Analysis

Why Syria Didn't Retaliate to the Last Israeli Strike

Syria and allies practice restraint after alleged Israeli attack on missile plant

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife, Asma, last month.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife, Asma, last month. Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic / Twitter

This article was originally published on September 12, 2017 after Israel allegedly struck a missile-production plan in Syria and republished after an Israeli airstrike on an anti-aircraft battery today.

Syria didn’t retaliate to the airstrike, which it has attributed to Israel, on a missile-production plant in the west of the country on Thursday. The statement by the Syrian military was carefully crafted and low on detail. The release described the bombed facility, part of the Scientific Studies and Research Center, as a military outpost and said two guards were killed in the attack.

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Iran, which is leading the project to improve the accuracy of Hezbollah’s missiles, was also cautious in referring to the incident. So were Hezbollah and Russia, which provides an aerial umbrella for the forces supporting the Assad regime. At the moment it seems the bombing won’t lead to a conflagration with Israel.

The airstrike’s timing was sensitive because it came after the partial cease-fire achieved in Syria, under Russian auspices, in July. The aerial attack also came after Russia and the United States didn’t heed Israel’s protests about the cease-fire deal, which didn’t keep the Iranian forces out of Syria.

The strike was different from earlier ones attributed to Israel, which targeted weapons convoys intended for Hezbollah or the makeshift arsenals in which those weapons were kept. This time the bombed site was a large, permanent facility clearly identified with the Assad regime.

It appears, however, that the timing isn’t convenient for sabre rattling by the Assad regime and its supporters. The regime scored an important victory last week when the Syrian army and Shi’ite militias took over Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria and drove out Islamic State fighters. Iran is explaining its active military involvement in Syria with the need to help the Assad regime, more than opening a front with Israel, while Hezbollah is playing down the assistance it receives from Iran and Syria.

Syrian soccer fans hold a portrait of President Bashar Assad before a match with Iran in a World Cup qualifier, Tehran, September 6, 2017.
Vahid Salemi / AP

A military retaliation against Israel could create difficulties for the parties bolstering Hezbollah. The response could come at a later stage and indirectly, like the tightening of Russian-Iranian cooperation.

Recently, reports have said Russia will provide air defense in western Syria, mainly via S-400 missiles, for Iranian arms plants as well. As far as is known, Iran operates such facilities in Syria in coordination with the Assad regime, but so far hasn’t implemented plans to set up similar ones in Lebanon.

On Sunday, Israel’s military will continue the large drill in the north that began last week; numerous infantry units and aircraft will be involved. The exercise, which is taking place in a Lower Galilee area that simulates Lebanon, will move this week from defense to offense. Presumably, Hezbollah and Syria will also have to take the Israeli army’s high alert into account if they’re considering a retaliation to the airstrike.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said he didn’t know who attacked the plant in Syria, “but whoever it was did Israel an excellent service.”

As Ya’alon put it, “The Russians, even if they think we did it, aren’t saying a word. There’s a hotline between our defense establishments and understandings that we won’t get in their way and they won’t get in ours. I don’t see a fear of an escalation, but we have to keep evaluating the situation.”