Israel’s air power and Syria: Endless cycle or increased success?

Recent reports in Syrian media have said that Israel carried out another round of airstrikes in Homs countryside on Monday.

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)
Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria May 10, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)

Recent reports in Syrian media have said that Israel carried out another round of airstrikes in Homs countryside on Monday. Video posted online, allegedly from Syria, claimed to show Israeli missiles intercepted in the sky. Does that mean the attack was unsuccessful, or partially successful? The reports from Syria accuse Israel of several rounds of airstrikes in the last weeks. On October 30 missiles struck Syria in a rare midday attack near Damascus. 

What do we know based on the Syrian and foreign reports? The attack is late. October allegedly hit near Dimas and Al-Mezzah airbase and may have struck air defense sites. Ynet reports that “a midday attack outside Damascus that was attributed to Israel by the Syrian military targeted a shipment of advanced weapons intended for Hezbollah as it was making its way to the border between Syria and Lebanon, Syrian media reported Saturday evening." Advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah may have been hit. At the time media said that a Tamuz surface to surface missile had been used to hit a convoy. 

Alma Research and Education Center had said on October 24 that Iranian UAVs may have been transported to Sharyat Airport. Among those who count the number of alleged airstrikes, it is the third strike in two weeks or the seventh in two and a half weeks. These include an attack on November 2 involving surface-to-surface missiles that struck near Rif Damishq and Ad Dhamir. On October 24 there were also reports of an airstrike near Quneitra. There were strikes near Damascus in early September as well.  

As usual, the death tolls in airstrikes or missile strikes are low. In mid-October, France24 said that four fighters were killed in Syria. Those strikes triggered Syrian air defenses as well. Two were reportedly killed in an airstrike near the T-4 airbase on October 8.  

The map of these incidents looks like this: Ad-Dhamir is 45km northeast of Damascus. Dimas is around 20km northwest of Damascus. Mezzeh airport is southwest of the center of Damascus. From there it is around 180km northeast of the T-4 base. From T-4, It is around 190km to Tartus on the coast. As such the areas under recent strikes include much of the area of Syria under government control today. The exception is the Euphrates valley from Albukamal to Deir Ezzor. That area has been the site of airstrikes reported in the past. Beginning in the summer of 2018 when a Kataib Hezbollah headquarters in Albukamal was hit with a strike there was increased reference to the Iranian role in the landscape between Albukamal and Deir Ezzor. Iran built its Imam Ali base near Albukamal. Reports of expanded airstrikes on this area included reports in September 2019 and August 2020 and January 2021. 

 Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria January 21, 2019.  (credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria January 21, 2019. (credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Reuters reported in April 2021 on “Israel intensifying air war in Syria against Iranian encroachment.” However, it is unclear if the airstrikes are severely reducing Iran’s entrenchment. Israel has waged what it calls a Campaign Between the Wars, aimed at stopping Iran’s entrenchment. Thousands of airstrikes have been carried out on Syria. These may be against convoys to Hezbollah, as Israeli officials noted in 2017, or against an air defense system Iran allegedly flew to T-4 in April 2018, as Ynet reported at the time. They may be against precision-guided munitions, or drones or other munitions.  

Iran has tried to move drones to Syria to threaten Israel. An incident in February 2018 and May 2021 showed Iran could fly drones from Syria into Israeli airspace. In the fall of 2019, Hezbollah moved drones to an area near the Golan before an airstrike took out the Hezbollah cell. In October Iran used drones to attack the US garrison at Tanf. Iran likely was behind militias targeting Iraq’s Prime Minister with drones this week as well. Iran used drones to attack a ship off Oman in July.  

As such the Iranian drone threat is very real, as are concerns about Iran moving air defenses to Syria. This is on top of the rocket trafficking and bases and entrenchment and militias. This is on top of the fact that Iran has moved ballistic missiles to Iraq according to 2019 and 2020 reports. Whether the recent reports of airstrikes have set this Iranian project back, remains to be seen. US-Israel partnership is key to the regional security needs in confronting the Iranian plans.