December 2, 2016

Israeli air strike in Syria - no surprise

Israeli Air Force F-16

During the night of 29-30 November. Israeli Air Force aircraft conducted strikes against targets near Damascus, Syria. The target locations were identified in various media as a weapons storage area of the elite 4th Armor Division (a regime protection unit) and a convoy on the Beirut-Damascus highway. The specific targets in both cases were reported to be weapons destined for Hizballah in Lebanon.

The Israelis have for years conducted these types of operations when what they call "advanced weapons" are about to be transported from Syria to Lebanon's Biqa' Valley, where they become part of Hizballah's arsenal.

"Advanced weapons" to the Israelis include, but are not limited to, air defense weapons and surface-to-surface missiles (SSM). Although it is impossible to prevent the transfer of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to terrorist groups, the movement of larger, radar-guided air defense missile systems is easier to detect. The same applies to SSM launchers.

Some of these weapons come from Syrian stocks, but most were en route Lebanon from none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran - yes, Iran, the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism. After the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Syria's weapons were used against its own people. Since then, most of Hizballah's weapons have originated in Iran.

The Iranians make no secret of the fact that they support Hizballah with money, weapons and training. They routinely fly Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) Boeing 747 cargo aircraft or charter aircraft of IRGC-affiliated airlines laden with arms from Iran to the Damascus International Airport.

I know this from personal experience as the Air Attaché at the American embassy in Damascus - anyone could watch weapons crates from IRIAF aircraft being loaded onto trucks bearing the Hizballah emblem at the civilian cargo terminal at the airport.

One such flight took place on December 1 - here is an air traffic control plot of the IRIAF 747 freighter on its way to Syria.

Once the weapons, supplies and Hizballah fighters returning from training in Iran were loaded onto the Hizballah vehicles, the convoy would make the 35 mile trip to the Lebanese border (see map).

This Israeli strike was based on intelligence information that Hizballah was being provided the "Buk" air defense missile system. The Buk missile system is a family of self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile systems designed to shoot down cruise missiles, aircraft and drones.

There are variants known in the West as the SA-11 and SA-17* - the exact variant believed to be in this shipment is unknown, but either version would represent a significant upgrade in Hizballah's ability to counter Israeli air operations. This crossed an Israeli "red line" and triggered the attack.

I suspect that if the Iranians, Syrians and Hizballah attempt this again, the Israelis will react the same way.

* A Russian SA-17 was used to down Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014.