BY EHUD EILAM
SENIOR FELLOW AT THE LONDON CENTER FOR POLICY RESEARCH
Since 2011 there has been a civil war in Syria. Bashar al Assad, the official leader of that country, relies on his allies, mostly Iran and Russia, which have quite a presence in Syria.
The clash on February 10, 2018 began when an Iranian UAV, which was launched from Syria, penetrated into Israel. However it was only one UAV and it was not armed so Iran did not attack Israel, unlike the rockets and missiles that were fired at Israel over the years by Iranian proxies i.e. Hamas and Hezbollah.
On February 10 it seems that Iran conducted a kind of reconnaissance mission, as Israel has been doing in neighboring countries and in Iran itself. Launching the UAV might even have been a local initiative by Iranian forces in Syria, as part of their effort to spy over Israel. The information that was supposed to be gathered in that mission could have served Assad as well so he had an interest here.
It was certainly not the first time that a hostile UAV infiltrated into Israel, including those that were sent by Hezbollah. Other UAV managed to reach much farther than the one from February 10, 2018, which was shot down almost immediately after it passed the border into Israel. Furthermore in previous occasions Israel did not retaliate while in February 10, 2018 Israel responded very quickly, in less than an hour, by destroying the UAV’s command and control center, which was located deep inside Syria.
Iran did not retaliate; acting like the incident had nothing to do with it, even after losing those who were in the UAV’s command and control center. Iran’s retribution might come later on, probably by its proxies, but at the time of the incident the response came only from Assad. He did not care much about the Iranian losses but he was bothered that the attack occurred inside his state. Since 2012 Israel carried out more than 100 sorties inside Syria, targeting deliveries of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. Israel therefore did not go directly after Assad but the bombardments inside Syria humiliated him. In recent months there were signs that Assad might not tolerate those strikes anymore.
On February 10, 2018 Assad’s air defense launched a barrage of about 26 missiles, which brought down an Israeli F – 16I, over the skies of Israel. Assad therefore did not attack Israel directly, only the Israeli aircraft that hit his country. Yet Assad’s missiles penetrated the Israeli air space. Assad did not do more than that since he knows well he is too weak to start a war with Israel. His military suffered a meltdown during the Syrian civil war, but Assad’s air defense has some capabilities that should not be underestimated.
The Israeli response to Assad’s antiaircraft fire was quite severe. Israel saw it as an opportunity to strike the Syrian air defense. It was the biggest blow the IAF inflicted to its old foe, since 1982. Yet then the IAF destroyed, in Lebanon, 13 Syrian anti aircraft batteries, not just a few, as it was on February 10, so overall Assad’s air defense absorbed a relatively minor damage. Israel attacked 12 targets, only four of them were Iranian so Israel’s main goal was to hit Assad, not Iran.
The skirmish on February 10, 2018 was the most serious one, compared with other incidents that occurred between Israel and Syria since 2011. Furthermore in 1974-2011 the Syrian – Israeli border was very quiet. Yet the two states confronted each other in Lebanon in 1982 and since the mid 1980s and until recent years preparing to fight the Syrian armed forces was the IDF’s main challenge. It also should be remembered that the Israeli – Syrian conflict has been going on since 1948. It includes several high intensity wars and numerous clashes, several of them more intensive and costly than the last one. Therefore in regard to the Israeli – Syrian conflict the clash on February 10, 2018 was actually pretty limited.
All in all, the skirmish on February 10, 2018 was much more between Assad and Israel than between Israel and Iran. In that sense for now, at least in Syria, the Iranian – Israeli conflict is still secondary to the Israeli – Syrian one.