After six years of fighting, the chances that Israel may wade into the maelstrom that is the Syrian civil war is increasing after two more Israeli airstrikes rocked Syria over the weekend. One of the strikes was delivered Sunday via drone against a truck traveling between the Golan Heights and Damascus. One of the two people killed supposedly had close military ties to the Assad regime. The other strike came overnight and was rumored to have been aimed at another Hezbollah weapons convoy.
These strikes follow an early Friday morning Israel air raid that targeted a Hezbollah weapons transfer in southern Syria. That mission resulted in Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries firing on Israeli jets. At least one Syrian SA-5 SAM was intercepted by Israel's Arrow anti-ballistic missile system during the volley. The engagement was the first time the Arrow system has ever been used in combat. Now, Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has clearly warned Syria of what will come if another missile is fired at an IAF jet, stating: "The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our airplanes, we will destroy all of them without thinking twice."
This stern warning comes as the region is bracing for a possible expansion of the already sprawling, convoluted and border-hopping Syrian civil war. In the last three days, Israel has targeted two shipments of advanced weapons supposedly destined for Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. In the past, Israel has made it very clear that they will interdict such shipments at will, and has done so many times in the last half decade or so, but until this Friday they did not openly admit their aircraft were flying strike missions over Syria to do so—although it was a commonly known fact.
As we discussed on Friday, Assad's air defense network remains largely intact, at least in the areas where the regime has held control over the last six years. Although it is made up mostly of dated Soviet-era systems, many of which are fixed or semi-fixed emplacements, some road-mobile units also exist, including the SA-6 and more advanced SA-11 systems. Shorter-range point defense Pantsir-S1 systems are among the most modern systems in Syrian hands. Although they are designed to defend the immediate area around high value installations or troop movements, they are especially focused on low-flying aircraft, drones and cruise missiles, and are capable of wide-area air defense.
The truth is that Israel would have little problem dismantling Syria's entrenched air defense network. In fact, much of the work could be done in the short-term with a combination of standoff and direct attack munitions. Israel has unique capabilities, both in the form of unmanned aircraft and missiles, to take on this exact mission set. Finding and targeting Syria's road-mobile SAM systems will be more of a challenge, but if they emit RF energy they can be geolocated and destroyed. Israel has trained tirelessly at using both traditional and non-traditional suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and destruction of enemy air defense (DEAD) tactics against such systems, and even if these systems don't activate or pose an immediate threat to IAF aircraft, they can be found using traditional surveillance assets. Still, hunting them down and killing could take some time.
All this assumes that Israel would commit to all-out destruction of enemy air defenses campaign against Syria if IAF aircraft are again challenged in the air. What is more likely is the IAF would execute a limited, localized DEAD campaign in southwestern Syria, in which Assad's fixed SAM sites and radars would be quickly knocked out and mobile systems would be attacked if they dared to activate.
Even if a structured campaign weren't launched, at the very least the IAF would include dedicated wild-weasel aircraft in strike packages to perform the defensive SEAD/DEAD role for strike aircraft that are called on to operate over Syria in the future. If these aircraft are targeted, IAF fighters could quickly kill the threat emitter and then lay waste to the entire SAM site and even nearby support sensors and communications nodes.
The reason why a larger scale air campaign against Syria's air defense network scattered throughout the country is unlikely is because Israel is already walking a tight rope with Russia. And Russia has far more capable air defense systems in the northwestern part of Syria. These advanced "triple digit" SAM systems can potentially target and engage IAF jets flying over Lebanon and southwestern Syria, and Russia's reaction already very unpredictable if Israel goes directly after any of Assad's military capabilities—including his air defense network.
At least staying as far away as possible from Russia's air defense systems in Tartus (S-300) and at their master airbase south of Latakia (S-400), both of which protect Moscow's more direct interests in Syria, would lessen the chances of a miscalculation or a massive international escalation in hostilities. Still, Russia could easily simply announce that they will engage any Israeli aircraft flying over Syria—a move that could set off a major international military standoff—and although Israel could take out both of Russia's advanced SAM batteries it could mean going to war with Russia in doing so.
The reality is that the IAF has the ability to go where it needs in Syria today using electronic warfare and cyber intrusion techniques. But without surprise on their side, and over time, the potency of those techniques degrades. Still, the idea that Assad's old missiles are a major threat to IAF F-16s and F-15s is just not accurate. However, that doesn't mean they don't pose some potential hazard to IAF aircrews. Above all, today's strong message to Assad is more about what Israel sees as the growing rise of Iranian influence in the region, and especially a reinvigorated, battle-hardened and much more heavily armed Hezbollah.
The IDF is planning for a far more high-tech and bloody potential war Hezbollah in Lebanon in the future. Israel has warned the Lebanese government, which has been increasingly permissive towards Hezbollah, that they will not tolerate Hezbollah's continuing rise in terms of both military capability and influence within Lebanon. And this is precisely where two wars could quickly merge into one. If an all-out conflict with Israel and Hezbollah were to ignite, it would range from western Syria to the Mediterranean. With Russia fighting alongside Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and directly backing the Assad regime, and the US directly backing Israel as well as fighters opposed to both Assad and Hezbollah in Syria, what would start as two wars could rapidly coalesce into one. Not just that, but with so many other international players actively involved in Syria already on some level—Jordan, the Arab gulf states, multiple NATO members, Australia and the list goes on—and especially Turkey who is fighting on its own behalf—one can easily see how such a conflict could spiral into something far wider and darker in scope than it is today.
Under normal circumstances, the US would do all it can to keep Israel out of any conflict involving a standing Arab coalition, and especially in one that could easy explode throughout the region. Under the current administration, it's unclear if such a diplomatic overture will be made. If Israel were to start attacking Syrian military targets, it would complicate what is an already ridiculously complicated situation, and could see the current US-backed alliance fighting against ISIS disintegrate overnight. If a brutal war in Lebanon were to break out, it's geopolitical shockwaves could be far worse.
Israel's relationship with the Arab world has changed significantly in recent years, and Sunni Arab gulf states are certainly no fans of Iran. But a war in Lebanon which could also stoke massive uprisings in the Gaza Strip and West Bank could tax that fledgling relationship to its breaking point. On the other hand, if the Arab gulf states actually sided with Israel, even if just in a tacit manner against Iran's Hezbollah proxies and the Assad regime, it could lead to a war in Persian Gulf and would definitely deepen the proxy conflict between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen.
You are probably rolling your eyes right now trying to keep track of all these threads, but that's the point—the Syrian conflict game tree is already ridiculously complex and extremely volatile, but it gets exponentially much more so when Israel is thrown into the mix. Bottom line—Israel's direct involvement in the Syrian conflict could be the flying ember that sets the region ablaze.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com