Over the weekend, Israel has allegedly carried out air strikes on targets in Syria. This isn’t the first time that Israel has been suspected of carrying out strikes against Syria. As with past incidents, we see consistent patterns emerge regarding the type of strikes and the targets the Israelis have apparently been hitting. These patterns are well worth exploring if we are to understand Israel’s motives for launching such raids into its war-torn northern neighbour.
We’ll start with the most recent case. Explosions were recently reported at a storage facility at Damascus International Airport which was allegedly storing anti-aircraft missiles apparently designated for the Hezbollah group in neighbouring Lebanon. While Israel has never admitted to carrying out any raids in Syria, Israeli officials have nonetheless stated publicly that their stance towards the war in Syria is one in which they will not permit the transfer of sophisticated weaponry by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (or their patron in Tehran) to the Hezbollah militia in neighbouring Lebanon. Each strike Israel has carried out seems to have been aimed at missiles it believed were in the process of being transferred to the Hezbollah or were at the very least designated to be transferred to Hezbollah at a future date. The pattern appears to be almost crystal clear.
First we had air strikes which were launched at the end of January 2013. They were aimed at a convoy in Syria which was apparently carrying Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. It appears that the convoy was struck so Hezbollah wouldn’t get their hands on them.
Then, in early May of 2013 explosions rocked Damascus International Airport. The target apparently being surface-to-surface missiles in a warehouse there. According to a New York Times report at the time, the target appeared to have been a shipment of Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah – which wouldn’t be surprising considering the fact that Syria under Assad has long been an arms conduit for Iran when it comes to supplying its ally in Lebanon. Israel again seemed to have taken that action to prevent such arms from being transferred to Hezbollah.
Then in the following July of that year we heard about a suspicious explosion in the coastal Syrian city of Latakia. It wasn’t clear if it was a targeted strike by Israel or by Free Syrian opposition fighters who were operating nearby. Whoever it was on that occasion it appears a warehouse housing Yakhont anti-ship missiles was struck resulting in quite a large explosion. It wasn’t clear if any aircraft had been seen which has lead to some speculation that it wasn’t in fact an air raid but a missile strike carried out by the Israeli Navy, possibly by an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine operating off of the coast.
The pattern doesn’t get much clearer than this. And speaking of anti-ship missiles it was just before that latest raid over the weekend that Lebanese media outlets was reporting that Hezbollah now has the ability to impose a maritime siege on Israel in the event of another war between Israel and that group (incidentally the missiles it claims it will use for such an action are Yakhont’s). There may be some credence to that claim and to Israeli fears of that group’s military formidability. In the last 33-day series of clashes between the two in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah managed to cripple an Israeli naval vessel, the Hanit. In addition to that, in the last few days of that war, Israeli Army Merkava tanks were left in flames and some of their crew killed by Hezbollah fighters wielding portable Russian-made anti-tank missiles.
Today Hezbollah has not officially commented on the latest attack on Damascus International Airport. However a newspaper with ties to the organization (the Al-Akhbar) was quoted by a recent report in The Jerusalem Post claiming that Israel’s strike was motivated solely in order “to preserve the rules of the game.”
In other words if Hezbollah were to get such sophisticated missiles, both anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles the group could become “capable of tilting the strategic balance.” Which means that in the event of another confrontation with Hezbollah the Israeli military may find it increasingly more costly to confront that group.
Since the last war, when it clearly revealed that it was a very formidable adversary with a few surprises up its sleeve, Hezbollah has accrued more missiles and weaponry to the point they resemble more of a conventional army and fighting force. Without doubt, the Israelis have been taking note and know that another war with the group could prove very costly. Which is why they seem to be implementing a policy of preventive and preemptive action in Syria.
Israel is pursuing an undisclosed policy using its sophisticated and technologically advanced military coupled with its vast intelligence network – it was the Intelligence Minister of Israel himself, Yuval Steinitz, who recently stated that Israel’s policy towards Syria is just that, although he didn’t specify nor single out Hezbollah, instead using the rather broad terms when referring to a policy of “preventing the upgrading of weaponry that gives terrorist organizations game-changers or unusually sophisticated means of attack” – to do its utmost to prevent any transfer of such weaponry to the Hezbollah so it doesn’t have any nasty surprises ahead in the event of another shooting war with that group.