September 20, 2007

Bombs for Syria – a message for Iran

Israel is capable of using force against 'threats'
Alleged raid into Syrian territory showcased Israeli air force, intelligence

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Israeli F-15I Ra'amIsraeli F-15I Ra'am (Thunder)

The Israeli air raid into Syrian territory on September 6 caused repercussions far beyond the dusty city of Dayr az-Zawr – the shockwaves of that small, precision attack deep into hostile territory were felt as far away as Tehran.

If media reports are accurate, the Israelis were able to detect, locate and neutralize in a very short period of time a perceived threat to the Jewish state over 600 flight miles away. Operation Orchard again showcased two of Israel’s finest national assets – the Israeli air force and the Israeli intelligence services, both among the best in the world.

There is a lot of speculation about what the actual target was - both Syria and Israel are uncharacteristically tight-lipped about it. Normally the Syrians would have mounted a loud campaign complaining about the violation of their sovereignty, and the Israelis would have released a mountain of data and photographs justifying their actions. In the absence of Syrian complaints, Israel has felt no need to speak out. I think we can dismiss the claims made by an “unnamed American official” that the targets were Iranian arms destined for Hezbollah – weapons destined for Hezbollah would not be in northeastern Syria – they arrive in Damascus by air and are trucked to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Regardless of Israel’s silence on the Syrian raid, the Israelis hope it sends a loud and clear message to Iran: Israel is capable of – and willing to use – military force against what it perceives as “existential” threats to the state. For the last year, the Israeli drumbeat over the Iranian nuclear threat has been relentless.

Let’s start from the beginning of a potential operation – identification of the threat. Israel has good intelligence capabilities in Iran, and a host of intelligence relationships with other intelligence services around the world, the most important of course being that with the American services. There is no shortage of data on Iranian intentions – the question is how far along are they in the development of a nuclear weapon. As the Israelis just demonstrated in Syria, when they believe there is an imminent threat, they will act.

Time, however, is running out for the Israelis. According to senior Israeli officials, the potential for a nuclear-armed Iran should be considered a world problem, not just an Israeli problem. They also hope for a world solution rather than being forced into an Israeli solution. Assuming that will probably not happen, the Israelis have been acquiring long-range strike capabilities for a possible strike against Iranian targets. That long-range capability is best represented in the specialized design, acquisition and modifications to the American-built F-15I and F-16I fighter aircraft. Both are easily capable of reaching targets virtually anywhere in Syria, however, getting all the way to targets deep inside Iran and back to Israel will stretch their capabilities. Factors complicating Israeli planning: the targets in Iran are spread over the country, are heavily fortified (many are underground) and defended by newly-acquired capable Russian-made air defense systems.

The Israelis have proven themselves to be resourceful military planners and operators. If there is a way to do this, they will find it. That might include flying through Turkish airspace (the two countries have had a defense pact for over a decade) into American-controlled Iraqi airspace, use of American-controlled bases in Iraq, use of American aerial refueling tankers (the U.S. and Israeli air forces have trained together for years), etc. Regardless of the tactics, the key point is that if an when the Israelis believe they must act, they will. They attacked the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, and now a target of some import in Syria.

When Israeli leaders, political and military, believe that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is imminent, they will act. They have stated they believe that there will be no deterrent against Iran’s use of the weapons once they have them. That may or may not be true, but that is what Israelis believe, and they will act on that belief.

Israel’s actions on September 6 in Syria were not a dry run for an attack on Iran, but most certainly a strong signal. Let’s hope the antennas were up in Tehran.