordination from its base at Khmeimim on Syria’s Mediterranean coast to Israel Air Force’s headquarters. As the second wave of Israeli strikes on Saturday against Syrian and Iranian targets ended, it was likely that Russia was the one that passed on Israel’s message to the Syrians and Iranians, which said Israel does not wish to escalate matters any further.

President Vladimir Putin is the one running the show in Syria and he is the one establishing the ground rules. Israel can carry out attacks against Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets, but only as long as they don’t jeopardize the Bashar Assad regime, which Putin has been propping up since deploying Russian aircraft to Syria in September 2015.

For now, Russia is not allowing Iran to establish large bases in Syria or to come too close to the Golan border with Israel. But this does not mean that the Iranians are leaving Syria, either. Russia needs the Shi’ite militias drafted by Iran and made up of Afghan refugees as its boots on the ground, to back Assad’s army, and therefore the Iranians are allowed to operate their drones and make the occasional incursion into Israeli airspace. As long as the Iranian forces remain useful to Russia, it won’t heed Israeli demands to keep them out. Still, it will keep a close eye to make sure the Iranians don’t go too far.

The three sides are now licking their wounds. Iran has lost a drone-control facility. The Syrians lost three air-defense systems and Israel a fighter-jet – a blow to the national pride of a country that holds its air force as invincible. There is little any of the three parties could do at the moment to change the situation.

For now, Israel has no choice but to accept Moscow’s rules. It will continue to demonstrate that it can fly over Syrian airspace and attack targets, but will nonetheless have to exercise much more caution. Russia, while it is not stopping the Israeli planes, despite its control over Syrian airspace, will not stop Assad’s military from trying to shoot them down either.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to draw red lines limiting the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, but he is not the one calling the shots. Putin is.

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