Analysis |

IAF Didn't Have to Enter Syria to Attack It

If Israel did indeed strike a weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah, it may have done so from Lebanese airspace, so as to avoid both physical and diplomatic dangers.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The silence was kept for 24 hours. Since Thursday night, rumors had begun circulating in Lebanon about unusual Israeli Air Force activity in the north. Official Israeli sources denied this; some, who were perhaps more experienced, refused to comment. The Israeli leadership showed that business was continuing as usual. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz was seen Friday morning at a community event in Gadera. Toward 3 A.M. Saturday Israeli time, the first detailed report was published. Sources in the U.S. government had told CNN that the Israeli air force had attacked Syria again. According to one version of events, they had targeted a weapons convoy. The White House declined to comment on the report. The official Israeli version is confusing: the Associated Press news agency says that reports have been confirmed by Israeli officials. The Israeli media has been told: no comment.

If this attack took place, it would be at least the second Israel has made against Syria since the start of the year. According to foreign media sources, at the end of January Israel attacked a convoy of SA-17 anti-aircraft missile batteries that were meant for Hezbollah while the convoy was on an overnight stop over at a defense industry base. Senior Israeli officials, including former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his successor Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, retrospectively confirmed the claims, by way of a nudge and a wink. That time, by the way, the existence of a strike leaked far quicker: the night had barely passed and already detailed initial reports of the bombing were released. This time, the fog was slightly thicker.

When the Syrian nuclear facility was attacked in 2007 in Deir Ezzor, Israel enforced almost complete silence. It was assumed that this would lessen Syrian President Bashar Assad's humiliation and that he would not react. It took many weeks before the Bush administration released information and a few more months before it was officially acknowledged. In January this year Syria itself actually released details of the attack, falsely claiming that Israel had attacked innocent civilian targets. This morning, Damascus remained silent.

The new attack comes in the midst of an especially turbulent time in the north. Israel is especially sensitive to every cross-border occurrence, while in the United States a heated debate is raging over the question of whether the country should increase its involvement in efforts to topple the Assad regime. Israel has been drawn into this controversy, which is not in its favor, after the public announcement by IDF operations branch GHQ at the end of April that regime loyalists used chemical weapons against the rebels. The Obama administration denied, avoided and eventually had to reluctantly admit that Israeli intelligence was correct. If this weekend's event was indeed an Israeli attack on Syria, it will serve the arguments of those who support intervention – opponents of Obama who will be able to argue that the president is demonstrating weakness and appeasement at a time when smaller nations dare to act in Syria.

But the Israeli concerns in Syria are different from the Americans' concerns. The U.S. government had announced in the past that use of chemical weapons would be a red line that would require intervention – and now it is seriously considering providing the rebels with weapons for the first time, rather than just logistical support. Israel is concerned about the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah, about weapons accidentally falling into the hands of radical Sunni insurgent groups, and especially about the transfer of other advanced weaponry (such as new anti-aircraft missiles or Yakhont missiles) from the Syrians to Hezbollah. It has already announced in the past that it will act forcefully to hinder such developments.

So what exactly was the target of the alleged strike? The foreign media has not yet clarified that. Around the time of the operation, there were many reports of unusual Israeli aerial activity in Lebanese airspace. There has also been talk of an attack within Syrian territory. The two possibilities are not necessarily contradictory: the IDF may have conducted a stand-off attack, when planes fly in Lebanese airspace but launch ammunition at an angle that targets the Syrian side of the border. Such a move could be logical for two reasons: reducing the exposure to the new ground-to-air missiles the Syrians have equipped themselves with over recent years courtesy of Russia, and to some extent, creating an additional cloud of vagueness over any future Syrian claims that Israel has violated its sovereignty.

An Israel Air Force F-15 fighter jet.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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