Israel has entered a dangerous new stage with its attacks on military targets in Syria following the downing of an Israeli F-16 jet on the weekend. It has been more than 50 years since Israel has lost a jet in combat, but the continued attacks reflect more than just revenge for the jet’s loss.
Israel has engaged in reported attacks — said to be more than 100 — on weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Syria over the past couple of years. The Lebanon-based, Iranian-allied Hezbollah has been critical in supporting the faltering Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Iran’s more overt entry into the war in support of Assad has strengthened Iran’s arc of influence across southern Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, marking it as the key actor in regional conflicts. Apart from trying to limit Hezbollah’s build-up near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel has until now kept out of the Syrian civil war, seeing only negatives to being drawn into that complex and bloody conflict.
However, with Iran (Israel’s sworn enemy) establishing a more permanent presence in Syria, Israel has now decided that it is time to limit Iran’s strategic build-up. In strikes so far, Israel claims to have destroyed around half of the Syrian and Iranian air defence systems.
Four Iranian sites have been targeted by Israeli war planes, including an Iranian command trailer from which a drone was flown over Israeli positions on the Golan Heights which led to the shooting down of the Israeli F-16. Israel has also been targeting Hezbollah rocket sites.
Of particular concern to Israel is the construction of Iranian Fateh-110 single-stage solid fuel rockets capable of carrying a 500kg warhead and — with a 300km range — hitting targets within Israel. The Fateh-110s are said to be under construction in two underground bunkers.
Hezbollah has said that Israel’s attacks mark the beginning of a “new strategic phase” in which it intends to limit Israel’s regional air superiority. Whether or not Israeli air superiority can be broken is a moot point, but the downing of the F-16 does show that Israeli aircraft are no longer invulnerable.
Israel is expected to maintain a longer-term ground attack program in Syria against potentially threatening targets. Syria’s other key ally — and friend to Iran — Russia, has remained aloof from the Israeli attacks, but its neutrality could end if the attacks continue.
Israel will be aware of the complications of being drawn into a larger regional conflict. But, more importantly, it is also concerned to limit Iran’s strategic proximity. Israel’s sights are fixed very firmly on Iran’s longer-term regional intentions and its potential to go to war with Israel.
Limiting Iran’s proximity, and that of its close allies, is a first step in that potential war.
*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.