The downing of an Israel Air Force fighter jet last Saturday – whether it was a planned ambush or not after Israel attacked targets in Syria – indicates that the price Israel will pay for aerial freedom of action has risen.
The IAF will complete its inquiry into the loss of its F-16I fighter jet by Tuesday. The basic facts, as reported earlier this week, are clear: When the Israeli planes attacked an Iranian command post near Palmyra, they climbed to an altitude of around 40,000 feet. As the crew in one plane focused on tracking the missiles fired at the post, they did not try to evade Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. When their plane was hit, the crew immediately ejected. The next actions – parachuting out, locating the ejector seats, medical treatment – unfolded as required, and saved the lives of the wounded pilot and navigator.
Although the price is high – no Israeli plane had been shot down by enemy fire since 1982 – when you consider the huge number of IAF sorties flown throughout the Middle East in recent years, it is not intolerable – especially since the incident did not end in fatalities or captivity. But for the air force, a crashed plane is not a reasonable result. The risk threshold did not justify abandoning the jet and its crashing. The inquiry will probably label it an operational error.
The Syrian airstrikes attributed to Israel by the foreign media began in 2012. Their main goal, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “red lines,” was to thwart the Syrian and Iranian effort to arm Hezbollah with advanced weapons. In the last two years, the Israeli concern has focused mainly on foiling attempts to improve the precision level of Hezbollah’s weapons.
According to foreign media, after failing to persuade Russia and the United States to make sure the Iranian-operated Shi’ite militias are kept a safe distance from Israel’s northern border, Israel also started attacking other targets in Syria. Analyst Elizabeth Tsurkov wrote this week in the blog War on the Rocks that weapons factories (including a large Assad regime facility last September), Syrian military camps and a Shi’ite militia base were bombed, along with the arms convoys.
Meanwhile, Syria also upped its resistance to the attacks, following the restoration of its air defense system (damaged earlier in the civil war) and the confidence boost from the Assad regime’s victories against the rebels. At least 28 anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Israeli planes last Saturday, more than have been fired at IAF planes in the past 36 years combined – since the first Lebanon war in 1982.
What’s happening here is Israel’s battle to maintain its aerial freedom in the north. It seems to be insisting that the previous rules – which enabled it to do as it pleased in Syrian skies during the civil war – are still valid. Syria and Iran think otherwise, and are working to get that message across.
Was an ambush laid for Israel last Saturday? The battle day in the north began with the launch of a drone from the Iranian base near Palmyra, which was intercepted by an IAF helicopter over the Beit She’an Valley, about a minute after it crossed into Israel from Jordan.
The drone’s purpose was not reported, but its model – copied from a similar U.S. drone captured by the Iranians in 2011 – suggested it was intended for intelligence-gathering.
Israeli officials assume the Iranians didn’t expect their drone to be exposed when it entered Israeli airspace, and that the Syrians seemingly resorted to their usual pattern of recent months: firing anti-aircraft missiles every time IAF jet movement indicates the intention to attack. As a result, several senior Israeli officials concluded that the chain of events was accidental rather than planned.
Retired senior officers are more skeptical, though. Former air force commander Maj. Gen. (ret.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu said on Israeli radio he believed it was probably an Iranian-Syrian ambush. Some of his colleagues recalled Hezbollah actions (accompanied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) during the fighting in south Lebanon in the 1990s: Whenever the Israel Defense Forces established an effective method of warfare, the Iranians always sought a special operation that would yield a resounding achievement, thus “breaking the equation” between the sides.
It’s reasonable to assume that, today, the Syrians and Iranians are concerned by the ongoing damage to arms convoys and depots intended for Hezbollah. Making Israel pay dearly would count as such an achievement – and downing the F-16I received far greater media coverage in Israel and abroad than the air force attacks on targets in Syria.
Israeli sources say Gen. Qassem Soleimani would most likely be the person to plan such actions. He heads the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force and is a longtime nemesis of Israel since the conflict in southern Lebanon.
The government and IDF insist that last Saturday’s events will not change Israel’s strategy. The red lines remain as they were and Israel will continue to try to thwart Iranian efforts to establish a foothold in Syria; the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah; and, if necessary, the Iranian plan to build a precision-weapons plant in Lebanon.
In the short term, the air force will have to reexamine its operational flight pattern in the north. Longer term, more efforts and resources will likely be allocated to maintain Israel’s technological edge over Syrian and Iranian air defense systems – especially if Russia decides in the future to give them more advanced anti-aircraft systems.
The aerial campaign will continue to require delicate and professional management, from the strategic level to the minutest details of operational activity. Two and a half years ago, after two Russian combat squadrons were deployed in west Syria, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin rushed to set up a mechanism to prevent aerial friction – a kind of hotline that would reduce the risk of a direct clash between the two air forces. This mechanism proved itself again last Saturday, with the Russians receiving a brief notice during the attack on the Iranian military post.
Crossing red lines
Netanyahu’s entanglement with the Trump administration last Monday, regarding talks that apparently didn’t mention annexation of West Bank settlements, caused Israel more harm than expected. The prime minister came to the weekly Likud party meeting under considerable pressure – following his altercations with the police as they prepared to publish recommendations saying he should be indicted for bribery; the aftermath of the weekend battle in the north; and governing coalition members outflanking him with their own annexation bills.
The result was an uncharacteristic stumble: Netanyahu said he had been “maintaining a dialogue with the Americans” about “the issue of expanding Israeli sovereignty” to Jewish settlements in the West Bank – to which the White House promptly replied that this was “false.”
Netanyahu crossed two red lines that every U.S. administration is meticulous about: You never openly mention what has been discussed in private conversations (when rookie Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer made that mistake in 2002, the door to the White House was closed to him forever); and you definitely do not conjure up agreements that were never made.
Netanyahu’s faux pas hit another sensitive spot in the U.S. administration: The Palestinian accusation that, because of his sympathy for Israel, President Donald Trump cannot serve as an honest broker between the sides. Chemistry between Trump and Netanyahu notwithstanding, the White House struck back immediately and the prime minister rushed to release a statement that in effect retracted his previous remarks.
This tension is relevant not only because it’s the first time the much-vaunted chemistry between Trump and Netanyahu has been irrelevant. A considerable part of Israel’s perceived power – as seen in the eyes of its neighbors, as well as Russia and Iran – is based on the strategic partnership between Israel and the Americans. Hezbollah, Syria or Iran cannot rule out the possibility that Trump’s administration will back an Israeli attack against one of them. Such a scenario would hardly have been plausible in President Barack Obama’s days.
But if long-term friction is generated between Netanyahu and the administration, the neighboring states will also notice this. Netanyahu is building his powerful image abroad based on his closeness to the United States and his political stability. Now, due to the police recommendations to indict him and the political turmoil this will cause, Tehran and Damascus could smell an Israeli weakness.
Is the Shin Bet going soft?
Following IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s statement to cabinet ministers on February 4 that the Gaza Strip is on the verge of collapse, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman convened defense leaders a few days later and concluded that there is “a difficult civilian reality” in the Strip, but nothing more.
Lieberman reiterated his position that Israel will allow international aid to reach Gaza, honoring agreements made at the end of the 2014 summer war, but will not take any steps itself – and certainly not as long as several Israeli civilians and two soldiers’ bodies remain in Gaza.
The Shin Bet security service, which usually takes the harshest line against easing restrictions on the Palestinians for fear they will be used to carry out terror attacks, is actually the body issuing the strongest warnings about the humanitarian situation.
The deterioration has reignited the dispute over Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz’s plan for a seaport to be built on an artificial island off the Gaza coast. At a cabinet meeting several months ago, after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority signed their reconciliation agreement, Netanyahu ordered that a team be established to examine proposals to improve the situation in the Strip. And following pressure from Katz (who is also transport minister), a subcommittee was set up to discuss the island. So far, though, this subcommittee has met only once.
Perhaps the National Security Council – loyal to Netanyahu and Lieberman’s approach – is acting to thwart the plan. In unofficial talks, senior defense officers supported Katz’s idea. But when the subcommittee met, a junior officer from the IDF’s Planning Directorate was dispatched there under instructions by the defense minister to object to the island plan.
Lieberman believes that if the island is built, it will end up like Yasser Arafat International Airport (aka Dahaniya). This operated in the Strip for about three years following the Oslo Accords, but Israel destroyed it in 2001, claiming the Palestinians were using it to smuggle weapons and carry out terror activity.
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