Making Sense of the Air Strike in Syria

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

On January 30, just before dawn, according to international media reports, the Israel Air Force struck a target (or targets) in Syria. While many details of this attack remain shrouded in mystery, since then a number of facts have come into focus.

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

On January 30, just before dawn, according to international media reports, the Israel Air Force struck a target (or targets) in Syria. While many details of this attack remain shrouded in mystery, since then a number of facts have come into focus.

The strike followed months of warnings from Jerusalem that Israel would not tolerate the proliferation of strategic arms, or unconventional weapons, from the crumbling Syrian state to Hezbollah.

The Targets

Days after the attack, Syrian state television released images of one of the bombed-out sites on the outskirts of Damascus, showing large, wrecked, military trucks that could well have been carrying advanced anti-aircraft missile systems.

That would fit well with media reports that cited Western intelligence officials, who said that SA-17-type air defense systems were the target. Other sources have suggested the anti-aircraft missiles in question were the SA-8 model.

Syria possesses an array of sophisticated air defense systems, and their proliferation to Assad’s ally, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, could curtail the IAF’s maneuverability over Lebanese skies.

IAF flights over Lebanon are vital for surveillance during times of ceasefire between Israel and the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah. During times of direct conflict, the flights are vital for the mission of obliterating Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal and command and control centers.

The destroyed trucks shown on Syrian TV were parked next to a number of buildings, which appear to have sustained light damage in the attack.

For its part, the Syrian regime said the target was a “scientific research center” designed to “raise the level of resistance and self-defense.” That definition sits well with a complex of centers in Syria that develop chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles, called the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC, better known by its French acronym, CERS).

Israel has long warned that CERS was on its watch list. In 2010, Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel, the former director of the National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, issued a warning to the international community, saying that CERS would be demolished if it continued to arm terrorist organizations.

It is possible that trucks carrying anti-aircraft missiles were bombed while they were parked at CERS. Such an attack could have resulted from intelligence that CERS was a stopping off point for the missile convoys en route to Lebanon. It is also possible that CERS technicians may have worked on the air defense systems, or had been planning on adding an unknown weapons system to the Hezbollah-bound convoy.

Responses and Potential for Retribution

Unlike in 2007, when the IAF reportedly struck a nuclear facility in the Deir ez-Zor area of northeast Syria, this time the Assad regime did not pretend the strike did not occur. Instead, it sought to use the strike for propaganda value to discredit Syrian rebel forces, by presenting Israel and the rebels as being on the same side.

Despite openly acknowledging the incident, neither President Assad nor any Syrian officials made any overt threat to respond. The Syrian army is stretched to the limit in dealing with the civil war, and opening a second front with Israel now could effectively bring the existence of the Assad regime to a speedy end. Hezbollah has remained silent over the entire affair.

Iranian officials, by contrast, have been vocal about making threats of retribution against Israel.

Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s National Security Council, over the course of three days after the strike, visited Syria and met with Assad. He said Israel “will regret” the air strike.

And Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chairman of the Iranian Armed Force said, “Syria’s response… will send this [Israeli] regime into a coma.”

The Iranian threats cannot be dismissed lightly. It is fair to assume that the IDF has quietly gone on a high state of alert, and is on the lookout for any indication of an impending rocket or border attack from Lebanon or Syria (which could be launched under the camouflage of a small unknown terror group). The IDF is also on the lookout for further attempts by Syria to proliferate arms to Hezbollah.

Another scenario that should be kept in mind is the possibility that Iran is planning to activate the IRGC’s Quds Force or Hezbollah cells in targeting overseas Israeli interests.

Whoever carried out the airstrike likely made the calculation that it would not lead to a dramatic regional escalation in the short-term. But that does not preclude the need to be on the lookout for pinpoint attempts to strike at the IDF, the Israeli home front, or targets abroad.

Strategic Ramifications

Last month’s strike in Syria, if carried out by Israel, marks a significant instance of Jerusalem standing fully behind one of its red lines on weapons proliferation. This would mean that the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut axis must think twice before embarking on future strategic arms smuggling attempts, in the knowledge that a similar response can be expected.

Additionally, as more Syrian army bases fall to rebel hands, the possibility of Israel having to prevent the transfer of game-changing arms to al Qaeda-affiliated rebel elements grows more likely.

Finally, the air strike seems to contain a latent warning to Iran. Should Iran reach a stage where it possesses 240 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent, it would cross Israel’s red line on Iranian nuclear arms progress, as defined by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in September. That would lead to an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, unless the United States acts first.

The recent events in Syria might suggest that Israel takes the red lines it sets very seriously, and so too should Israel’s enemies.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.