The Israel Defense Force (IDF) confirmed that the Syrian armed forces fired surface-to-air missiles (SAM) against Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets late Thursday evening. The S-200 missiles were fired in response to the IAF aircraft striking Hezbollah targets in Syria, and one of those S-200 missiles was intercepted by the Israeli Arrow missile defense system. The incident marks a number of firsts for the IAF, including the first reported combat use of the Arrow system, the deepest strike inside Syria since the civil war began, and the only time Israeli officials acknowledged such a strike.
The incident occurs as the turmoil in Syria enters its seventh year. Israel has largely avoided being drawn into conflict, while at the same time it has remained committed to protecting its interests on its northern border. Since January 2013, Israeli forces have conducted as many as 44 limited strikes inside Syria targeting suspected Hezbollah weapon shipments, senior commanders from the Shiite terror organization, and even Iranian military personnel.
Israel has declared the supply of advanced weaponry by the Assad regime and Iran to Hezbollah, including surface-to-air, ballistic, and anti-ship missiles, as a red line that would trigger a military response. Similarly, the Israelis have warned the Iranian axis against establishing any military installations along its Golan borders. To this end, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow last week lobbying Russian President Vladimir Putin to curtail the Iranian presence in Syria.
The Israelis struck targets near Palmyra, 134 miles northeast of Damascus, where pro-regime forces and the Islamic State have been clashing. The city, home to Roman ruins, has changed hands four times since May 2015, with Russian-led forces recapturing the city earlier this month on behalf of the Assad regime. Initial reports from Lebanese media suggests the target of the Israeli strike was Hezbollah commander Badie Hamya, who may have been part of the effort to retake Palmyra. Other reports suggest Hezbollah was using the T4 air base nearby to transport weapons from Iran, hoping the distance from Israel would spare it from the IAF strikes that have frequently struck shipments at the Damascus airport.
*assuming Israeli F-15Is used Spice 1000 glide bombs to conduct stand-off strikes
The incident underscores the stark difference in military capabilities of the IAF and Syrian forces. The frequent strikes by Israeli aircraft inside well-defended Syrian airspace without losses demonstrates the technological and professional edge Israel’s air force holds over its neighbor. IAF F-16s and F-15s are regarded as some of the most advanced non-stealthy warplanes in service, with Israeli-developed electronic warfare systems and stand-off munitions complementing American designs. Despite claims by Damascus, Syrian air defenses have repeatedly failed to down Israeli planes in past incursions.
The latest strike, however, appears to have struck a nerve, with the Russian Foreign Ministry summoning the newly placed Israeli ambassador Friday. According to Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, “Putin sent a clear message … categorically that this game is over,” suggesting it would no longer permit Israeli strikes within Syria. Israel appears to have ignored this warning for the time being, with reports indicating two additional IAF strikes occurred along the Lebanese border on Sunday and Monday.
What is significant about last week’s incident is that Israel’s theater missile defense system, Arrow 2, was used to intercept a Syrian SAM fired towards Israeli airspace. Introduced in 2000, Arrow 2 had never been used in combat and its latest variant, Arrow 3, was only just declared operational in January. While Israel’s shorter-range defenses, such as Iron Dome and Patriot, have demonstrated their combat effectiveness, Arrow missile defenses have only been used in test scenarios.
The fact that Arrow was used to down a SAM rather than a ballistic missile, which it was designed to intercept, is particularly notable. The risk that long-range air defense systems pose to military and civilian aircraft operating over Israel have long been overlooked. This is, in part, why the positioning of Russian S-300 and S-400 missiles in Syria prompted urgent de-confliction discussions between Moscow and Israeli officials, and why the IAF has been so vigilant in targeting SAMs being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian-operated S-200 missile (also known by its NATO designation SA-5) intercepted last week was recently upgraded by Russia. The decision to fire on IAF fighters after they had already returned to Israeli airspace indicates a Syrian desire to demonstrate the system’s reach.
The fact that IAF aircraft, munitions, and missile defenses all appear to have worked proves the stunning advantages Israel holds over its opponents. But the threat of new strategic weapons in the hands of Hezbollah, coupled with the ongoing chaos in Syria, are a constant source of concern.
John Cappello was formerly a U.S. Air Force B-1 Lancer pilot and Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Patrick Megahan is a research analyst. Patrick also manages the website MilitaryEdge.org.