Increased Israeli air activity over Syria: Why Now?

Jerusalem Post, 17/9

The rising tempo of attacks reflects a more general readiness for confrontation as region enters new phase

A notable uptick in Israeli air operations against Iran-linked targets on Syrian soil has taken place over the last month, according to regional media.   

Israeli aircraft struck at Aleppo airport in northern Syria on September 6th.  This operation followed close on the heels of an earlier strike at the same target, on August 31st.  According to SANA, the official Syrian regime media agency, the raid on the 6th damaged the runway, putting it temporarily out of service.  SANA reported that missiles were launched from over the Mediterranean, west of Syria’s Latakia coastline.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), meanwhile, associated with the Syrian opposition, reported that the raid targeted a warehouse used by an Iran-linked militia. 

North Press, a media agency associated with the Kurdish de facto authority in northern Syria, had a slightly different account.  The September 6th raid, the agency contended, targeted a plane bound for Najaf, in southern Iraq, which had two members of Lebanese Hizballah aboard.  North Press cited a source at Aleppo airport as the basis for this account. 

The Reuters agency, meanwhile, cited a ‘commander in an Iran-backed regional alliance’ as claiming that the raid took place just prior to the arrival of a plane from Iran.  This latter account would seem to dovetail with a statement from Ram Ben-Barak, Chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a former senior intelligence officer, according to which ‘”The attack meant that certain planes would not be able to land, and that a message was relayed to Assad: If planes whose purpose is to encourage terrorism land, Syria’s transport capacity will be harmed.” 

Regardless of the precise nature of the operation, it followed a series of attacks attributed to Israel to have hit Syrian targets in recent weeks.  On August 25th, several military sites in the western Hama countryside were hit by missiles.  On August 27th,  a statement from the Russian airbase at Khmeimim claimed success for the Russian  Pantsir-S1 and S-75 systems operated by Syrian armed forces in downing some missiles aimed at the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Masyaf, a frequent target for the attention of Israeli air power.  On August 15th, airstrikes targeted Syrian military posts in Tartus and Damascus Governorates, with three reported fatalities.  On August 12th, two people were wounded in shelling of a village north of Quneitra, close to the Israel-Syrian border. 

These are the statistics for the last month.  North Press estimates that 24 Israeli air operations have taken place against targets in Syria since the beginning of the year. The clear majority of these were conducted against Iranian targets.  If this figure is accurate, then 6 such operations in the last month represents a clear increase in tempo.   

So the question is: why is this happening now?  A number of factors are worthy of attention.

The specific targeting of Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its ‘air bridge’ to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land. 

In this regard, it is noteworthy that Cham Wings, Syria’s largest private airline, announced that all flights would be diverted to Damascus International Airport following the strikes.  Cham Wings has been sanctioned by the US Treasury since 2016 for ‘providing material support to entities sanctioned for proliferation and terrorism activities.’  The company is widely believed to play an active part in the funnelling of weapons and militia fighters between Iran and Syria.

But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran.  Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension.   There are a number of contributory factors to this emergent picture. 

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria.  This requires an immediate caveat. There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal.  The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained.  The maintaining of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow.  But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine.  Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.  The Israeli company ImageSat International revealed evidence in late August that the S-300 air defense system deployed in the Masyaf area has been dismantled and returned to Russia. 

Evidence, indeed, is currently emerging that the Russian government-linked defense company Wagner has in recent months been actively recruiting among pro-regime Syrians.  Syrian volunteers are then sent to help the Russian effort in Ukraine.  It is a curious, and significant, reversal of roles. 

Russian absence means greater importance and greater freedom for the Iranian role in Syria.  The two countries have pursued notably separate and occasionally opposed projects in Syria in recent years.  But the Russian drawback also reduces a complicating factor for Israel.  Iran may increase activities as the Russians draw down, but Teheran’s vulnerability and Israeli freedom of action will also increase. 

Secondly, assuming that some last minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the JCPOA is not imminent.  In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely. 

In this regard, the recent bellicose statements made by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the IRGC’s Lebanese Hizballah franchise, are worthy of particular note.

The common interpretation emerging from the security echelon in Israel has been that these statements were related to an attempt by the Hizballah leader to claw back some of his movement’s lost public legitimacy, as he poses as the defender of Lebanon’s natural resources.  It is just as likely, however, that the Hizballah leader’s sudden increased defiance reflects the opening of a more general mood among Iranian proxies and franchise organizations – proclaiming a greater readiness for risk of clashes with Israel in the period now opening up.    

It is worth noting that Iran is set this week to achieve full membership of the China led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, at a summit of that organization in the Uzbek city of Samarkand.  Chinese oil purchases enabled the Iranians to ride out the Trump Administration’s strategy of ‘maximum pressure.’ 

A failure by the current US Administration to succeed in nuclear diplomacy where Trump’s policy of coercion also failed will deepen Teheran in its conviction that the US is a departing power in the Middle East.  Iran is moving toward closer relations with the alliance that perceives itself as the rival to the fading US hegemon.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone.  Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture re the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. 

This new, more comprehensive approach was reflected in the speech this week by Mossad Head David Barnea in his speech to International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference in Herzliya.  Barnea told his audience that “The Iranian leadership must understand that attacks against Israel or Israelis, directly or indirectly by proxies, will be met with a painful response against those responsible, on Iranian soil. We will not pursue the proxies, but the ones who armed them and gave the orders, and this will happen in Iran.”

As nuclear diplomacy reaches its final round, the mood on the rival camps in the Middle East appears to be toward a greater willingness for confrontation.  The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing season. 

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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