Analysis: Israel's reported airstrike in Syria - has a red line been crossed?
Jack Guez (AFP)
The Syrian Observatory Human Rights, which on Wednesday broke the news of an alleged Israeli strike south of Damascus, is regarded as a reliable source of information on military and humanitarian developments in the five-year Syrian civil war.
Although its offices are in London, the organization has contacts across Syria and is frequently relied on by international media outlets, which have been barred from the country for much of the conflict.
As such, the international media was quick to pick up the Observatory's report on the alleged Israeli airstrike.
Israel has three red lines regarding the conflict in Syria. Firstly, it will not allow its sovereign territory to be infringed upon. Secondly, it will not permit weapons transfers that would break the strategic balance vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Syria. And thirdly, it won't allow chemical weapons to fall into Hezbollah's hands.
It can be safely assumed that if Israel did indeed carry out a strike, it was in response to the second of these red lines being breached, in order to prevent a transfer of arms from Syria or Iran to Hezbollah.
The Syrians and Iranians have, over the past few years, tried to provide Hezbollah with both high-powered precision surface-to-surface missiles, and new anti-aircraft missiles that would hinder the Israel Air Force's ability to operate in the skies over Lebanon and Syria. The IAF has work to do to prepare for the use of these Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, which have a range of dozens of kilometers, are highly mobile and launch automatically. They can also be stashed away in places that Israeli intelligence will have difficulty locating.
The international media has previously reported that Israel has carried out strikes against convoys of weapons that Syria has purchased from Russia and tried to transfer to Hezbollah. Russia recently sent S-400 air defense missiles to Syria, which can hit planes over a hundred kilometers away and at different heights. The Russians primarily brought the system into Syria in order to threaten Turkish planes after the Turkish military downed a Russian jet. While they are only being used by the Russian military, the potential remains for them to fall into Hezbollah's hands.
Why didn't Russia intervene?
If Israel did strike targets south of Damascus, as international media reports claim, why did Russia — which is operating in Syria in coordination with the Assad regime — not intervene?
The answer is simply that Russia is helping Syria fight the rebels and the agreement between the two sides, along with Iran, does not include protecting the skies above Syria from every infiltration.
It is reasonable to assume that Russian jets were not in the sky when the airstrikes happened on Wednesday. Generally speaking, the IAF has the ability and material to be able to hit targets inside Syrian territory without penetrating Syrian airspace.
Furthermore, there is also cooperation between the IDF and the IAF on one side, and Russian forces operating in Syria on the other. If the airstrike had threatened to stir up a wider conflict, those responsible for maintaining the cooperation would have intervened.
Between Syria and East Jerusalem
So why, if Israel did indeed attack Syria, are various officials denying the reports? Both the Syrian military spokesperson and Hezbollah's al-Manar network refuted the claims of an Israeli strike. The IDF spokesperson, too, maintained silence.
This phenomenon is a way of preventing such incidents from erupting into a wider conflagration, which none of the sides currently want. The blanket denials allow Syria and Hezbollah not to respond and Israel does not want to force a response from either of them by making its own comments.
But this state of affairs also ties into the comments of IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot on Wednesday, in which he told school pupils that a soldier should not be emptying an entire magazine of bullets into a schoolgirl trying to carry out an attack with a pair of scissors. Both instances, as can be inferred from Eizenkot's comments, show that the IDF is required to demonstrate power as much by acting proportionally and professionally.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that Israel launched three missiles that hit whatever Syria may have been trying to transfer to Hezbollah. Three missiles, no more, which are very likely to have done the job. It's exactly the reason why a soldier who is faced with a Palestinian schoolgirl with a pair of scissors doesn't need to empty his gun magazine at her in order to stop her. It's enough to strike someone with the butt of your gun if there's a barricade between you.
The use of force demands restraint and needs to be applied proportionally and professionally so that the IDF can prove itself in Syria as well as in East Jerusalem or Ramle.
Ron Ben-Yishai is a senior defense analyst.
This article is published courtesy of Ynet. For the original version click here.
Read more: Analysis: Israel’s military diplomacy
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Ditto for border crossings.