Voices from Russia

Monday, 12 February 2018

Military Balance Shifts: Syria Shoots Down Israeli F-16


The shooting down by Syria of an Israeli F-16 shortly after Israel carried out an airstrike on Syria provoked world headlines, as well as a mixture of consternation and threats from Israel. Much about this incident is unclear, but the central fact is that Syria shot down an Israeli F-16 and that its wreckage fell in Israel. The Israeli claim is that this happened after an Israeli air strike on an Iranian drone trailer near Palmyra, which the Israelis say they carried out in response to an intrusion of an Iranian drone from Syria into their airspace. The Israelis claim they brought down this drone and offer to display it. Supposedly, Syrian air defence responded to this Israeli airstrike by shooting down the Israeli F-16 with SAMs. Israel claimed that in retaliation it then carried out a further airstrike on Syria.  Reports suggest that this was against Syrian military facilities near Damascus. Here is a report from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

[Syrian] Opposition sources in Damascus said that an Israeli strike targeted a control tower of a Syrian military airfield near Damascus and a weapons depot near the Syrian capital.

The Israeli account of the incident is in Haaretz. For their part, the Syrians said that they shot down two Israeli aircraft, not just one. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be engaging in “urgent consultations” with senior Israeli officials, and the Israelis published threats warning, “Iran and Syria are playing with fire”. In reality, however, despite these characteristically blood-curdling threats, Israel gave a muted response, with Israel now saying that it doesn’t wish to “escalate” the situation. The IDF insisted:

Israel doesn’t seek escalation with these two states [Iran and Syria]. We’re willing, prepared, and capable to exact a heavy price from anyone that attacks us. However, we aren’t looking to escalate the situation. What we did was merely a defensive effort triggered by an Iranian act of aggression and we defended our airspace, our sovereignty, and civilians.

What’s going on? Firstly, Israeli airstrikes on targets located within Syria and Lebanon are nothing new. They’ve occurred regularly ever since the Six Day War of 1967. Secondly, although the Israelis identified the Iranians as somehow responsible for the original drone incident, there’s no independent corroboration of this, and on the face of it, it seems unlikely. It isn’t obvious why Iran would want to send a drone over Israel. By contrast, it’s entirely obvious why Syria might want to do so. Israeli air raids on Syria and Israeli air support for Jihadi groups fighting the Syrian army in Syria (especially in the Golan Heights) give the Syrian military an obvious motive for flying surveillance drones over Israel in order to find out what the Israelis are doing there. Syria imports weapons from Iran, and surveillance drones… whose technology Iran is known to have perfected, and which Iran operates in some numbers… are an obvious import. Therefore, it’s possible and actually likely, that the drone the Israelis brought down… of course, assuming that it existed, something of which unfortunately one can’t be sure (you should never assume that anyone in the Middle East is telling the truth)… was a Syrian drone. Almost certainly, it was of Iranian manufacture, and possibly Iranians seconded by the Iranian military to the Syrian military operated it, but almost certainly it carried out surveillance on behalf of Syria, not Iran.

Nevertheless, the key point is that following this alleged incident with the drone the Syrian military successfully shot down an Israeli fighter, doing so for the first time since the 1980s, and doing so moreover over Israel, something which I believe hasn’t happened since the 1973 war. That indicates a radical shift in the military balance of power between Israel and Syria. Israel enjoyed unchallenged control of Middle East airspace ever since the 1967 war save for two brief periods… the so-called War of Attrition of 1970… when its adversary was the Soviet air defence forces, not the air forces of any of the Arab states… and during the opening days of the 1973 war. Russian accounts of the air combat between the Israeli and Syrian forces during the 1982 Lebanon war suggest that it may have been more even than Israel claimed and the Western media reported at the time. However, there’s no doubt that in the end the Israelis successfully asserted their air supremacy over the Syrians in that combat.

Since the arrival of the Russians in Syria in September 2015, that situation changed. The Russian Aerospace Forces based at Khmeimim air base are technologically and in training at least the equals of the Israeli Air Force, even if the Israelis heavily outnumber them. The radars and air defence missile systems Russia deployed to Syria… recently reinforced by the despatch of still more S-400 SAMs there… pose an even bigger potential challenge to Israel’s superiority in Middle East airspace over the long term. Yet, the Russians aren’t currently Israel’s enemy… Israel and Russia have cordial relations at present… although this is a worrying development for Israel, especially that Russia decided to establish permanent bases in Syria, it isn’t a reason for immediate concern.

By contrast, the Israelis do perceive Syria as an enemy. In fact, Syria and Israel have been in a formal state of war ever since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. Therefore, the fact that Syria demonstrated an ability to shoot down Israeli fighters will alarm the Israelis considerably. Moreover, there are aspects of this particular incident that alarm the Israelis even more. The fact that the Syrians shot down the F-16 over Israel suggests either that the original Israeli airstrike was carried out from Israel… with the Israelis launching long-range stand-off missiles against the alleged drone facility from their own airspace… or that the Syrians waited for the Israeli aircraft to return to their bases after the airstrike before attacking them. In either case, the Syrians showed they’re able to track and target Israeli aircraft flying in Israeli airspace. If the Syrians shot down the F-16 in an ambush when it was returning to its base, then, they also demonstrated a previously-unknown level of tactical skill. Moreover, this development didn’t come from nowhere. I wrote on 20 March 2017 following an uncannily similar incident when Syria also tried to shoot down Israeli aircraft over Israel following an Israeli air strike on a military facility near Palmyra:

It appears that the Israeli aircraft didn’t penetrate deep into Syrian territory. Rather, it seems that the Israeli aircraft slipped across the border, almost immediately launched their missiles against their target, and then turned back home. The Israelis would’ve used standoff missiles, either Popeye missiles or, more probably, longer-range Delilah cruise-missiles, which undoubtedly do have the range to reach targets near Palmyra from the al-Bureij area. The Syrians appear to have retaliated by launching S-200 SAMs at Israeli aircraft after the raid as the aircraft were returning home to their bases. The Syrians seem to have waited until the Israeli aircraft crossed the Lebanese border back into Israel before launching their missiles. The SANA report clearly said that the Syrians launched SAMs at the Israeli aircraft whilst they were over “occupied territory”, which might mean the West Bank or the Golan Heights, but more likely means Israel itself (Syria still doesn’t recognise Israel and officially considers the whole of Israel to be occupied Palestinian territory). The Syrian military is becoming significantly stronger, with the incident of the raid showing that technical help from Russia has made it possible for the Syrians to track and intercept Israeli aircraft over Israel.

It looks as if the pattern of events today is very similar. The original Israel attack on this occasion, like the one in March 2017, was probably against Syria’s Tiyas air base, which is the main Syrian military facility near Palmyra. Possibly, it was against a drone control and launch facility operating from there if the story of the drone is true. Most probably, just as was the case in March 2017, they carried it out at long-range with Popeye or Delilah standoff missiles. Subsequently, just as happened in March 2017, the Syrians tracked the Israeli aircraft as they were returning to their bases, and then ambushed them by launching long-range S-200 SAMs against them as they were approaching their bases. The difference is that whereas in March 2017 the ambush failed, on this occasion it succeeded. In other words, the Syrians didn’t only demonstrate the technical capability to track and shoot down Israeli aircraft over Israel, which they’d already previously demonstrated last March. They also demonstrated the ability to use this capability successfully as well. That suggests a further improvement in Syrian skill and ability since last March.

At this point, it’s worth adding that this radical improvement in Syrian air defence capabilities is matched by equally radical improvements in the performance of Syrian ground forces, as they benefit increasingly from Iranian and Russian advice, training, and technical support. Whereas in early 2016, immediately following the start of the Russian intervention in September 2015, Syrian military advances against al-Qaeda in western Syria were slow and incremental, being measured in one or two kilometres a day, today, as the recently completed Idlib offensive shows, the Syrian army is capable of advances of hundreds of kilometres over the course of just a few weeks or even days. This radical improvement in Syrian military capabilities almost certainly explains the muted Israeli response to the shooting down of their F-16. The Israelis didn’t launch the sort of all-out attack on Syrian bases that their previous history suggests we might expect from them because they fear they’d suffer further casualties if they did so. In other words, for the first time in decades, an Arab state demonstrated its ability to defend itself and forced Israel to draw back. That demonstrates a radical shift in the balance of military power in the Middle East; it’ll cause Israel extreme concern.

10 February 2018

Alexander Mercouris

The Duran


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